Do you have to learn about Buddhism to fully understand mindfulness?

The extent to which mindfulness and meditation are intertwined with Buddhism is disturbing for me. It’s not that already committed to another religion and feel defensive. I don’t hate or judge religion, or Buddhism especially, but I would rather not go there. When mindfulness teachers go on about Buddhism, how it is more of a philosophy, how it’s important in understanding mindfulness – I feel like a car salesman is selling me on a bunch off car accessories I determinedly do not need. Can I just get the car? Here, I just want the mindfulness, not the philosophical paraphernalia. Is it possible?

Yes. I went and studied what these people have to say. First of all, there are other religions that involve meditation, even Christian ones. The philosophies are completely different. This means that the philosophy is optional. Second, the ideas of Buddhism that are supposed to help you to understand mindfulness are echoed elsewhere, for example, in the writings of Stoic philosophers or more recently in the writings of Viktor Frankl. This means that the philosophy isn’t exclusive to Buddhism.

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I have stripped down the relevant beliefs here:

  • There’s nothing certain in life. Certainty is an illusion. We will never achieve certainty. The reason why most people want to be wealthy is because they feel they won’t have to worry about x, y, z. In truth, wealthy people indeed do not have to worry about x, y and z – they now worry about a, b and c. Furthermore, things are always changing.
  • Thoughts and emotions happen to us the same way as the weather. Thoughts and emotions are like noises, smells and sensations. The mind is, among other things, a sensory organ. It perceives thoughts and emotions – we don’t have control over them, but we can control what we do about them. We control the beliefs that we have – for sure. This will have an impact on thoughts and emotions, but indirectly and over time. You teach yourself not to cringe at the smell of vomit, and you can teach yourself not to cry at the end of a sad film. However, the thoughts and emotions still come in from the outside in. Any kind of thinking is thinking.
  • Feeling happy all the time isn’t the goal. You should just observe how you feel without judging it. It doesn’t mean you can’t act on what you’ve observed, but you certainly shouldn’t act before you’ve acknowledged everything that’s going on. Assuming that you can – and should – always feel happy causes a lot of the pain we feel.
  • Escaping how you are feeling is pointless. It will just take longer to get past the challenges associated with how you are feeling. This is where the way they deal with resistance comes in. You can act to change your reality – they don’t call that resistance. However, not understanding reality is resistance. Most violence and bad things come from this resistance.
  • Mindfulness isn’t there to make you a better person or make you happy. It’s just a way to understand what’s going on.
  • You don’t have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. Since thoughts and emotions aren’t always in your control, it doesn’t make sense to wait for your feelings to be right to act. For example, you can go to work without being motivated.

do-you-have-to-be-a-buddhist-to-understand-mindfulness

Knowing what to want

It’s always been difficult for me to choose what it was I wanted to “do with my life”. The main reason for this is that conventional low-risk options promoted to school students are all meh. It is hard to choose between broccoli and cabbage when you’re really after ice cream.

What is it to want something? In the XXI century pop culture sense, it is to be excited about something. Stoics talked a lot about wanting – as one of the most important things. They didn’t give much direction as to how to choose what you want. However, having a direction is life is key according to them. Buddhism seems to focus on the present and away for the need for certainty that is a prerequisite for goals.

It seems that the most successful people choose one thing that they won’t give up. Some call it passion, but it’s not really possible to actually be consistently passionate about something. For most people, it is a way of feeling special and having a sense of belonging – I am a painter. Rather than being something to work at, now it is a romanticised notion. Furthermore, a lot of people live in limbo of not having found their passion yet. This presupposes that it has been decided for you. Not feeling in control or having responsibility for your so called passion is a sure way to fail. Lastly, it’s a great excuse to never starting to do anything. If you commit to something, you can fail – people would rather not try and avoid the possibility of failure. What drives people to keep going is why they’re doing it. However, it’s not enough.

We want to do things we are good at. Small wins and a sensation of progress is what keeps us going. Hence, it makes sense to do things that we are good at. Of course, the more you do something, the better you get at it – but it always makes sense to play to your strengths.

Even if you are fantastic at something, however, it makes sense to make life easier for yourself by making yourself different. Getting to be the best in the world at one particular skill is awfully hard. The chances of success are very small. However, you can be in the top 1% in the world by working hard at it. Is this enough? It is – when you combine it with something else. It is much easier to be the best in the world in something super niche. You may not be the best physicist or the best economist, but you may be the best at applying the computational methods used in physics to economics models.

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knowing-what-your-life-is-about

The secret is that there is no secret

We already know everything we need to know. Yes, there is some useful knowledge out there. Knowing that cutting down on carbs will help us to get leaner is a little bit of revelation, but for most of, our grandmothers probably told us to eat more vegetables – all the way back before we knew what carbs were even.

If it had been down to information, anyone with a smartphone would have a six pack and cruise around on a yacht.

It all comes down to awareness. Awareness of what you’re doing at each given moment. The choices we make in real time are the closest thing to this coveted secret. Small things add up – the small decision we make consistently shape who we are. What we do on our lunch break matters. Do you read a book? Go to the gym? Check Facebook? Does it explain a lot about where you are now? If you’ve ever lived in a place with a harsh snowy winter and a roasting summer, you’ll know that the landscape goes from frosty white with metre deep snow to vibrant green in about six weeks. Small things add up.

For most of us, it means taking more responsibility. Letting go of our egos. Working harder – at the important things. Having discipline. Failing and bouncing back – time after time.

the-secret-is-that-there-is-no-secret

Why people get addicted to checking the news

The news has been in the news a lot  lately. Trump got elected and Facebook et al are under fire for allowing fake news to spread.

There are people who feel compelled to stay in tune with the news though it doesn’t make a difference to their lives in practical terms. Why?

We love stories. Our brains are designed to make and perceive stories.  The news in like a bed time story for adults. Going to different countries, or even different news outlets in some countries, will reveal two things. First, the main character is always a good guy. Second, the good guy always wins. It can’t all be true, but it sure makes a good story.

Our brains are designed to scan for danger. This is to keep us alive. The news usually reports a lot of bad things.

Our brains prefer exceptions rather than the ordinary. This is kind of like scanning for danger. It’s another mechanism to draw our attention to anything that’s odd – called attentional bias. The news certainly reports a lot of odd.

Our brains love noticing change rather than seeing the wood for the trees. It’s called anchoring. A small cut to a health system’s funding is likely to cause outrage despite the fact that it is otherwise generously funded. The news only reports changes.

Seeing the same thing over and over makes us like it. It’s called the mere-exposure effect. We like the news anchors and the tune of the news opening titles.

We love having opinions. The news is told in a way that it is easy to make judgements. It also makes us feel that our judgements are informed. This leads to naive realism and naive cynicism: assuming that our worldview is informed and everyone who disagrees with us in uninformed and biased.

It makes us feel like we’re right. Our brains love confirming that what we already know is true – it’s called confirmation bias. Because the news repeats itself a lot, it constantly feeds us the same type of information. A nice resonant echo chamber. To make things worse, we believe things more when they are repeated. It’s called the illusory truth effect. A vicious circle of biases.

It gives you something to talk about with your friends. Empty chatter is better than none to most people.

For most people, the news is a distraction that brings all of the above pleasures. It’s neither meaningfully informative, nor does it make our lives better.

why am i addicted to the news

Beginner mistakes in mindfulness practice

Beginning to practice mindfulness is a big step. In and of itself, the action means you are trying something new and being open to it, so kudos. Here are some major things to avoid.

  • Having expectations of immediate quietness and serenity. Mindfulness often feels like a game of whack-a-mole and a conscious effort. It’s hard not to feel like you have failed when you mind wanders if you assume that it won’t. It most certainly will. Some days are better than others, but the mind does its thing – we have to respect that. Judging your thoughts is just another thought. Similarly, rejoicing at how your mind is completely serene is also a thought. It should be treated the same way as every other thought: acknowledged. Rather than trying to purge it, it is best to simply shift the focus back to the present, e.g. to the breath.

beginner mistakes mindfulness meditation

  • Assuming mindfulness will always make you feel better. Most of the time is does. However, practicing mindfulness will bring things to the surface that weren’t previously acknowledged: feelings, thoughts, facts. They’re not always good, hence, it could cause upset. The thing to remember is that you are always better off knowing now – rather than finding out in six months’ time when it has grown into a monster and manifested itself through a crisis.

 

  • Struggling to get the perfect form. There’s no need to sit up straight if it makes your back hurt. If your quads are too tight, there’s no need to cross your legs. You can assume any position that is comfortable – but promotes wakefulness. The cushion doesn’t have to be a certain perfect size. You don’t have to log it on your phone. You’re only doing this for you, not for the sake of perfection.

 

  • Only meditating when the you are really stressed. While most people pick up the practice in order to deal with stress, it makes sense to practice consistently. It’s ok to skip a day here and there. However, it is important to not rely on meditation as a remedy for the bad days. Otherwise, it is the equivalent of only going to the gym after you’ve put on weight.

 

  • Feeling you have to do it for x length of time or it won’t work. It’s hard to know what the dose-response curve is like with mindfulness. It is best to meditate for as long as you can, that’s all.

mindfulness meditation beginner mistakes

 

Mindfulness and nihilism

I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism

– 1901. Friedrich Nietzsche

“Whether you worry or not, you’re still going to die. Live in the moment and don’t overthink it. Reject your nation, your religion and your family – in fact all traditional values are there to choke you.”

As a millenial, I feel that there is a lot of this kind of thinking, termed existential nihilism by some, inherent in my generation’s minds. It’s not that I feel compelled to defend or reject traditional values. It’s that many in my generation seem to reject them for the sake of rejecting them. Sometimes I feel like the world we live in remind me of the Brave New World.

On my first encounter with mindfulness and Eastern philosophy, it seemed nihilistic. In fact, many of my peers practice yoga and seem to reject the religions that are common in their societies, usually Christianity of some description. What many fail to realise, of course, that yoga and its associated spirituality is a filling the same need a religion filled in the past. For others, it is politics. The fervour with which people hold on to political beliefs is fascinating. They may not have a deity in the heavens, but they almost certainly identify with a historical figure or a modern day pharaoh.

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Eastern philosophy seems to abhor any kind of resistance and perpetually focus on the present. You know who only focuses on the present? The kids who had the marshmallow straight away. People on drugs. Criminals. People who don’t worry about the past and the future. What makes them different? I guess they have different values and no discipline. The East in all about discipline. Mindfulness is a perfect example of that – but it’s not really a form of resistance. It is a way of embracing the present moment rather than diving into whatever form of escapism is distracting us at that time. They seem to believe in acceptance, no matter what. For example, Pema Chödrön talks about two ways to go into a gas chamber: free or not free. For someone who detests nihilism, the only correct way is to die fighting long before he is faced with a gas chamber. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that anyone can become a Buddha – and powerfully affect other people’s lives. This doesn’t seem nihilistic at all, though getting there does. In fact, it’s really empowering. You can, kind of, be a sort of God. Buddhists also believe that understand reality is key. This means they accept that there is a true world – a belief inconsistent with nihilism. It’s not that the world is meaningless, it is that the meaning is ambiguous. This concept is too abstract for the kinds of circumstances that we humans usually use religion to deal with. That’s one explanation as to why while the religion may not be nihilistic – its followers tend to be. At the same time, I find it hard to see a Buddhist who is ambitiously crossing off items off his to-do list. Thinking of the future doesn’t seem to gel with Buddhism as it inevitably takes you away from the present moment.

On the other hand, in Western religions, we are told to forget about the present. It’s all about making it into heaven. There is a purpose. We’re all about resisting temptation in the West. Pure resistance. However, this is precisely the sort of thing Nietzsche called nihilistic. He claimed that Western religions get us to forsake our current life for a promise of a better life in heaven.

It turns out that it doesn’t matter: you can focus on the present or on the future. You can be all about resistance or not at all… And still end up a nihilist. A religious one, too.

Could it be that religion, and its substitutes, tends to attract people who are inherently prone to nihilism? Religion gives us the illusion that there is always someone to fall back on; that if we’re good, it will all work out. It’s a way of letting go of responsibility and finding explanations for everything. It is a way of finding someone who will lead us. Perhaps, looking for a leader is in and of itself a nihilistic thing. People who cannot find the inherent meaning and value of life look for ways to explain what it’s really about – looking for ready-made answers, where, perhaps, the only way to find them is by on your own.

Where does it leave us then with mindfulness? Mindfulness comes from a non-nihilist tradition. It’s about understanding the world. For most of us, the context is that we are either too concerned with the future or too preoccupied with escaping the present. Hence, it is a safe way to get a better grip on life.

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Our brains are story telling machines

Why do coincidences occur? Why is it that you randomly remembered the girl you used to play with in junior infants  and she suddenly added on Facebook the next day? Isn’t it fascinating? It is easily explained: you thought of hundreds of people that day and one of them just happened to come across you on Facebook. The feeling of a miracle with a deeper meaning remains though – because it makes a good story.

If there’s one thing that we have a lot of, it is information. I belong to the generation that was asked to learn facts in school as if it made a difference. Google was only starting up back then. Now, the landscape is somewhat different. There’s too much information available, so the skill is in making choices on how you use it.

Our brains don’t like working hard, understandably. They have evolved to conserve energy and focus on what’s important. For many of us, the important – safety, shelter and food – is easily accessible. An adaptive response would be to try and retrain our brains to see past this.

The obvious way of dealing with information is by making stories. The media don’t say: “We will run this fact”. They say “We will run this story”. We consume information based on stories. However, this approach is ridden with problems.

It seems that picking out the information to retain – and use in making decisions – is the point at which biases occur. The first step to retraining how we think is to become aware of what’s already there on autopilot.

cognitive biases story telling

To deal with an avalanche of information, we have adapted in the following ways:

  • Availability heuristic. We overestimate the probability that an event will occur if a similar event occurred recently or impacted us emotionally. Anything unusual is worth remembering – and more likely to occur. Ignore the expected”. It’s like Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. A doctor who recently saw a case of TB meningitis will be thinking about this rare cause for every nervous system-related case for months.
  • Base rate neglect. We opt for contextual conclusions that make a better story than what it is actually more likely.“If it makes a good story, it is likely.” Imagine you see a 20 something year old with long hair, tattoos and an attitudinal look. You are then asked, what is the likelihood that he a Christian and what is the likelihood that he is a satan worshipper? People will rate satan worshipper much higher than it is ignoring the fact that there are billions of Christians and very few satan worshippers. This is closely related to the Illusion of validity. We have an unshakeable belief that we can make sense of information, even if there is no sense to be made of it, i.e. it is known to be random. “What story is this data telling me?” Furthermore, when we don’t know something, our brains will plug the difference from our history and our stereotypes. Expectations get confused with reality a lot. “I can’t be wrong” This forms the basis of the placebo effect. The placebo effect always scares me. It’s more than a cognitive error, it actually has a physiological basis. Our brains will literally dampen the pain of an electric shock if we’re expecting it to be a 1/10 when it is actually a 7/10. It also forms the basis of the halo effect: “A good doctor is also a responsible driver.”
  • Anchoring. “It’s only the change that matters, not the absolute value”. We are also emotional about it as is demonstrated by the framing effect: “Is the change good or bad?” Getting caught up in assessing these changes, we lose track of what the actual result is. For example, if we give people the option to sign up now with a discount for earlier registration, they are much less likely to sign up than if you tell them that there is a penalty for signing up later. The money values are all the same, the behaviours are different.
  • Attentional bias. It is the tendency of our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. We only pay more attention to things that interest us than we realise – and ignore things that don’t interest us too. “I am only interested in X and I can ignore Y.” This is how people become infatuated with other people and how the “Law of Attraction” works. If you only focus on the positive, you will only see the positive. It’s a close cousin of the Confirmation bias – which is we pay more attention to information that supports our views. “I prefer data points that agree with me.” The famed Ben Franklin psychological hack, “foot-in-the-door”, is using this. If Harry asks you for a small favour, you are likely to do it – because you are nice. If Harry then asks you to do a bigger favour, you are more likely to do it than if he never asked you for the small favour. What’s happening in your brain is as follows: I’ve already done this guy a favour, hence, I like him. If I like him, surely, I will do another favour. In other words, we are rationalising that we are consistent and looking for reasons to confirm our conclusion. It could be argued that this isn’t irrational though. If you feel like you are building a relationship with a person through these favours, you may be going ahead with them even though you are completely aware of the trick.
  • The illusory truth effect. The more something is repeated to us, the more it becomes true in our minds. “If it’s repeated, it’s true.” It is of course made worse by attentional and confirmation bias leading us into the downward spiral of a nice and resonant echo chamber. Were you, perhaps, surprised that Trump got elected?
  • Mere-exposure effect. We like people and things more when we see them often. “I like you cause you’re around.” Thank God, or there would have been a divorce rate of 100%.
  • Cue-dependent forgetting. We can’t recall information without memory cues. “Oh and remember it was raining outside?” When you are asked about turtles, your brain searches within its repository for “turtles”. A Google search would look through a gazillion files and look for the word “turtles”. This is not how our brains search. Memories are retrieved through association. You will think of the documentary that you saw about soft-shelled turtles in Ussuriland. So far, so good – just like Google. But, that will also pull up memories of who you watched it with and the comfy red jammies you had at the time. Neither of those facts related to turtles according to Google, but they do, according to our brains. If turtles were never brought up, you probably would never have remembered these particular pyjamas you once had.
  • Frequency illusion. We begin to notice something a lot more when we learn about it. “I am shopping for a black BMW, but I just noticed that everyone seems to have one!”
  • Hot-cold empathy gap. It is difficult to relate to an experience when you are in a certain state. “I am not a psychopath, but why are you sad if I am happy?” If you are hungry, it is difficult to focus on anything else. If you are calm, it is hard to imagine what it’s like to have a panic attack.
  • Omission bias. We judge harmful actions more harshly than harmful inactions. “You cannot do this!” Euthanasia gets people much more emotional than letting someone die by not actively treating them with every last option.
  • Picture superiority effect. “A picture says a 1000 words.” It is easier to take information from a picture. This is probably because it builds context – and so tells a story.
  • Naive realism/ naive cynicism. “I see the world like it is, and anyone who thinks I am wrong is biased.” We ignore the fact that we are only looking at the world through a set of filters and lenses.

our brains are story telling machines