Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. I Asked a Psychopath How to Stop Caring About Rejection

From Vice

This brilliant article summarises the feelings of a psychopath with insight. I think is a valuable approach as instead of demonising people with psychopathy, it is better to understand:

  • With rejection, I always ask myself “why did this happen?” I never ask “why am I not worthy?” When I get rejected I feel bad for like negative-two seconds. It’s just, oh how do I fix it?
  • Everything for me is a percentage. For example if I think something’s against me at about 20:1, I’ll put in 20 different proposals or versions to make sure I get what I want. Doing that trains your expectations too. If your chances are 20:1 and you only put in one attempt, then you can’t get upset if it doesn’t work.

2. New research finds that dopamine is involved in human bonding

From Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

“We found that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine,” says Barrett. “This link implies that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease, such as depression, where dopamine is compromised. We already know that people deal with illness better when they have a strong social network. What our study suggests is that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels.”

3. The reasons behind right- and left-handedness revealed

From eLife

Epigenetic factors appear to be at the root of it, reflecting environmental influences. Those influences might, for example, lead to enzymes bonding methyl groups to the DNA, which in turn would affect and minimise the reading of genes. As this occurs to a different extent in the left and the right spinal cord, there is a difference to the activity of genes on both sides.

Unlike other forms of caregiving, the act of mothers singing to infants is a universal behaviour that seemingly withstands the test of time.

4. Infant brains engage through song

From University of Miami

“High cognitive scores during infant-directed singing suggested that engagement through song is just as effective as book reading or toy play in maintaining infant attention, and far more effective than listening to recorded music.”

“Mothers around the world sing to their infants in remarkably similar ways, and infants prefer these specialised songs. The tempo and key certainly don’t need to be perfect or professional for mothers and infants to interact through song. In fact, infants may be drawn to the personalised tempo and pitch of their mother, which encourage them to direct their gaze toward and ultimately communicate through this gaze.”

5. Use it or lose it: how the brain chooses what memories to store

From eLife

“This goes some way to answering the long-standing question of whether the formation of generalised memory is simply a result of the brain’s network ‘forgetting’ incidental features,” Morrissey explains. “On the contrary, we show that groups of neurons develop coding to store shared information from different experiences while, seemingly independently, losing selectivity for irrelevant details.”

Have a lovely weekend everyone!

 

Happiness the Buddhist way as seen by Yuval Noah Harari

The recent  “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari attempts to be the meta-history book of our time. I heard that the book was excellent from a few friends who think that everything popular is excellent.

This passage on Buddhism and happiness confirmed my view that the book is politicised snake oil. I am very open to being convinced otherwise.

Harari: “For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.”

“Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.”

Me: So far so good. Happiness = reality – expectations, meaning that it isn’t only a product of the events of the outside world. The bit about the body is also pretty solid: serotonin, etc.

Yuval Noah Harari on Buddhism

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Harari: “According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.”

Me: Thus spoke Sigmund Freud. We are all about seeking pleasure and even more so avoiding pain.

Harari: “The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away all the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.”

Harari: “What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.”

Me: This is probably true about Buddhism (so not Harari’s problem), though it does strike me as being rather nihilistic. Feelings are biology’s way to tell us how we’re doing, so saying they are inconsequential, ephemeral and aren’t worth pursuing seems defiant of our very nature.

Buddhism and happiness Yuval Noah Harari

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Harari:”People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.”

Me: Well, that’s not going to happen so long as we have an intact limbic system.

Harari: “In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.”

Me: Things are about to get a little meta. What if you feel like pursuing your feelings? That’s a thought. Why reject it? Why disallow yourself from craving something? Isn’t that a “wrong” thing to do when you’re meditating? Harari is leading us down the road of blissful oversimplification. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Furthermore, our limbic systems will always crave certain feelings. That’s hard wired, and no amount of cognitive machinations or meditation is going to change that. So maybe these “accepting” people sitting in a lotus position on a green moral highground somewhere should accept their own biology instead?

Harari: “The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!”

Me: Miracle pill talk.

Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens book review

Harari: “This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.”

Me: Nice summary, to be fair. However, he is calling people out on something he is also culpable of.

Harari: “Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.”

Me: I am sorry, what? “True happiness is also independent of our inner feelings”? What is true happiness? Why is that not an inner feeling? How do you define true happiness as distinct from just, you know, normal happiness? I surmise that normal happiness is a fleeting ephemeral emotion that he denigrated earlier, but I am really confused, what is true happiness?! Is this just an epithet designed to make me feel like a mere mortal not worthy of understanding Harari’s grand opus?

Harari: In Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.

Me: What are we then? What’s real? We’re in the Matrix, aren’t we?…

12 tips for thinking more clearly and making better decisions

This is one of those articles that I wrote for myself: for those mornings when the only things you want to do are browse Facebook and watch BBC1, or at least you think you do. Then you remember that you’ve about 20 problems to solve that day and get that feeling in your stomach like both your adrenal glands just emptied their contents into your bloodstream.

1. Enter into deep work mode

Wall off some distraction free time. The phone goes on airplane mode. Close all the tabs you don’t need.

Let’s be honest, if you are reading this, you are probably dealing with quite challenging and cognitively demanding.

These things require extreme levels of focus and uninterrupted immersion for an effective resolution.

As such, the goal is to enter into a state of flow. It is a paradoxical mix of mindfulness and being very goal-directed at the same time. Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

how to think more clearly deep work

2. Do a brain dump

If you are at a loss, the thoughts are messy and you don’t know where to start, an unstructured flow of consciousness style “brain dump” is required. It straightens out circular ruminations and allows the writer to identify what is really wrong. There is something liberating about getting things down on paper. You can always throw it out. Nobody has to see it. It is only for you to see.

In the best possible way, it lowers expectations and gives you the licence to be really honest.

I am putting my money where my mouth is with this tip: a lot of this blog is really me writing for me. I often reread what I have written because it answers questions that bother me (and catch a few typos on the way!) It turns out that the same questions bother a lot of people, hence our little community.

3. Draw a spider diagram

Difficulties in solving problems often arise from the fact that problems are interdependent, they are not isolated. Drawing a spider diagram (a mind map) is a very good way to figure out what’s going on.

how to think clearly

As a one-time medical student in the rather fundamentalist anatomy department, I had to learn everything about the brachial plexus (pictured above).  The structure was just the starting point of what I needed to know. The the origins at the spine and the muscle activation were at least as complex on top of that. I drew a spider diagram.

When my father was splitting from his second wife and I arrived home to find my stuff packed away in boxes by the latter, well, I also drew a spider diagram. Because I needed to understand what’s going, what everyone is thinking and where to move (not just literally) from there.

This approach to thinking is resonant with the structure of our brain with its nodes and links.

4. Make a to-solve list (not a to do list) and tell a story

Lists are great, says the ENTP. Even checklists. They really are great because they give us a sense of control. I have studied motivation in great detail as I deal with students doing their final school exams to get into college. They keep asking me about motivation. These 17 year olds have the most fine-tuned BS filter on the planet, so I really need to try hard. I finally found a solution for them, which is: a sense of control.

Feeling in control is the key to being motivated.

There is a mountain of evidence about this. However, a small study done on nursing home residents really illustrates it best. Some people who go into nursing homes don’t do well and fade away in less than 6 months. Others seem more alive than any of us. What’s the difference? Well, as one of the lively 85 year olds explained: “I trade my chocolate desert for a piece of fruit from one of the other guys at every dinner”. Why? Doesn’t he like chocolate? The answer lies in the fact that now he has control: in an environment where you are told when to sleep, where to sit and when to take your tablets, it is crucial to eke out a sense of control by being in charge of something small like that.

How do you structure a list? There are two great ways:

  • list of problems to solve
  • a chronological story-plan

A plain to-do list just makes you feel like you are doing chores. A list of problems to solve automatically gives both purpose and perspective.

As for the story plan, there is something about our brains that makes us dead set of prioritising stories over any other kind of information. It is therefore important to tap into that. A fair portion of NLP is snake oil, but their emphasis on story-telling is right on. Things seem far less daunting if you write them down on a piece of paper as bite-sized steps. For example, recently, I have been moving between countries. It’s an overwhelming amount of paper work, a complex process with many catch-22’s to machete through like you need a lease to set up utility bills, and a utility bill to set up a bank account and a bank account to set up a lease. By writing it down, it is easier to see solutions and the impossible soon becomes possible. There are 2 reasons for this:

  • we find it difficult to store long sequences in our heads, so a written down prop is key (this is mentioned a lot in Thinking Fast and Slow and GTD)
  • by going through the steps required to build out the story, we think of the entire contexts – the things we would have otherwise forgotten about

think more clearly write things down

5. Snap out of being on rails by getting perspective

It’s precisely when we are “on rails”, when we have some kind of contagious emotion unfolding in us, when we want to “just get this done”, that we need to pause and switch to something else. Ideally, we would go straight to taking 10 minutes to be mindful, but for most of us mortals that just seems impossible. Instead, it is a good idea to think of something completely different.

Let’s say there is an enraging email that you can’t wait to respond to so as to make it go away. Mindfulness? Now? No!…

To ease yourself out of the hijacked state, think of something completely different, preferably something even more challenging, that makes the original issue seem like nonsense.

Recently, I was dealing with an unruly real estate agent who just wouldn’t listen and kept sending me emails with unreasonable demands. I thought to myself: there are lots of people who don’t have this problem – because they simply cannot afford to live on their own. It’s not even that it made me feel grateful and empowered, that’s not the point, but it gave me perspective and an ability to deal with the tyrant in a way that accomplished my aims rather than just telling them “for the n-time, will you…”

6. Take 10 minutes to meditate

It is when we are busiest that we need to take the time to be mindful.

I recall Ray Dalio talking about it. Yes, the guy is filthy rich, but I can just imagine him losing a billion bucks (it happens in that business) and going into his office to do his TM routine. What else would he do? Shout at the researchers for not seeing into the future? The traders for not getting out of the trade earlier? There is no point. It is much better to get centred again and then do what is actually going to help the situation.

7. Have a cup of matcha, or any good green tea

I’ve always loved green tea. However, after my trip to Japan, it became clear to me that there is something quite magical about certain varieties of green tea. I am a big fan of Ippodo and specifically Ummon-no-mukashi.

Like salbutamol opens the bronchioles, this stuff clears the head.

For those who aren’t keen on concentrated green goo, a cup of Hosen Sencha will do wonders too. The way the Japanese drink tea is more or less an exercise in mindfulness, so I would make use of that aspect too. It is part of my morning routine. It is especially something that people who can’t drink coffee should consider. Unlike coffee, matcha doesn’t give you a jolt of energy and then a come down, but a steady state of clarity.

thinking more clearly mindfulness meditation

8. Listen to some upbeat classical music you’re not very familiar with

Listening to something you know well calls in all kinds of associations and other hardcoded Pavlovian nonsense we don’t always need.

Thankfully, there is so much classical music out there, we’re unlikely to ever be stuck. Some may prefer house music. Sometimes house music has lyrics or distracting sexy sounds. My personal recommendation would be listening to Béla Bartók or anything played by Lang Lang, a virtuoso pianist. You may also like some great apps for mindful focus.

9. Jump in for a very short burst of exercise

Even two minutes of HIIT or a quick few sets of sun salutations are likely to be quite refreshing. In an upcoming post, a neurologist will explain that

our adrenal medulla – the seat of the flight-or-fight response, the ultimate thinking and creativity saboteur, is controlled more by the motor cortex than it is by the conscious decision making centres.

10. Don’t even attempt it if you are tired

Sleep is massively undervalued in today’s society. Sleep deprivation has incredibly significant effects. Not that much sleep deprivation at all will give you the insulin resistance of a type 2 diabetic.

All the most intelligent people I know sleep at least 8 hours a night and don’t even attempt anything cognitively taxing unless they are refreshed.

This is obviously challenging for people with young children, for example, but if you can work to put yourself in a situation where you can be refreshed, it will really pay off.

11. Have a shower

Special troops are told to prioritise staying clean even in extreme circumstances. It raises morale. There is something life-affirming about water and cleanliness. The chemical changes, such as an oxytocin increase, is likely to have a positive effect on one’s emotional state.

12. Talk to a human being

We are social animals: that is just how we’ve evolved. Not all problems need to be attacked by the entire tribe, but calling in help is required sometimes because other will help us navigate through our weaknesses, see new perspective and just feel like a human being again.

think clearer mindfulness meditation deep work

How our shrinking brains are turning us into Homo Domesticus

This is the first contribution, I hope of many, by T.J. His background is as varied as entrepreneurship, medicine, game development and politics.

I must admit, at the outset, that when I first vocalised the thoughts herein, I did it as a form of humour and out of frustration regarding my fellow man. However, the more I thought about it, the more I reckon there might be some validity in it. This is not necessarily in the sense that a new human subspecies has actually developed, but that process may have indeed started.

You probably learned in school that a species is a group in which two individuals can reproduce. If they can’t, they aren’t the same species. Things are a bit more complex than that, and there are many arguments regarding that definition. For example, what if A and C can’t mate, but B can mate with both?

what is homo domesticus

A subspecies is even harder to define. As a rule of thumb, if it looks a lot different but can theoretically breed, its a subspecies*. This generally involves some sort of “block” on breeding: how else would the populations look different? In fact, a definition regarding the propensity to breed can also be used. A great example is the tiger. In that case, the different subspecies are separated geographically so mating is difficult (tigers don’t do long distance relationships). Physical differences can reinforce the problem in a feedback loop. A female Chihuahua can conceive offspring with an Irish Wolfhound, but I’m not too sure how well things will workout in the long run (Wolfhounds always leave the seat up, you see).  Eventually, things get so bad, they just become two different species, and they don’t even require lawyers to do so. For our purposes we will be super pragmatic: if Wikipedia says it’s a subspecies, it is.

homo domesticus tame human being

“But T.J., Wikipedia doesn’t say there is a new human subspecies!” I hear you say. Well yes, I’m getting to that. First, let’s discuss a subspecies that is on Wikipedia, Canis Familiaris, but you might know him as Spot, or Fido, or something – the domestic dog. Of course, our oldest friend is also basically a wolf and can successfully breed with one. (In fact, different wolf species can even breed occasionally, as I said, it’s complicated). The point is, we consider the domestic dog a separate subspecies. The fact that we don’t consider each breed of dog a subspecies is basically down to taxonomical snobbery and a fear of having to come up with a bunch of Latin names.

Why is the dog important here? Well one way to make a new subspecies is domestication. This is the manner in which I think we have formed a new subspecies of human. Let’s call him Homo Domesticus.

In 1959, a Soviet scientist called Dmitri Belyaev conducted an experiment.

He hypothesised that domestication was the result of selecting for “tameability”, not other traits like fertility or strength.

Had the Soviets not starved all the farmers in the country to death beforehand, they could have just asked them about it instead of conducting a 50 year experiment. But then again, that was the result of policy created by Soviet academics, so maybe there was some conflict of interest. Anyway, the experiment involved selectively breeding foxes to domesticate them. Belyaev was right. By the tenth generation of foxes, 18% were so tame that he had to come up with a new category of tameness for them. It is theorised that this is linked to lower adrenaline production by the “domestic” foxes.

homo domesticus explained

What is very interesting is that domestic rats also have smaller adrenal glands than their wild counterparts. I am conflating an atrophied adrenal gland with lesser adrenal production, but it is not an unsound assumption. They also have smaller brains, hearts and other organs. So could it be that domestication is simply the result of lesser adrenal production? Let’s park this idea for a minute and move on to a more popular species (for reasons I will never know).

Humans have had a decreasing brain size for the last 28,000 years, Wikipedia reliably informs me. Upon discovering this, I immediately thought, could we be domesticating ourselves?! It turns out I’m not the first to think this. A study by Bailey and Geary used population density as a proxy for advanced societies and found that there was a correlation between this and brain size reduction in history. The conclusion was that “life got easier”, basically.

Since individuals had more security from those around them, they could scrape by with less intelligence.

Now I am tempted to leave things here with a note that a reliance on our fellow man will therefore lead to humans becoming stupid – brain size does map to intelligence on a large scale such as human evolution, but that would be intellectually dishonest. There is a large body of academics that think that the reliance on others may have nothing to do with intelligence. It could be down to heat loss, or that our brains became more efficient at doing what they do and needed less volume. I am tempted to discuss why I think those ideas have merit but are untrue, but do not have the space here. Furthermore, I want to keep this light and cutting rather than scientific and thorough (too late, say you).

homo domesticus smaller brain

Personally, I have a much darker theory. Brain size did correlate to intelligence and to societal complexity. But not because we are all happy bunnies living in wonderland. Let me take the case of one our “best” moments as a species: agriculture!

Agriculture is great, apparently. Yet human health suffered immensely as a result. The fossil record shows (is it a fossil record if the bones have not petrified?) that human height dropped four inches and there is a myriad of pathologies that developed upon the adoption of agriculture. This later changed but only after about 8,000 years. So why did we do it? Or a better question would be, why did we keep doing it? Perhaps it was because societal elites were able to domesticate others. Whether they are slaves or peasants, the result is the same.

One group forces the other to farm, and if they don’t, they are killed. Almost as if they are selecting for tameness…

Of course, that wasn’t 28,000 years ago. It isn’t hard to imagine the same process earlier in history? In fact, for the farming peasants to be tame enough to stay, they would likely have already been tamed in prior generations. Remember the foxes? 18% in only ten generations. I should also have mentioned that domestic rats do not run away after losing a fight like wild rats, they stay and lie submissively. By the twentieth generation, 35% of foxes were of the super tame variety. How many human generations in 28,000 years? About 1,000, actually.

But hold on! How is that a subspecies? Well, for most of human history there has been a tendency to mate with those of a similar social standing. This functions as a block to mating and could result in certain traits becoming concentrated, forming two subspecies. Maybe it’s not so far fetched.

So who are they then? In areas where there are wolves and dogs, wolf-dog hybrid occur. They might be a different subspecies, but that doesn’t mean that the big bad wolves aren’t utterly dashing to the refined domesticated ladies. Sort of like a canid James Dean, I guess. Furthermore, in humans, we know that while there was a tendency to mate in a certain social circles historically, it was by no means as rigid as portrayed today. William the Conqueror is a good case in point. (His mother was the daughter of a tanner.) Therefore, the process of domestication and subspeciation is likely incomplete in us. We all probably have both traits, to varying degrees. There are the wild men and the servile.

The significance of all this is that in the last few decades publicly traded corporations and the state encroached more into our everyday lives, filling the role of our trainers and being run by the most domesticated, institutionalised humans of all.

Due to the above, we risk completing the process of domestication. Don’t be under the illusion that we have more personal freedoms than in yesteryear, but that’s an argument for another day.

* To qualify as breeding in this context, the offspring must be “viable”, that is, fertile.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Steal my checklist and stop feeling overwhelmed in the mornings

When I hear the word checklist, I think of bored looking men with clipboards standing by conveyor belts, doing quality control in a soulless brave new world factory worshipping Henry Ford. However, things changed when I first had to actually use one – during a flying lesson. It didn’t seem that bad at all, providing reassurance and a sense of completion. The negative reinforcement of doing 2g must have kept this thought dormant for a long time, but I decided to revisit these beacons of productivity that I imagine all the perfect people from Instagram tick off every day.

checklist to use in the morning
My first flight was out of Biggin Hill near London with flirty Irish-Italian instructor who insisted on doing 2g straight away

There are things that are inherently hard to do.

Realistically, getting out of bed is something that comes easily to a very select few – and these select few change every day, depending on what they expect from their day.

For those of us, who are less than euphoric on most mornings (i.e. slightly less than 100% of people, the slightly less bit accounted for mostly by people in acute mania or still high from the night before), a checklist could be a good way to ease the drift towards existential questions or reflection on the pressure of a brand new day, another attempt to achieve, another day to seize and make the most of, squeezing out the last drop where anything that wouldn’t make NutriBullet engineers blush simply isn’t enough.

That’s the real Nutribullet challenge. I cannot emphasise the usefulness of waking up at the same time every day. I use the iPhone Bedtime feature for this. It’s generally good for the circadian rhythm and creates a sense of control.

how to use checklists to make mornings easier
Sometimes you have to be on autopilot to enjoy the view

How do I keep up with being a doctor, an editor, a blogger, travel, house-hunt, read Nietzsche and get 8 hours of sleep? Well, my success rate is a little volatile.

In order to stay moving ahead, there are certain things that I simply must do every day. I have a startup checklist – things I do every morning – and things I do throughout the day. I use an app called Checklist+, or sometimes I just print it on a page.

My morning checklist achieves one main purpose: it takes out the need to make decisions.

Decisions are extremely consuming for our metaphorical RAM, especially when it is the morning and the possibilities seem so vast. It’s not like I will forget to brush my teeth if I don’t look at the checklist. It is that I don’t have to figure out: “what do I do first?” which can be extremely taxing when I just wake up.

checklist for the morning for a girl
There is something life-affirming about pink Edwardian letters

The alternative, on many mornings, is feeling out of control as I rush to work and resent having other people’s checklists imposed on me, or going straight to the laptop, surrounding myself with green tea paraphernalia and snacks, only to realise by midday that I haven’t actually done much other than worked in a virtual mailroom. The loss of productive time however, doesn’t stop there. It dictates how the rest of the day will unfold. It is the mood setting that matters:

You see the 10 push ups in the checklist? Do they build any real muscle? Hardly. What they do is they set me up to feel healthy and capable of overcoming challenges.

I am much less likely to go creeping on a former classmate’s Facebook page or drinking hot chocolate after doing even a few pushups than I would be if I had just spent the morning lazying around in my pyjamas. It’s that phenomenon of consistency that Cialdini talks about.

My next item on the agenda is the domino piece.

… As distinct from the Domino’s slice from yesterday’s dinner. The domino piece is the most important item on my work to-do list or the one that makes all other pieces irrelevant. I deal with the thing I resist the most first. Perhaps this is why I find mornings so cognitively taxing. [I will insert a proper reference for this soon]. However, having spent years chiselling out this productive approach, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

My 2nd checklist is the one for the day. It allows me to move forward. This isn’t work related, and it doesn’t change day to day.checklist for a successful dayMindfulness helps me to stay in touch with reality. Walking is simply good for us human beings, as N.N. Taleb says. He can nearly match a word count of his essay writing to his miles walked. It’s near impossible to stay cognitively refreshed unless one reads. Exercise goes without saying.

I have lots of other, more specific checklists. It’s an ENTP thing. We like lists. I don’t get them done perfectly everyday, but it is a good guide.

I mentioned the sense of control a few times here. The point isn’t to be a control freak.

One of the most important lessons I learnt from dealing with my own students is that a sense of control is the ultimate source of motivation and agency. It is the natural predator of learnt helplessness – which is far more pervasive in our lives than we think.

Checklists allow us to remain in control without investing expensive cognitive RAM – because they are our checklists, not Henry Ford’s.

Dearest reader, if you’ve read this far, you know what to do.

  1. Pick a wake-up time (or let your child pick it for you).
  2. Make your own checklist. Just one.
  3. Drop your expectations and keep it very simple.
  4. Do it for 10 days and reward yourself for doing it. Does Pavlov ring a bell?

You may also like: Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

Saturday secret service psychologist: come play my mind game

Resist the Googling trigger fingers and use your brain instead. All the quotes below reveal an interesting personality – and are attributed to one real person. Can you put your secret service psychologist hat on – and guess who said it?

saturday secret service psychologist mind game

Don’t let Sharon throw you off.

Clues: he is said to be an ENTP and very intelligent.

His quotations:

  • The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.
  • Men of lofty genius when they are doing the least work are most active.
  • Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!
  • He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.
  • The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.
  • All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.
  • Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.
  • Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigour of the mind.
  • Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
  • Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments.
  • Just as courage is the danger of life, so is fear its safeguard.
  • Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.
  • Time abides long enough for those who make use of it.
  • It is better to imitate ancient than modern work.
  • The smallest feline is a masterpiece.

Do comment if you wish – and especially if you don’t know the answer! I am very curious to see who you come up with 🙂

Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

Why non-judgment and non-striving are misinterpretations of mindfulness

I am mesmerised by the robust evidence for the neurological, biochemical and behavioural benefits of mindfulness. I am working hard to figure out the philosophy behind it, that seems very foreign to me with its “acceptance” and “emptiness”.

For this I interviewed Bob Stahl, PhD. He is a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher with over 25 years of experience. His PhD is in philosophy and religion. How exciting is that?! Bob sheds light on some of the philosophical conundrums of mindfulness that have preoccupied me here. He knows what he’s talking about, having founded 7 mindfulness-based stress reduction programs in medical centres in California and having written a number of books on mindfulness. In addition, Bob runs insight meditation and convergence retreats too. Clearly, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to him. [If, for whatever reason, you’re wondering, this is not a sponsored post.]

non-attachment non-judgement non-striving mindfulness

You are an expert at mindfulness-based stress reduction. How has it evolved since its inception by Prof. Jon Kabat-Zinn?

I began teaching in 1991, a bit before the big wave of interest in mindfulness that predominantly sparked by Bill Moyer’s series Healing and the Mind and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme hasn’t really changed much over the years. The core principles remain. The training of the mindfulness teachers has grown and advanced tremendously, however.

MBSR is secular. Do you think this is more of a benefit or a hindrance to most people starting it?

MBSR is sacred rather than secular. The sole purpose of MBSR is to alleviate suffering.
MBSR is not religious, but it is spiritual.
Secular implies a cold kind of separation. Having said that, MBSR can be delivered in a hospital, which is obviously non-sectarian and open to people of different religious traditions and views. It is indeed not associated with any one organised religion, but it has many underpinnings that MBSR. There are the teachings in Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. There are also the underpinnings of the wisdom traditions of non-duality, stress physiology, neuroscience and group experiential education. The underpinnings come from the wisdom found cross-culturally.

MBSR was designed to help with specific issues. What are the most common problems that people come to you with?

There are 3 main interrelated categories: stress, physical pain and illness. This can be related to a chronic or terminal disease, stress at work, or a desire to improve one’s wellbeing.

mindfulness based stress reduction bob stahl interview

You teach mindfulness to physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. What are some of the main challenges and lessons in mindfulness for this group?

First of all, they are not immune to the human condition that includes ageing, illness, death and separation.
Compassion fatigue, processing the pain of those whom they serve, burnout, anxiety, addiction, depression and insomnia are the most specific problem that affect the people belonging to healthcare professions.

There is strong culture of success in our world. We spend our lives striving for accomplishment in a goal-directed manner. It is quite counterintuitive, if not scary, for a person conditioned like this to engage in a practice of non-striving, non-reactivity, non-attachment and non-judgment. “If I stop striving, will I still be able to accomplish?” Could you comment on this apparent contradiction?

Mindfulness often gets confused with non-striving, non-attachment and non-judgment. People think they are not supposed to feel or have those feelings – and this is actually a misnomer that causes confusion.
Mindfulness is about being present and aware of what’s actually happening and acknowledging it. It is best to leave out words like “without attachment or striving” because many people actually discover how filled they are those feelings.

Could this confusion be arising from our interpretation of Buddhism?

I’ve been a student of Buddhism for many years and lived in a Buddhist monastery for over 8 years. The word for mindfulness is sati.
There’s nothing in the definition that talks about being non-judgmental or non-striving. It’s all about being present, being aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Perhaps, we could say though that non-striving and non-attachment are attitudes that can be brought into mindfulness practice that serve to help us to see more clearly where we are stuck with either grasping or aversion.  Let us remember that the sole goal of the mindfulness practice is freedom.

what is an insight meditation mindfulness retreat like bob stahl

What is the most common misconception about MBSR?

I am very excited about the exponential growth of mindfulness. As with all things that are popular, there are some fads. There is some commercialisation of mindfulness.
There’s also confusion between mindfulness and positive thinking: “You’re saying negative things, you’re not being mindful.” We should be mindful of rage, sadness, anger and fear. That’s just part of the practice. Mindfulness does not mean being positive. It means being aware, present and acknowledge it.
There’s also another apparent contradiction.
Mindfulness is both very personal and completely impersonal.
On one level, mindfulness is incredibly personal. We are really getting into our loves, joys, fears, hates, etc.
We cannot psychologically or spiritually bypass our personality.
Our personality is what we need to work with to grow. We need to understand where it is that we get caught and cannot see clearly, what stories do we tell ourselves, etc. It is incredibly personal. On the other hand, mindfulness is incredibly impersonal. The body is doing its thing, it doesn’t ask us. Mind states come and go out. Whose mind is it anyway?
In Buddhist psychology, there are 6 sense organs: the mind is the sixth.
What does it do? It experiences thoughts and emotions. Just like the nose experiences smells and the ears experience sounds, the mind experiences thoughts and feelings.

In your experience, are there any therapies that MBSR is most synergistic with?

Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy was developed out of MBSR. It has been shown to be very effective, especially in treating relapses of depression. Furthermore, a variety of programmes, such as mindfulness-based childbirth and parenting, were developed based on mindfulness.

What stops most people from practicing mindfulness every day, given that it can time as little as a few minutes a day?

This is something that comes up a lot. We encourage people to sit with the resistance: what’s there?  It could be a number of things. We have such a longing to feel good, but doing preventative things requires a deep commitment.
If you’re really committed to knowing the truth about where you’re stuck, practice becomes a way of life.
Your whole orientation turns towards freedom. It helps people to get inspired.
Sitting and meditating isn’t as important as whether you’re aware of what’s going on inside you, is it coming from some old conditioning, etc.

vajiana tibetan mindfulness meditation retreat bob stahl interview

Could you explain what is involved in a mindfulness retreat?

Retreats are very important.
How can we be with others if we haven’t been with ourselves?
 A silent retreat is the time to dive deep into our own life, our own story, where we’re holding on and where we’re pushing away. Retreats can be in the insight meditation tradition, Zen tradition or Tibetan tradition. In the insight tradition, we teach the four foundations of mindfulness, the three marks of existence, the four noble truths.
MBSR stemmed from a retreat. Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea while on an insight meditation retreat. He left the meditation centre, applied to start a programme – and the rest is history.
I do a lot of retreats on how Dharma informs mindfulness-based approaches. Many people entering into mindfulness don’t have a lot of experience with meditation. We help people to have the experience of the practice and to understand what informs mindfulness approaches.
You sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes, sit for 45 minutes, walk for 45 minutes… It starts at 6 in the morning and stops at 9 at night. Instruction is given once a day to clarify the teaching. There’s usually a talk in the evening to help guide the meditations. It’s a progression through the four foundation of mindfulness. We also offer group and individual practice discussions to check in with the students.
Bob suggested that I go on a retreat. I am very tempted. He travels all over the world, though he is usually found in sunny California. You can find out more about his centre here.

20 valuable lessons on human nature from the last 5,000 years

“Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”

Will and Ariel Durant

I have a strong feeling that I shouldn’t be a fan of a hedge fund guy who married a Vanderbilt, but Ray Dalio is a really interesting person. He’s arguably the worlds most successful hedge fund manager. The average hedge fund lasts 18 months; his Bridgewater is 42 years old as of 2017. He is an avid meditator of the transcendental/Beatles variety. He’s also a warm and fuzzy ENTP. Lol jk, as they say.

I read his Principles a while ago. They make a lot of sense. The name is obviously quite aspirational and part so the opus are quite philosophical. I am sure that Dalio chose it with posterity in mind. At some point, he answered the question, “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” with a definitive The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, 1968.

the lessons of history will ariel durant highlights review

It’s a short, captivatingly well-written book. W&A really don’t mince their words (except in the last chapter on whether progress is real). While their opening chapter is called Hesitations, it’s pretty definitive:

As his studies come to a close, the historian faces the challenge: Of what use have your studies been? Have you found in your work only the amusement of recounting the rise and fall of nation, and retelling “sad stories of the death of kings”?

Don’t you just want to read on? History was almost ruined for me as a discipline back when I was in school – and this book revived it. At the time, I found that the book was very difficult to get, so I ended up requesting it from stacks in a copyright library of Trinity College Dublin. Here it is now, thank you Jeff Bezos: The Lessons of History.

Really, the purpose of the book is to use history as the study of human nature:

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body,character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads – astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war-what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man.

will durant lessons in history human nature

It has this Art of War quality to it, only it makes more sense. Here are my “underlines” of the superb and oftentimes controversial views of the Durants:

  1. Known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato’s time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries; and the Romans behaved like the English.
  2. Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.
  3. Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.
  4. “Racial” antipathies have some roots in ethnic origin, but they are also generated, perhaps predominantly, by differences of acquired culture-of language, dress, habits, morals, or religion. There is no cure for such antipathies except a broadened education. A knowledge of history may teach us that civilization is a co-operative product, that nearly all peoples have contributed to it; it is our common heritage and debt; and the civilized soul will reveal itself in treating every man or woman, however lowly, as a representative of one of these creative and contributory groups.
  5. Intellect is a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.
  6. The conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it-perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.
  7. History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age. Even our generation has not yet rivalled the popularity of homosexualism in ancient Greece or Rome or Renaissance Italy.” Prostitution has been perennial and universal, from the state-regulated brothels of Assyria to the “night clubs” of West-European and American cities today. In the University of Wittenberg in 1544, according to Luther, “the race of girls is getting bold, and run after the fellows into their rooms and chambers and wherever they can, and offer them their free love.” Montaigne tells us that in his time (1533-92) obscene literature found a ready market, the immorality of our stage differs in kind rather than degree from that of Restoration England; and John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure -a veritable catena of coitus-was as popular in 1749 as in 1965.
  8. We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional.
  9. The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows. The character and contour of a terrain may offer opportunities for agriculture, mining, or trade, but only the imagination and initiative of leaders, and the hardy industry of followers, can transform the possibilities into fact; and only a similar combination (as in Israel today) can make a culture take form over a thousand natural obstacles. Man, not the earth, makes civilization.
  10. History has justified the Church in the belief that the masses of mankind desire a religion rich in miracle, mystery, and myth. Some minor modifications have been allowed in ritual, in ecclesiastical costume, and in episcopal authority; but the Church dares not alter the doctrines that reason smiles at, for such changes would offend and disillusion the millions whose hopes have been tied to inspiring and consolatory imaginations.
  11. There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
  12. History reports that “the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all”. From the Medici of Florence and the Fuggers of Augsburg to the Rothschilds of Paris and London and the Morgans of New York, bankers have sat in the councils of governments, financing wars and popes, and occasionally sparking a revolution. Perhaps it is one secret of their power that, having studied the fluctuations of prices, they know that history is inflationary, and that money is the last thing a wise man will hoard.
  13. The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision, or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive, or too transient.
  14. The concentration of wealth is natural and inevitable, and is periodically alleviated by violent or peaceable partial redistribution. In this view all economic history is the slow heartbeat of the social organism, a vast systole and diastole of concentrating wealth and compulsive recirculation.
  15. The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.
  16. Alexander Pope thought that only a fool would dispute over forms of government. History has a good word to say for all of them, and for government in general. Since men love freedom, and the freedom of individuals in society requires some regulation of conduct, the first condition of freedom is its limitation; make it absolute and it dies in chaos.
  17. Since wealth is an order and procedure of production and exchange rather than an accumulation of (mostly perishable) goods, and is a trust (the “credit system”) in men and institutions rather than in the intrinsic value of paper money or checks, violent revolutions do not so much redistribute wealth as destroy it.
  18. Is democracy responsible for the current debasement of art? The debasement, of course, is not unquestioned; it is a matter of subjective judgment; and those of us who shudder at its excesses-its meaningless blotches of color, its collages of debris, its Babels of cacophony – are doubtless imprisoned in our past and dull to the courage of experiment. The producers of such nonsense are appealing not to the general public – which scorns them as lunatics, degenerates, or charlatans – but to gullible middle – class purchasers who are hypnotized by auctioneers and are thrilled by the new, however deformed.
  19. No student takes seriously the seventeenth-century notion that states arose out of a “social contract” among individuals or between the people and a ruler. Probably most states (i.e., societies politically organized) took form through the conquest of one group by another, and the establishment of a continuing force over the conquered by the conqueror; his decrees were their first laws; and these, added to the customs of the people, created a new social order.
  20. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

will and ariel duran the lessons of history summary

Five philosophical myths about mindfulness that are sabotaging your practice

From a useful superstition with medical benefits to a deeply spiritual practice, mindfulness has seen a variety of labels. Together with Nguyên Giác, we put together a list of common misplaced attitudes towards mindfulness, so that you don’t sabotage your practice. [Watch video instead]

Mindfulness has become quite popular and seems to be gaining further momentum. It is set to soon be mainstream.

As is often the case with explosive popularity, there are some misconception and misinterpretations about mindfulness making the rounds among bloggers and on social media. 

1. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept

It’s not uniquely Buddhist. Mindfulness has roots going back to Christianity. More that that: wherever humans have existed, they have discovered mindfulness. Many traditions poke around the mindfulness bush, some more directly than others. Why? Because mindfulness is healthy. It makes sense, evolutionarily. A mindful population will thrive. A population lacking mindfulness will have a hard time propagating the memes (Richard Dawkin’s meme, not the funny picture, meme.. although they are related) and genes that define its character.

Christianity has elements of mindfulness practice present in ritual and scriptural form (both within and outside of the canon).

There are a number of passages that obviously point to the practice of mindfulness, and there are many others that, when understood in context, point to mindfulness practice.

Whenever you have people that are practicing awareness of what they are doing in that moment, you have mindful people. When people know they are washing dishes, they are mindful dishwashers. Christians who are mindfully carrying candles, passing out bread and wine, and consciously delighting in each other’s company are Buddhist Christians – they are increasing awakeness in the world.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“‘Buddhism is a practice. Like Yoga’. It is not a ‘religion’ in the way that Christianity is a religion. There are no gods. No required beliefs.. Nothing to take ‘on faith’.”

It is an open-handed teaching, hiding nothing, encouraging actual practice, letting you realise things without forcing it. The labels of “Buddhist” and “Christian” can be hindrances. It is nice to respect our spiritual ancestors, but it is foolish to isolate ourselves within the confines of some set of teachings. Old “maps” may not accurately represent the present territory.

Some people make the claim that there is an actual historical link between Jesus and Buddha. Indeed, there were Mahayana Monks in Egypt during Jesus’ lifetime. But, with or without the causal connection, Buddha/Gnosis is one – the message is the same. People can happen across the same spiritual truths in totally separate cultural contexts. The historical connection would be interesting and exciting, but it is not necessary.

So, in conclusion, there are some big chasms to cross as one journeys between world views, but if we look within we will find one human experience– we are unique, but we share common ground. It is beautiful. If we can learn to gently share our ideas with respect and give credit where credit is due, this era of history can be an amazing one.

Naturally, mindfulness occurs in religions other than Christianity and Buddhism, we shall try to address that another time.

myths and misconceptions about mindfulness
Sure, who wants an article on mindfulness without a picture of a woman meditating?

2. Mindfulness is about detachment and emptiness

Buddhist terminology also presents some problems for the Western Mind.

The translators of yore did not have the proper conceptual tools to work with the subtle ideas generated by Buddhist genius. And, still, people are hung up on ideas of “nonself”, “emptiness”, “detachment”, etc.

The Christian West has to do some serious psychic judo to make sense of these things without experiencing intense fear and trembling.

There are many potential points of conflict, but, let’s focus on non-self. Anatman. Anatta. No atman. This seems to have been one of the Buddha’s big ideas. There is no independently existing ego, or self-sustaining identity, anywhere in existence. All is dependent on all. Every square inch, square centimetre, every atom is as significant as the largest star. Look at “Indra’s Net”. It’s a nice way to visualise emptiness, or non-self: emptiness and non-self are the same idea. Interdependence is a better word. So when you read, “non-self”, “emptiness”, “voidness”, etc… just remember interdependence.

In the West, largely populated with traditional Christians, many have trouble with all this. There is this idea of “something out of nothing” that the Christian must accept in order to fall in line with dogma. It is totally illogical. Therefore, the Christian declares that faith is necessary. The question, “what was before the beginning?” will never be answered. Those who try to convince you that they have answered that question are liars or fools. Asserting that “God did it” is dangerous, the priests who make such assertions are “like dogs in the cattle manger, they can’t eat and they won’t let the cattle eat”. And, this is what Jesus is implying in the Gospel of Thomas when he encourages us to ignore those who claim to know “the way to heaven”.

On a more comforting note, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas also recognises this truth of non-self, which is very closely related to the truth of impermanence, another central Buddhist idea.

He also declares that all things that come together will fall apart. Everything will change.

Gospel of Thomas, 11:

Yeshua said / This heaven will pass away / and the one above it will pass away. / The dead are not alive / and the living will not die. / During the days when you ate what is dead / you made it alive. / When you are in the light, what will you do? / On the day when you were one / you became two. / But when you become two, what will you do?

Some people want to hide in their meditation halls, with their tibetan loving-kindness mantras – that’s fine… However, the Bodhisattva (the being tending toward awakening) engages the world and meets people where they are at. By helping others in real life, the Bodhisattva also develops her own Buddha Nature.

what we get wrong about mindfulness meditation

3. Mindfulness is part of the positive thinking / law of attraction world view

Many have come to view mindfulness as a close cousin of positive thinking. This is a misconception.

Mindfulness cultivates non-judgement – which the exact polar opposite of insisting on only ever dignifying positive thoughts with our attention.

A concept seemingly resonant with positive thinking/ law of attraction appears in the Dhammapada, one of the primary collections of teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama:

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.”

However, mindfulness emphasises the value of accepting things as they come.

Yes, we “create our own reality”, but we certainly don’t do it alone.

Reality is seen from a fundamentally different viewpoint in the philosophy underpinning mindfulness. The Bodhisattva does not proclaim that things are either positive, negative or neutral– Buddha abides “beyond good an evil” – beyond positive and negative and neutral.

In many Buddhist schools, there is this idea of the Five Skandhas. The Five Heaps. The Five Collections or Aggregates. Instead of a self-sustaining ego, Buddha spoke of these components – the Five Skandhas – that make up a personality.

The sensory experience, contact with sense objects through one of the sense doors (light / eye, sound / ear, chemical / taste and smell, pressure and heat / touch, thought / mind), is either positive, negative or neutral.

There is an event, and there is a knee-jerk reaction to it that is either good, bad, or not good or bad.

The Five Skandhas are empty”. They are interdependent. Sensation is just one of these heaps. Sensation depends on form, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And – positive, negative and neutral are also empty!

There is no positive without negative or neutral, and the same is true for negative and neutral.

Our strength is not found in forcing reality to remain “positive”. We are considered accomplished because of the strength we have to endure the snaky shifting of Samsara. We endure the ups and downs, we remain in this mind system with these sentient beings, unperturbed by the positives and negatives and neutrals. We are beacons of peace and stability in this chaotic ocean.

4. Mindfulness is a natural remedy for anxiety

People want to talk about mindfulness like it’s some miracle pill. Despite what we so often hear, this practice of mindfulness is not always roses and cotton-candy. The practice of mindfulness may reveal things one has been been avoiding. This can be painful. This is the real work though! Learning to see clearly requires deep compassion for oneself and for all sentient beings. Gentleness can smooth over those scratchy rough spots.

Mindfulness meditation is work, but it is healthy, soothing work.

New things will be noticed. New things can cause fear. If new things aren’t being noticed, if fear isn’t arising, it is probably a good idea to refocus the practice. But how?

The goal is not to be rid of negative emotions.

Mindfulness meditation teaches us to put harsh feelings into context and not become totally overwhelmed by their presence. The goal is not to become a tranquil yuppy – it is to become present, aware and in touch with actual bold faced reality.

Yes, there are benefits. Mental and physical health benefits.

Breathing meditation can bring calm. “Negative” feelings can also arise – they are as real as “positive” feelings.

During practice, all of these arising positive and negative thoughts are gently touched – and like the fragile bubbles they are, they pop. It is not difficult. There is no strain. However, it is work. Perfectly paradoxical.

You may also like: Mindfulness is pointless – and that’s the point

what we misunderstand about mindfulness

5. Mindfulness is a medical treatment

Here in the West, the main drive for the explosion of mindfulness practice seems to be coming from the medical community. This is awesome. As always, medicalising normal processes is dangerous. It is especially common these days when people look to science for answers – rather than to religion. However, difficulty arises when science, which is much more about questions than it is about answers, becomes scientism, or high priests with Ph.D.’s handing out evidence-based dogma.

There is a lot of cultural appropriation going on around here. Doctors are not far off taking credit for practices that have already been employed for thousands of years. On the surface, this is all fine and dandy, but looking deeper we can see that it’s part of a larger pattern. We Westerners have not been so kind to our friends around the world. We take and take and take. The practice of mindfulness cannot be “owned”, but it seems to me that we should be giving more credit to it’s Eastern roots. Indeed, those roots extend beyond the Buddhist tradition. There are things to be learned from the cultures that have grown up with these practices.

Instead, it looks to me like as Westerners, we are trying to distill the “useful” practices from what we consider to be “superstition”.

Our sciences are constantly revealing a stranger and stranger reality. We would do well to hold our verdicts on what is and is not superstition.

philosophical misconceptions about meditation mindfulness