Apparently, the number one rule of surfing is, “Don’t fight the wave”.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Apparently, the number one rule of surfing is, “Don’t fight the wave”.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?
Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.
Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.
No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.
I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.
Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.
They had three types of people:
The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.
The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.
Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.
It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:
“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”
We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.
The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.
So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.
This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.
There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.
The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.
The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.
Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.
So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.
Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.
So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.
According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.
There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.
I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.
Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.
I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.
Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.
Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.
Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.
In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.
It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.
Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.
You’ve heard all about this before.
I won’t bore you.
I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.
The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.
Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.
In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.
The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.
Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:
It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.
Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.
Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.
Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.
Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.
As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.
Clarity, meta-cognition and increased cognitive processing – that’s our thinking clearly box ticked.
To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.
Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.
How did the 16 days in May challenge go? Not to the discouragement of my readers, I admit defeat.
This really was a challenge, and I am not that happy with how it went. Why? Life got in the way. I was under a lot of pressure to get a project done with lots of codependencies and lots hinging on it. During the early days of the challenge, I received fairly disconcerting feedback, so everything else went on hold. Anxiety took over.
A lot of people suffer with anxiety. Many refer to a small study that was done among the elderly and asked them what their biggest regret in life was. Many said that they worried too much. Well, of course! With the benefit of hindsight, that’s easy to declare.
A lot of people also say that anxiety isn’t going to help the outcome. Of course it will, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it. Naturally, there is pathological anxiety – and I am not talking about that, but in these days of overmedicalising feelings strong anxiety is seen as needing to be gotten rid of.
Maybe the problem isn’t the anxiety? Maybe the problem is the thing that’s causing anxiety? Genius thought, I know. But it seems to be denied any viability in our society. [Then they ask how did we all turn out to be special snowflakes. Hmm.]
Well, I didn’t get rid of my anxiety or try to suppress it. Once I just admitted to myself that I was anxious, a weight came off my shoulders. This is that classic acceptance thing they talk about in mindfulness. Anxious. So what? It’s not a crime. It’s not a defect. It’s just my experience and right now, in this moment, it’s not actually that bad at all. Acceptance of reality gave me the opportunity to work on the underlying cause of the anxiety.
Right, closer to the point:
OMG. How do you live without assumptions? Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer is usually correct. When I got my worrying feedback, I immediately started mind-reading, mitigating the worst case scenario, assigning probabilities to possible outcomes and acting. Acting is such a drug against anxiety. The problem is of course that directionless hustle isn’t necessarily better than inaction. It’s exhausting and it is possible to do damage like a bull in a china shop.
Definitely a win. Interestingly, it was my olfaction that work up by doing this. I spent most of my life living in a city and that’s not the sort of place where you want to expose yourself to smells. Also, a walking meditation is kind of more lighthearted than the more perfectionist sitting meditation.
I’ve emailed a bunch of people about a project we all committed too, but all left it to stagnate. Two of the three recipients were very helpful in moving it forward and now, somehow, we have a fourth, who just contacted me out of the blue. Coincidence? Providence?
I was too nervous to do that with all my stress. What if I exposed something so disappointing or annoying that I would be too upset? I simply didn’t have the reserve to do it at this time. I will add it to my list (guess that’s a habit…)
W was easy. I know what I consider meaningful. I also know that this changes. I know why I am doing what I am doing though sometimes I wish the routes were straight lines. Ultimately, we have to adapt to our environment and respect the peninsulas of circumstance that we navigate around.
Haha, well that led to a clearout! (Anyone of eBay?) It wasn’t so bad at all. Where I live, in Dublin, clothes aren’t as much of a status symbol as they are in some places – like Russia, or I imagine China, or even the UK. I am very grateful for that.
Fail. I can spend the day on my own, but social media – that’s tough. I have this sensation that I am about to get some kind of interesting news via social media. All it is in reality is a trained dopamine-mediated habit. I need to get out of it. It’s not that hard, but once again, it may expose things. For example, it can expose just how lonely I feel sometimes. And then, if I commit to not having social media, at least on certain days, then I am leaving myself to confront the loneliness. As a teenager, I used to travel a lot – and it would always be a connection flight. Sometimes, the connection would be 4 or 5 hours. This was before the kind of engaging social media we have now and certainly before widespread free wifi. I just remember that horrible mix of boredom and loneliness and I don’t ever want to feel it again. Having said that, I always say I come up with some of my best realisations in transit. Maybe then, I should just take the bandage of and be alone with myself, whatever may bubble up.
Fail once again. I was worried that it would put me in a foul mood. That’s quite presumptuous and possible wrong. It remains on the to-do list.
Done. Much less distraction now. Best decision ever.
I couldn’t really do that. I was worried that I don’t have the time with my project. It also felt a bit wrong to be messing around with new recipes when things are shaky. Once again, pretty presumptuous, but hey, all I can do is all I can do.
This turned out to be a surprise. Even from a Machiavellian points of view, I can easily argue that everything I do for others is done as an investment into a relationship.
What a magical thing to do. I thought of my parents, of where I was born, of where I started, of the role I had to play in where I am here today. I think so many of us get upset as we feel that life happens to us and that we don’t have any real control. To any human being, it is very upsetting to not be in control. But is it true? On the one hand, in the grand scheme of things we are small and insignificant. But in the context of our own lives, we are a big deal. Just like the Stoics would argue it’s important to focus on what you do or think as a person. Circumstances aren’t always a form of feedback about how well or poorly we are doing. Looking back at how we navigated our circumstances, even back when we were younger and much more naive, is bound to generate some feelings of pride and invigorate the perception of who we are people.
Well, let’s just say I was dragged shopping in IKEA during this time. There was a lady in front of us in the queue who changed her mind on what she was going to buy and was hiding the goods she was going to just dump at the cashier under a pile of bags. Before sneaking the stuff away, she looked over at us a bit like a poorly trained dog looks at people passing by when it’s eating. But I really couldn’t be bothered judging. Maybe she has too much sense to just buy 3 French presses (that don’t filter anything by the way)?
Fail. What if something super important happens and I don’t even know?! I need to work on this.
They were all quite optional. I’ve learnt the lesson of not having useless clutter a long time ago (moving dorm rooms every year in college will teach that fairly quickly). However, I was quite surprised at how I could have gotten away without having a lot of these things.
This is a lot like looking back at where you came started. Yes, sometimes the seas part, the light shines, the lucky break happens and we should be endlessly grateful for these blessings. However, we should thank ourselves for working so hard and having faith even when things don’t look good.
Happy May Day all.
Here are a few reasons to love May:
I have made a little gift for everyone. A gift and a challenge. I find 30 day challenges a little scary, so this is a 16 day challenge!
A list of reminders drawing on mindfulness, Stoic philosophy and just general common sense urging us to be more present.
I hope you enjoy it. Print it out and see how you get on. I will report on how I got on on 16th May.
I’ve spoken about mindfulness to numerous psychiatrists, those that I’ve worked with and experts from various out-postings of the Western world. Completely unprompted, they all converge on one point:
We should pay more attention to what the Eastern philosophy already knows about the body and mind.
As Western doctors, we are trained in the evidence-based tradition. We hate nonsense treatments that are painfully common. Glucosamine. Cough remedies. None of them are better than placebo.
Then there is a rake of stuff that isn’t useless per se, but useless because it is irrelevant:”X reduces the risk of Y 10 times”… but they never tell you that it reduces risk from 0.001% to 0.01%. I call all of this snake oil, and I am passionate about doing what I can to protect the audience.
I am conflicted however: it seems that it’s impossible to address certain issues using an evidence-based approach. There is simply no way to do a randomised-controlled trial on certain things.
Whenever some esoteric group get something right, I tell myself that even a broken clock is right twice a day and if predictions are general enough, they cannot be proven wrong, a bit like a horoscope.
However, all of these renowned people trained in the evidence-based tradition are saying that much of these robust observational findings by Buddhists tend to get confirmed by our methods, such as fMRI, now, hundreds of years later. What a seductive proposition!
Dr John McBurney spoke to me about this in detail:
“I recently attended the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies ran in conjunction with the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. This is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the Dalai Lama and the neuroscience community that began in 1987 and resulted in a satellite meeting at the annual Society of Neuroscience meeting in 2005 entitled “The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation”. Out of these interactions an entire field of neuroscience has emerged: contemplative neuroscience.
What bothers me the most about the popularisation of mindfulness is that it is seen as an end instead of a means. This has the potential to deepen our self-absorption and even to become an exercise in narcissism.
Mindfulness is both fully embodied and relational. In other words mindfulness is a fundamental practice for getting in touch with our true selves. That true self or true nature is fully embodied.
In other words, it doesn’t just exist in our conscious thinking minds; it encompasses our full being including our somatic awareness, gut, heart and breath. But this must also extend beyond our bodies to others to achieve its full significance. In this way what arises out of mindfulness is what matters the most. This is the relational part. So mindfulness fully realised is not just within us, but also between us.
The Dalai Lama says that if everyone in the world meditated, there would be no more war. The reason for that is the fundamental goodness of human nature. Human infants are born genuinely helpless. Most people have a fundamentally positive attachment experience – or they don’t survive.
This is reminiscent of Harlow’s experiments in which baby monkeys were deprived of maternal interaction and were either developmentally devastated or died. So without the interaction with the mother the baby is like the seed that does not germinate..
So when we “get out of our own way” as Judson Brewer talks about in his TED talk, what emerges is our nature that is inherently good and compassionate, seeking to address suffering in ourselves and other people.
To my mind, mindfulness is the first step in realising that nature. It is a necessary, but non-sufficient condition. Mindfulness is a start, but ultimately it comes down to what we do with it. Some people have severe, traumatic attachment experiences, in some ways like Harlow’s monkeys.
This results in severe disruption in personality development. They may have borderline features and don’t have a strong sense of self or feeling of right or wrong, but for most of us this thankfully doesn’t apply. For most of us, all we need to do is to get out of our own way to realise the beauty of our own nature.
There is a lot of discussion about the popularisation of mindfulness and the misdirection that the general public is getting. It is possible for it to become too simplified, so that it becomes harmful. For example, Shinto Buddhism was misused in Imperial Japan and atrocities were committed because of that or in our times lets look at the ethical dilemma posed by the mindful sniper. It’s not just practice that makes perfect.
It is perfect practice makes perfect. It is really a value judgment that comes out of mindfulness. Which is reflected in our relationship with others and the world. It this way mindfulness becomes mindfulness in the service of others through compassion which in a way is a superpower. Just look at this article from CNN posted a few days ago.
One of the people I’ve crossed paths with is James Doty. Now, he is a professor of neurosurgery in Stanford. He is an amazing human being. He and I were residents together and became good friends. He went on to accomplish great things.
He says that he was misapplying the mindfulness skills that he was taught as a child. He learnt to concentrate in a very profound way. Back when we were residents he struck me as an uncompromisingly focused person, at times arrogant, and always hilarious. But as he now admits he hadn’t had his bowl filled with compassion.
He was very mindful and amazingly effective. Since then he has gone on to do truly amazing things that were directly born out of his becoming mindfully compassionate. He has done philanthropic work on the back of CyberKnife success. He founded a journal club at Stanford where they would read the latest studies in contemplative neuroscience and wondered if the Dalai Lama would find this interesting.
He was able to network through to Thupten Jinpa, Dalai Lampa’s English translator, and as he describes in his bestseller (Into the Magic Shop) soon found himself meeting with the Dalai Lama! Out if this The Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education (CCARE) was started at Stanford University. His memoir, Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart, is a tremendous resource in that it is both a first person account and sort of a manual on how to develop mindfulness and compassion.
Mindfulness is but the vessel in which the full contents of our consciousness is held.”
You may also like my recent interview with Dr McBurney: A downward facing doc explains the brain wiring behind mindfulness
It was my pleasure to speak to Dr Chris Walsh, an Australian mindfulness pioneer since the 1980’s and a respected psychiatrist. Dr Walsh has trained with leading Western mindfulness figures such as Jon Kabatt Zinn, Mark Williams, Kristin Neff and Daniel Siegal. Dr Walsh and I spoke about the darker side of mindfulness.
It’s used by business to make people work harder. It’s not so much a myth, it’s just the way it is being used.
People think it’s a relaxation technique. This is tricky to address. Mindfulness does help people to relax, but that’s not the main game. It’s about training your awareness.
You cannot count on mindfulness to make you relax.
If occasionally mindfulness doesn’t help you relax, you will feel that it’s not working and are missing out on an opportunity to learn to hold an unpleasant feeling. This can be destructive.
The first thing is to have a good teacher. It’s a delicate balance and it can be hard to know when to lean into the negative emotion and when to stand back from it.
The basic principle is that it is ok to feel challenged, but it’s not okay to feel overwhelmed.
With any kind of learning, including learning to be mindful, it is normal to oscillate between feeling comfortable and feeling challenged. If you’re never challenged, especially with something experiential like mindfulness or a sport, the learning isn’t in its optimal state. Getting overwhelmed in mindfulness is the equivalent of getting injured when training, and this sets back the progress.
I have a few tricks on how to deal with being overwhelmed during mindfulness.
These tips work for patients with mental health issues, e.g. PTSD, as well as people with no mental health issues.
It is damaging when people use mindfulness to dissociate or disconnect in some way. Two patients I encountered were attached to ecstatic states.
The first was a man with a background of heroin and alcohol addiction. He was able to stay away from drugs and alcohol for 10 years and then relapsed – which is when he came to me. He told me he was using mindfulness to stay away from his addictions and meditated for 8 hours a day! Just before the relapse he got a job: this stopped him from meditating for 8 hours a day, and so he relapsed.
When I questioned him about his mindfulness practice, he told me that he would just got into a blissful state for 8 hours, never experiencing any negative emotions.
I asked him to deliberately call to mind some unpleasant experiences while practicing mindfulness and pay attention to how it felt in his body rather than holding on to these blissful states. The lesson here is to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. In Tibetan Buddhism, they talk about samadhi. It is a blissful state – and sometimes people get addicted to this state. Some people this is enlightenment, but the Buddhist teachers say that that’s a delusion, an unhealthy attachement to something.
The second case that comes to mind was of a man with schizophrenia. Many of my patients with schizophrenia derived a great benefit from mindfulness. This man was having a Kundalini experience, where energy was going up and down his spine. They talk about it in the Hindu tradition. He would go through this experience for many hours a day and it made him more delusional and psychotic. It was very hard to persuade him to do less meditation!
I wouldn’t’ call either of these experiences mindfulness, as they weren’t this open, non-judgemental states. This is why having a teacher is important: so that you can reflect on your experience and receive some guidance.
There are no absolute guarantees. I am aware of some highly trained psychiatrists who teach mindfulness, but don’t practice it. They say they do, but by talking to them, you quickly realise they don’t: they have a kind of striving attitude.
For people with psychiatric conditions, it is better to have someone who understands both the Western and the Eastern traditions. If you have a teacher, a psychologist or psychiatrist, who comes from the Western tradition only, it is important that they practice mindfulness themselves. It’s important for a teacher to be able to tune into the problems that arise for people as they go through their mindfulness journey rather than sticking to a rigid program.
In my classes, I have a handout that reviews the apps and advises my patients to beware of any apps that tell them what to feel or that they should relax. People can play with apps – it gives them experiential information that allows them to commit to go to a class. Some people learn a lot from the apps. I haven’t seen the good apps causing any harm. Headspace is quite good. Buddhify is great for getting past the idea that mindfulness only happens on a cushion and has lots of shorter meditations that people like. Insight timer has nice mindfulness bells and nice soundtracks. Some are a bit New Age-y, so people need guidance in choosing the right ones. iTunes U UCLA meditations are quite good too. I send people to my website as I have some soundtracks there.
I did TM for a few years and found it helpful. I studied Buddhist meditation before that and it gave me the impression that the mind has to be completely quiet – which caused a lot of agitation. TM helped me to get past that as it involved returning to the mantra without trying to eliminate thoughts. TM also taught me about preliminary practices such as exercise.
In the East, mindfulness is used to investigate the mind as well as everything else. A lot of the insights of Buddhist psychology are now being confirmed using Western methods, such as fMRI. I believe this aspect of the Eastern tradition doesn’t get enough attention. However, we need to separate the psychology, philosophy and the religion. Those who say that Buddhism isn’t a religion are lying: it is a religion, but as well as that there are psychological and a philosophical components. These can be separated out, just like has happened in the West.
The tradition in the East is 2,500 years old, so we run into a lot of interpretation and translation problems. The Eastern languages have changed in meaning and nuance in that time just as much as Western languages have. Jus think how much trouble we have interpreting Shakespeare and his writing was only 500 years ago. Furthermore, Buddhist psychology is based on human investigation that has evolved over time, so it’s not like the Bible that has been “handed down” and and passed on as some kind of unchanging truth. The Eastern mindfulness tradition, in fact, has a lot in common with the Western scientific tradition. This tradition has evolved from the Socratic tradition which is based on debate and questioning. rather than prescriptive rote learning. I believe that if we start paying more attention to what is already known in the East our progress in understanding the mind will be accelerated and our meditation practices will become even more effective.
Dr Walsh’s own website contains a lot of case studies and blog articles on mindfulness that I would highly recommend: mindfulness.org.au
Goddessism is big among our millennial ladies. This article isn’t about the fact that social media and real life are different. It is about the cheapening of real philosophy that happens on social media and goes unnoticed by too many people.
As you will know, I am not big into positive thinking, at least the inspirational Insta-motivation variety. I have yet another issue with Instagram. It is the one social network that makes me feel kind of icky, and for ages I couldn’t understand why. We all know that social media is a highlight reel, a filtered version of another’s life, etc – but Instagram accentuates this empty feeling. I think it’s because it lacks the option of having any depth.
You can link to a thoughtful article on most networks, but you deliberately need to judge everything by its cover on Instagram.
One could argue it is some kind of inferiority that I am feeling. And it is. It’s a fear that I could never be as perfect as the people in the pictures. Indeed, I couldn’t be. They couldn’t be either. In fact, the subspecies I will discuss below follows a very clear prescribed regimen specifying their clothes, food, wisdom, aspirations, art, fitness, other half and much more. But the point is the horrible fake “spirituality” of these accounts.
Instagram is so full of beautiful, minimalist, natural, spiritual, compassionate, eco-friendly yoga-practicing perfect people, women, to be specific.
They look out over the ocean and look so dreamy with the sunset backdrop. The pictures are full with gentle sunlight, smiles and smoothies made of the most righteous greens and the caption inevitably features love of the world, the followers or something trendy. Obviously, these “tropical feels” exist on other media, but Instagram seems to have thousands of accounts with virtually the same vibe. The content clearly has a lot of work dedicated to it, but I struggle to see why people enjoy it. Perhaps, some find that it is genuine?
Whenever I encountered these insta-perfect people in real life, they tend to be highly cynical and critical of others, curse like sailors, yell at their children in a way that makes me worry about the integrity of the windows, drink (not just the smoothies), are insecure about their appearance and just generally be far removed from the fairy tale vibe of their Instagram account.
Many of them go from one beautiful location to another; the further removed from the West, the better – or at least create the impression that they do. More often than not, the photos are made over a few weeks (of what I assume is pretty hard work of shooting) and then released over the following months.
Their work is always something special, magical and sacred. There is much about happiness, love of simple things, spirituality, being natural, a wanderer, a wild child, a vagabond, giving hugs and so on.
By playing bingo with the above you can create a nice tagline for the top of the page: “Don’t let your dreams just be dreams” obtained Lisa Smith of @lisadanielle_ It seems that the expertise behind these statements is rather limited and largely repeated by/from other Instagram users in a nice Pacific ocean echo chamber. I doubt that the subscribers care very much. They look for pictures of a life
…from another place, tropical and blue,
We have never been to.
This is from Sylvia Plath’s “Finisterre”. I love the emotion behind these words: they got etched into my mind straight after the first reading. I doubt she would have liked Instagram very much.
These women tend to paint, create jewellery, produce their own make up lines or run seminars. The more competent ones paint and the really great ones photograph: weddings, editorials and so on. I shudder at their daily routine of waking up and knowing that they need to go out of their way to take shots of things that will appear good to thousands of people. Perhaps, they shudder at the thought of writing an essay, especially one that is clear to the point which can only be obtained by being honest. Not honest like an eco-friendly coffee brand is honest; honest like a best friend is honest. The high quality pictures make it into the Instagram feed; the less artsy are only dignified with a place in the Stories.
Their appearance is uniformly the sort that can only be obtained by strenuous HIIT and no carbs. Don’t forget the tan.
The goal is to look like the perfectly accepted idea of female beauty, but with a spiritual twist.
A half-naked woman in her late twenties with a body fat of about 18% with a dreamy smile will caption her photo with something like “Remember, everyone is beautiful. Accept your self fully. Love is everything.”
The more thorough Instagramers will have a story of how they used to hate their body/themselves/their failures, but came to be in a healthy relationship with themselves and now it is their life’s mission to bring this harmony into the world.
They frequently have a soul mate whom they tag in their Instagram and express their gratitude at least twice a week. Don’t be alarmed if some of these bits of wisdom have a tag like for some minimalist watch maker or a boho clothes vendor, usually with an eco-twist:
The perpetual summer bodies don’t come easy, I am sure, but the Insta goddesses never bother to make a big deal out of it. However, a nice yoga pose with a “thoughtful” quote is a must. Mindfulness goes without saying. Are there still people who don’t practice mindfulness? Myself, I doubt that between reaching out to bikini manufacturers and running contests for a handmade fairtrade eco-friendly blanket and shooting non-contrived photos of their rigorous relaxation routines they have much “time” for real mindfulness.
Clothes-wise, less is more – because why should we hide? That’s just wouldn’t be that spiritual or close to nature. The boho-twise requires the addition of a hat and numerous bracelets to the bikini bottoms. The top is covered by the long beach-wave hair.
What do goddesses eat? It’s all vegan, raw, super-foody and green. Banish gluten, lactose and all other negativity. The tone of their remarks is so matter of fact, like they’ve never seen a BLT in their lives.
So for example, a goddess could start every morning with 20 sun salutations and a green smoothie. They charge her up with the sort of energy the no coffee could ever do (throw back to her life before she entered the true world of Bali). It is usually followed by the description of the unfolding life force of nature filling her within and she literally can’t imagine having it any other way.
I have no reason to stick it to Lauren Bullen of @gypsea_lust in particular. They are legion. They come from all countries and write in all languages (though they all spend time in Bali). You know a few people like this. So alike, that you weren’t sure I wasn’t writing about them until you checked the username. They run Instagram-supported businesses, that’s fine, but it is the fact that they are selling something that isn’t real that bothers me.
It seems obvious that people would be able to tell that this is an account made for marketing. But because of this spiritual vibe, insidiously, this affects the moral compass for many otherwise bright people I know.
My millennial peers are often unable to see the difference between shallow marketing and deeper philosophy. Has it always been this way I wonder?
This kind of stuff makes me want to clear my head. So if, like me, you come across this phenomenon, don’t be down. Breath.
P.S. Sorry for the radio silence. I’m moving. It’s a journey. Many journeys back and forth between two houses, in fact. Lots of challenges of all sorts and remembering to breath has been my number one rule. I will write about the whole experience once the dust resettles on my suitcases.
Credit: inspired by Varvara Gorbash
Do you ever just wish you could get someone who knows virtually everything that’s known about the brain and quiz them about mindfulness? Well, I do – a lot – and I just got my wish!
It is my pleasure to present this interview with John McBurney MD. A practicing physician with of over 35 years’ experience, he is board certified in Neurology, Clinical Neurophysiology and Sleep Medicine. He holds an Integrative Medicine Fellowship… The list of his professional accomplishments is obscenely impressive, so I will jump to the bit we all really want to know about: Dr. McBurney maintains a daily mindfulness meditation practice as well as home yoga practice, hence the downward facing bit. Needless to say, I was beyond curious to find out his understanding of how mindfulness affects the brain.
I think that the issue of mindfulness intersect with the leading-edge of neuroscience. It is supported by extraordinarily robust data. This area of study has been termed contemplative neuroscience. The Mind and Life Institute which is an outgrowth of the dialogues between the neuroscience community and the Dalai Llama is an important sponsor of research and education on contemplative neuroscience. It ultimately comes down to the concept of neuroplasticity.
Donald O. Hebb coined the doctrine: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. It was an extension of the work done by an American philosopher and psychologist William James in the early XX century. You can practice “bad” things or “good” things – and neuronal ensembles form accordingly. In mindfulness, we are essentially practicing good things.
There is a resting ensemble of neural networks called the default mode network that was discovered using fMRI studies where individuals were asked to lay in the scanner and think of nothing in particular. This kind of mindless mental activity is accompanied by a lot of self-referential ruminative recursive thoughts that are subserved by brain regions that lie along the midline, especially the prominent in medial parietal lobe. Those types of internal mental states that are remarkably robust and persist under deep general anaesthesia and even in a coma and are probably the neural basis for the self.
The more outward facing parts of the brain – like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – are more responsible for an outward orientation to the world have top down executive influence on the activation of those networks.
In mindfulness, in cultivating awareness of the breath and voluntary moment by moment awareness of the brain, we are training the brain – just like when you are learning to play the violin or any other complex skill – we are training to break out of those self-referential ruminative recursive mental states and to achieve an orientation toward the outer world and in the present moment rather than anticipating the future or reliving the past.
Not everyone has a well formed default mode network. People who have been subjected to severe developmental trauma, neglect and lack secure attachment do not have robust default mode networks. Mindfulness can lower defence mechanisms that are there with good reason. However, most people with a well formed default mode network and secure attachment. We are “taming an elephant”: there is very little chance that we will significantly weaken the elephant.
Occasionally, we do hear of adverse experiences arising from mindfulness. With any robust intervention there are always potential risks.
The results can happen almost immediately, however, they are also cumulative. We are still figuring out what the minimum effective dose it. This reminds me of the discussion of the minimum effective dose of aspirin in stroke and heart attack prevention. When I was a resident, we were advising patients to take two 325 mg tablets twice a day. Over time this dropped to 81 mg of aspirin a day. There is speculation that the required dose may even be lower.
There is a study that defines a new marker. The original fMRI/EEG studies were done by Richard Davidson in Tibetan Buddhist meditators with over 10,000 hours of meditation. This number is somewhat arbitrary and refers to this idea that is the number of hours to become an expert at anything. However, the question arises: what is the relevance of the changes in functional connectivity in the brain in someone who has devoted such a monumental amount of time to meditation to the likes of you and me?
A very neat study was published by David Cresswell in Biological Psychiatry in 2016. They invited individuals with high level of stress, unemployed adults, to a weekend retreat experience. They were randomised to in 2 groups:
The study was conducted in one centre over one weekend, so it is well controlled. Initially, both groups rated the interventions as being equally helpful to them, subjectively.
The researchers looked at the functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. They also looked at Interleukin-6, a known marker of inflammation, that has been previously shown to be elevated in stressed out unemployed people.
Even with this brief weekend mindfulness intervention, the treatment group developed increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the cyngulate gyrus. There was a neuroplastic response even after a 3 day mindfulness retreat. This was also associated with a decrease in the marker IL-6. Even after 4 months, IL-6 was decreased in the treatment group, but in the control group, IL-6 levels continued to rise, independent of whether they managed to get a job or not.
This is also relevant to doctors, who are at high risk for burnout. Because of their work commitments, the mindfulness retreat for doctors was condensed from the standard 8 week model developed by John Kabat-Zinn to a weekend intervention. The question was: does the weekend model work? The research at the University of Wisconsin where this was developed was reassuring: the residents are less stressed out, more effective and have a greater level of satisfaction.
We still don’t know the absolute minimum dose, but it seems that a weekend of mindfulness can be life-changing for the brain.
Another paper published in PLOS ONE from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Harvard looked at the practices such as meditation, prayer, mindful yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, etc, i.e. ones that elicit a relaxation response (as opposed the stress response).
This study showed that in both novice and experienced practitioners of relaxation response modalities, there were changes in the epigenetic transcription of the genome. There was upregulation of pathways associated with mitochondrial integrity, downregulation of inflammatory pathways, improved insulin-related metabolism and improved nitric oxide signalling.
Long term potentiation, the standard mechanism for memory formation, strengthens existing neural connections. This happens immediately, as you read this. Over time, long term potentiation leads to formation of new connections,through synaptogenesis, dendritic arborisation and neurogenesis i.e. brain structure changes. In turn, this affects the most neuroplastic neurons located in the hippocampus.
The ancients believed that emotions reside in the body. This comes up a lot in serious yoga classes.
This highly innovative study shows that the control of the adrenal medulla – the main effector of the stress response – is not from the conscious ruminating thinking centres, but by the motor and sensory cortex.
This explains why breathing, as well as yoga and Tai-Chi, are an important part of meditative practice. In my experience, these kind of interventions do affect the stress response in a beneficial way.
Mindful exercise exists in many form. For example, weightlifters need to be very mindful to maintain perfect form. Cycling is another example: it is vital to concentrate on every pedal stroke and maintain an even cadence. Once you start to day dream, you notice straight away that your output is way worse. This overlaps with the concept of flow. It is about getting in the zone. There is a very inspiring TED talk by Judson Brewer MD, Ph.D. that explains the physiology behind flow and how it is augmented by mindfulness. Mindfulness is work, and it does require discipline. There is a paradox here of non-striving and non-doing while also being disciplined.
Insomnia is a complex problem with many causes. However, for most people with idiopathic insomnia, the cause it these self-referential recursive ruminations. They aren’t able to “turn their brain off”. Through mindfulness practice, they are generally able to tame the default mode network that’s responsible for ruminating and daydreaming. A simple strategy would be to lie in bed and concentrate on the breath. This would ease the transition between wakefulness and sleep.
There is some preliminary data that mindfulness training has a beneficial effect of seizure frequency in patients with epilepsy. It is a medical condition associated with tremendous anxiety and stress, so mindfulness could have a significant benefit in more than one way. It may even have a benefit it terms of remembering to take medication on time, etc.
Some robust studies show that the frequency of relapse in multiple sclerosis decreases with mindfulness intervention. The effect from mindfulness is similar in magnitude to the effect from beta-interferon. There is also some research showing that the frequency of inflamed Gadolinuim-enhancing lesions decreases with mindfulness.
John Kabat-Zinn used to take the patients who suffered from chronic pain or had diseases for which we had no answer, and those patients got better. Even beyond neurology, there is some evidence that mindfulness can have benefits in psoriasis. We are probably only at the bottom of this mountain.
Dr McBurney is a board member of Mindful Medicine. It is a non-profit organisation that focuses on teaching mindfulness to health professionals using retreats. He is founder of McBurney Integrative Neurology and is a clinical assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Dr. McBurney is a native of Alabama and a graduate of Auburn University and the Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his neurology residency and EEG/Epilepsy fellowship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 2014 he completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Dr McBurney has given me so much to think about. I will follow up with part 2 of our discussion that focuses more on the philosophical and life experience aspects of mindfulness once I wrap my head around it.
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.
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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.
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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.
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?…