May 09, 2006

Just as they are . . .

I was walking the path around our yard the other morning when the first oriole of the season flew in front of me, his bright orange feathers catching the morning sun as he landed in a tree 50 feet away.

I shouted a happy greeting like a kid who has just seen a friend enter the playground, Then I paused as deep joy swept through me. I turned to the oriole, I folded my hands and bowed a silent greeting, Hindu fashion, relishing the moment.

This event was neither anticipated, manufactured, nor staged in any way, It simply happened – and I have similar experiences quite frequently, triggered by things as diverse as a daffodil stem poking through the ground, or Orion throwing his leg up over my trees and climbing into the late fall sky.

They raise deep questions for me.

  • What is this joy?
  • What are its biological underpinnings?
  • Why should I experience it?


Each of these objects – some neuroscientists might call them “images” - give me pleasure – the oriole, the daffodil, and Orion – but how and why? They don’t offer me clothing, shelter, food or sex. They don’t stroke my ego or caress my body, or convey to me in any rational manner the answers to the mysteries of life. So why should I care about them? Why should they strike such a deep and joyful chord for me? Why do I impulsively – without any conscious thought – respond positively to them?

Associations you might say. They are familiar and I like my life and they are reminders of how rich and good and full life is? Yes – I agree. So what? I’m not sure what any of these words – “rich” and “good” and “full” mean. Again, the events don’t seem to satisfy any basic needs that I can identify, or that are usually codified.

The only answers I have are spiritual. Deep within me I want to be connected with the universe. These objects – these actions – these fleeting moments – provide that connection. For a moment I feel immensely well – immensely at peace – united with the essence of being. I can accept such descriptions – but they leap ahead of what we know in a rational way and I want to close the gap.

Why should I want to be connected? Why should it give me pleasure – whatever that is – to feel I am connected? Is that an answer? I’m not sure it’s even an explanation. I know enough – very little, I grant you, but enough – about how the brain appears to function to know myself as a wonderful, biological machine that has all these neat parts that work together in somewhat predictable fashion. Fascinating. But I don’t know enough – and I’m not sure anyone does – to tell me what neurons were stimulated when that oriole flew in front of me, what area of my brain was activated, what chemicals were released, or electrical activities initiated, or why any of this is useful to me in terms of survival as an individual or a species – in short, it doesn’t tell me why or how this happens.

I grant you, someone might have the answers, especially to how. I at least feel that question is answerable. Someone may be able to tell me what is happening inside my brain to create this experience. They even may be able to tell me why this evolved because it somehow fits into the scheme of evolution. That would be helpful and I would love to know it. But I suspect that even if this can be done, the great mystery remains. For even if we can know what chemicals are manufactured and released at the time we experience the sensation we call “joy,” and even if we know exactly which sparks jumped which gaps to result in various muscles moving to utter a sound of greeting to an oriole, can we ever say what “joy” is? If we understand the mechanism that produces it, does that means we understand what has been produced? Or is that to remain a mystery?

I suspect the Buddha might smile gently at my question, knowing that he already described my experience with the oriole when he said: "How wonderful! How wonderful! All things are perfect Exactly as they are!."

Part of me can accept that answer. The other part of me says, no - press on. This question is at the nexus of science and spirituality. For me both worlds are equally valid - the one revealed by science and the one revealed to us through mechanisms we don't begin to understand. But the question has to be asked. We need to at least try to build a bridge connecting these two worlds - or if nothing else, be able to identify the gap - the point where one ends and the other begins

As always, your answers or comments are welcome. Please email me at gstone@umassd.edu

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:22 AM

September 15, 2003

Is Buddhism Good for Your Health?

That's the headline The New York Times put on this fascinating article - about meditation, eally, not Buddhism per se - that was forwarded by Pina with the comment: "AH, now for somethng postive ;-) Ommm!"

And speaking of "Ommmmm" I am - on the advice of Mike and others - finding my meditative voice and am fascinated by how good it makes me feel and how much it helps in so many different ways. But that's another story.

September 14, 2003
By STEPHEN S. HALL

In the spring of 1992, out of the blue, the fax machine in Richard Davidson's office at the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison spit out a letter from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Davidson, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, was making a name for himself studying the nature of positive emotion, and word of his accomplishments had made it to northern India. The exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists was writing to offer the minds of his monks -- in particular, their meditative prowess -- for scientific research.

Most self-respecting American neuroscientists would shrink from, if not flee, an invitation to study Buddhist meditation, viewing the topic as impossibly fuzzy and, as Davidson recently conceded, ''very flaky.'' But the Wisconsin professor, a longtime meditator himself -- he took leave from graduate school to travel through India and Sri Lanka to learn Eastern meditation practices -- leapt at the opportunity. In September 1992, he organized and embarked on an ambitious data-gathering expedition to northern India, lugging portable electrical generators, laptop computers and electroencephalographic (EEG) recording equipment into the foothills of the Himalayas. His goal was to measure a remarkable, if seemingly evanescent, entity: the neural characteristics of the Buddhist mind at work. ''These are the Olympic athletes, the gold medalists, of meditation,'' Davidson says.

The work began fitfully -- the monks initially balked at being wired -- but research into meditation has now attained a credibility unimaginable a decade ago. Over the past 10 years, a number of Buddhist monks, led by Matthieu Ricard, a French-born monk with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, have made a series of visits from northern India and other South Asian countries to Davidson's lab in Madison. Ricard and his peers have worn a Medusa-like tangle of 256-electrode EEG nets while sitting on the floor of a little booth and responding to visual stimuli. They have spent two to three hours at a time in a magnetic resonance imaging machine, trying to meditate amid the clatter and thrum of the brain-imaging machinery.

No data from these experiments have been published formally yet, but in ''Visions of Compassion,'' a compilation of papers that came out last year, Davidson noted in passing that in one visiting monk, activation in several regions of his left prefrontal cortex -- an area of the brain just behind the forehead that recent research has associated with positive emotion -- was the most intense seen in about 175 experimental subjects.

In the years since Davidson's fax from the Dalai Lama, the neuroscientific study of Buddhist practices has crossed a threshold of acceptability as a topic worthy of scientific attention. Part of the reason for this lies in new, more powerful brain-scanning technologies that not only can reveal a mind in the midst of meditation but also can detect enduring changes in brain activity months after a prolonged course of meditation. And it hasn't hurt that some well-known mainstream neuroscientists are now intrigued by preliminary reports of exceptional Buddhist mental skills. Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco and Stephen Kosslyn of Harvard have begun their own studies of the mental capabilities of monks. In addition, a few rigorous, controlled studies have suggested that Buddhist-style meditation in Western patients may cause physiological changes in the brain and the immune system.

This growing, if sometimes grudging, respect for the biology of meditation is achieving a milestone of sorts this weekend, when some of the country's leading neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are meeting with Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama himself, at a symposium held at M.I.T. ''You can think of the monks as cases that show what the potential is here,'' Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has pioneered work in the health benefits of meditation, says. ''But you don't have to be weird or a Buddhist or sitting on top of a mountain in India to derive benefits from this. This kind of study is in its infancy, but we're on the verge of discovering hugely fascinating things.''


In the 2,500-year history of Buddhism, the religion has directed its energy inward in an attempt to train the mind to understand the mental state of happiness, to identify and defuse sources of negative emotion and to cultivate emotional states like compassion to improve personal and societal well-being. For decades, scientific research in this country has focused on the short-term effects of meditation on the nervous system, finding that meditation reduces markers of stress like heart rate and perspiration. This research became the basis for the ''relaxation response'' popularized by Prof. Herbert Benson of Harvard in the 1970's. Buddhist practice, however, emphasizes enduring changes in mental activity, not just short-term results. And it is the neural and physical impact of the long-term changes, achieved after years of intense practice, that is increasingly intriguing to scientists.

''In Buddhist tradition,'' Davidson explains, '''meditation' is a word that is equivalent to a word like 'sports' in the U.S. It's a family of activity, not a single thing.'' Each of these meditative practices calls on different mental skills, according to Buddhist practitioners. The Wisconsin researchers, for example, are focusing on three common forms of Buddhist meditation. ''One is focused attention, where they specifically train themselves to focus on a single object for long periods of time,'' Davidson says. ''The second area is where they voluntarily cultivate compassion. It's something they do every day, and they have special exercises where they envision negative events, something that causes anger or irritability, and then transform it and infuse it with an antidote, which is compassion. They say they are able to do it just like that,'' he says, snapping his fingers. ''The third is called 'open presence.' It is a state of being acutely aware of whatever thought, emotion or sensation is present, without reacting to it. They describe it as pure awareness.''

The fact that the brain can learn, adapt and molecularly resculpture itself on the basis of experience and training suggests that meditation may leave a biological residue in the brain -- a residue that, with the increasing sophistication of new technology, might be captured and measured. ''This fits into the whole neuroscience literature of expertise,'' says Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist, ''where taxi drivers are studied for their spatial memory and concert musicians are studied for their sense of pitch. If you do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight hours a day, there's going to be something in your brain that's different from someone who didn't do that. It's just got to be.''

Jonathan D. Cohen, an expert on attention and cognitive control at Princeton, has been intrigued by reports that certain Buddhist adepts can maintain focus for extended periods. ''Our experience -- and the laboratory evidence is abundant -- is that humans have a limited capacity for attention,'' he says. ''When we try to sustain attention for longer periods of time, like air-traffic controllers have to do, we consider it incredibly effortful and stressful. Buddhism is all about the ability to direct attention flexibly, and they talk about this state of sustained and focused attention that is pleasant, no longer stressful.''

If nothing else, the meeting at M.I.T. this weekend shows that Davidson, one of its principal organizers, has managed to persuade a lot of marquee names to join him in making the case that it has become scientifically respectable to investigate these practices. Participants include mainstream scientists like Eric Lander, a leader of the human genome project; Cohen, a prominent researcher into the neural mechanisms of moral and economic decision-making; and Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-Prize-winning Princeton economist who has pioneered research into the psychology of financial decision-making.

''Neuroscientists want to preserve both the substance and the image of rigor in their approach, so one doesn't want to be seen as whisking out into the la-la land of studying consciousness,'' concedes Cohen, who is chairman of a session at the M.I.T. meeting. ''On the other hand, my personal belief is that the history of science has humbled us about the hubris of thinking we know everything.''


The ''Monk experiments'' at Madison are beginning to intersect with a handful of small but suggestive studies showing that Buddhist-style meditation may have not only emotional effects but also distinct physiological effects. That is, the power of meditation might be harnessed by non-Buddhists in a way that along with reducing stress and defusing negative emotion, improves things like immune function as well.

The power of the mind to influence bodily function has long been of interest to scientists, especially connections between the nervous, immune and endocrine systems. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, researchers at Ohio State University, for example, have done a series of studies showing that stress typically impairs immune function, though the exact woof and weave of these connections remains unclear.

Interestingly enough, the Buddhist subjects themselves are largely open to scientific explanation of their practices. ''Buddhism is, like science, based on experience and investigation, not on dogma,'' Matthieu Ricard explained in an e-mail message to me last month. The religion can be thought of as ''a contemplative science,'' he wrote, adding, ''the Buddha always said that one should not accept his teachings simply out of respect for him, but rediscover their truth through our own experience, as when checking the quality of a piece of gold by rubbing it on a piece on stone, melting it and so on.''

In July, I joined Davidson and several colleagues as they stood in a control room and watched an experiment in progress. On a television monitor in the control room, a young woman sat in a chair in a nearby room, alone with her thoughts. Those thoughts -- and, more specifically, the way she tried to control them when provoked -- were the point of the experiment.

Davidson hypothesizes that a component of a person's emotional makeup reflects the relative strength, or asymmetry, of activity between two sides of the prefrontal cortex -- the left side, which Davidson's work argues is associated with positive emotion, and the right side, where heightened activity has been associated with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.

His research group has conducted experiments on infants and the elderly, amateur meditators and Eastern adepts, in an attempt to define a complex neural circuit that connects the prefrontal cortex to other brain structures like the amygdala, which is the seat of fear, and the anterior cingulate, which is associated with ''conflict-monitoring.'' Some experiments have also shown that greater left-sided prefrontal activation is associated with enhanced immunological activity by natural killer cells and other immune markers.

When one scientist in the control room said, ''All right, here comes the first picture,'' the young woman visibly tensed, gripping her elbows. Electrodes snaked out of her scalp and from two spots just below her right eye. And then, staring into a monitor, the young woman watched as a succession of mostly disturbing images flashed on a screen in front of her -- a horribly mutilated body, a severed hand, a venomous snake poised to strike. Through earphones, the woman was prompted to modulate her emotional response as each image appeared, either to enhance it or suppress it, while the electrodes below her eye surreptitiously tapped into a neural circuit that would indicate if she had successfully modified either a positive or negative emotional response to the images.

''What's being measured,'' Davidson explained, ''is a person's capacity to voluntarily regulate their emotional reactions.''

Daren Jackson, the lead researcher on the study, added, ''Meditation may facilitate more rapid, spontaneous recovery from negative reactions.''

The visiting monks, as well as a group of meditating office workers at a nearby biotech company, have viewed these same gruesome images for the same purpose: to determine what Davidson calls each individual's ''affective style'' (if they are prone, for example, to hang onto negative emotional reactions) and if that style can be modulated by mental effort, of the sort that meditation seeks to cultivate. It is the hope of Davidson and his sometime collaborator Jon Kabat-Zinn that the power of meditation can be harnessed to promote not only emotional well-being but also physical health.

Since founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, Kabat-Zinn and colleagues have treated 16,000 patients and taught more than 2,000 health professionals the techniques of ''mindfulness meditation,'' which instructs a Buddhist-inspired ''nonjudgmental,'' total awareness of the present moment as a way of reducing stress. Along the way, Kabat-Zinn has published small but intriguing studies showing that people undergoing treatment for psoriasis heal four times as fast if they meditate; that cancer patients practicing meditation had significantly better emotional outlooks than a control group; and not only that meditation relieved symptoms in patients with anxiety and chronic pain but also that the benefits persisted up to four years after training. Kabat-Zinn is conducting a study for Cigna HealthCare to see if meditation reduces the costs of treating patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome.


For the time being, meditation science is still stuck in a cultural no-man's land between being an oxymoron and something more substantive. ''We're very early in the research,'' said Davidson, who admitted that ''the vast majority of meditation research is schlock.'' But a well-designed study published in July by Davidson, Kabat-Zinn and their colleagues provides further evidence that the topic is legitimate.

In July 1997, Davidson recruited human subjects at a small biotech company outside Madison called Promega to study the effects of Buddhist-style meditation on the neural and immunological activity of ordinary American office workers. The employees' brains were wired and measured before they began a course in meditation training taught by Kabat-Zinn. It was a controlled, randomized study, and after eight weeks, the researchers would test brain and immune markers to assess the effects of meditation.

There was reluctance among some employees to volunteer, but eventually, about four dozen employees participated in the study. Once a week for eight weeks, Kabat-Zinn would show up at Promega with his boom box, his red and purple meditation tape cassettes and his Tibetan chimes, and the assembled Promega employees -- scientists, marketing people, lab techs and even some managers -- would sit on the floor of a conference room and practice mindfulness for three hours.

In July, the results of the experiment at Promega were published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, and they suggest that meditation may indeed leave a discernible and lasting imprint on the minds and bodies of its practitioners. Among the Promega employees who practiced meditation for two months, the Wisconsin researchers detected significant increases in activity in several areas of the left prefrontal cortex -- heightened activity that persisted for at least four months after the experiment, when the subjects were tested again. Moreover, the meditators who showed the greatest increase in prefrontal activity after training showed a correspondingly more robust ability to churn out antibodies in response to receiving a flu vaccine. The findings, Kabat-Zinn suggested, demonstrated qualitative shifts in brain activity after only two months of meditation that mirror preliminary results seen in expert meditators like monks.

These results are still embraced cautiously, at best. Indeed, the Wisconsin study took five years to publish in part because several higher-profile journals to which it was submitted refused even to send it out for peer review, according to Davidson. And yet, by the time the study was over, the subjective experience of participants complemented the objective data: meditation ultimately left people feeling healthier, more positive and less stressed. ''I really am an empiricist in every aspect of my life,'' said Michael Slater, a molecular biologist at Promega. ''I doubt dogma, and I test it. I do it at the laboratory bench, but also in my personal life. So this appealed to me, because I could feel the reduction in stress. I could tell I was less irritable. I had more capacity to take on more stressors. My wife felt I was easier to be around. So there were tangible impacts. For an empiricist, that was enough.''

Granted, that's not enough for many other people, especially the scientific skeptics. But Slater made an offhand comment that struck me as a highly convincing, though thoroughly unofficial, form of peer review. ''My wife,'' Slater said quietly, ''is dying for me to start meditating again.''

Posted by Greg Stone at 01:04 PM | TrackBack

May 09, 2003

Of diet, interbeing, and too much of a good thing

On 5/9/03 "Dominic Gonzalvez" wrote:

It didn't "make my day" -- it fried my day. I was browsing your peace_passion of Wed 7 May, and hit the warisstupid site. The truths in many of the quotations were a blowtorch on my mind.

(and near the end of the same message)

Ooops ... Daphne has just yelled that dinner is ready. At least I personally didn't kill the fish I am about to eat!

That got me thinking about this whole business of vegetarianism, so I responded:

First, I think I know what you mean when you say the quotation site "fried your day." That is, if that's the same as what it did for me, which was boil my blood - the case is so clear and so forcefully and eloquently made again and again that you just want to grab people, one at a time, and shove their faces in it.

That said, I'd like to discuss the Buddhist vegetarian approach with you. I have tried being a vegetarian, but with very little success. Right now I'm focusing on a low carb diet (I'm a Type 2 diabetic) and I find it extremely difficult to focus on low carbs without relying on meat, eggs, cheese, etc. (Peanuts can only carry you so far ;-)

But I have read at least one Buddhist author. (Bhante G) who seems to argue that vegetarianism is philosophically futile in the sense that you have to draw a line somewhere and as soon as you draw the line there are creatures on the other side of it we continue to kill. To carry this concept to the extreme, should I avoid anti-bacterial soap? Bacteria are life forms. And why is the life of a plant (a carrot, a bean) less valuable than the life of an animal? (Or the life of a man more valuable than an animal - I think this is a core issue. In the Christian/Judaic ethic man is given dominion over the world. In my ethic - and I think the Buddhist one - man is just another creature in the world - currently dominant in a way on this small planet, but that dominance may be a delusion.)

I wrestle with this often. For me it vaguely comes together under the concept of interbeing. Nothing is born, nothing dies, it merely is changed - what is the word they use? Manifested? - and we all remain a part of the greater life of the universe.

In this approach there is a vast difference between killing for eating and killing for any other purpose.

No, you didn't kill the fish you just ate - nor did I kill the steer that appeared on my plate last night as hamburger - and that may be the problem. In our modern society we are several steps removed from the act of killing and so we may not treat our food with the proper respect it deserves. If we go back to a hunter-gatherer culture, such as the American Indian, then we find they respected the animals they killed. They didn't kill wantonly - well, at least that was their ideal. I think people in such a society can merely harden themselves to their acts and thus be as disrespectful as we are when we buy a packaged piece of meat.

But I wander. What I have been trying to do in my own mind is bring together what we know from science, the Buddhist concept of interbeing, the whole issue of life/death/manifestation - and make sure that all fits with my eating habits. I'm not entirely comfortable with my approach - and it may just be a rationalization- but again, killing to eat seems to me a natural part of what we do - killing for sport, for religion, for material gain, etc. is wrong because it is out of sync with interbeing and/or the golden rule.

And Dom replied:


Diet. My personal discovery is that ancestral food patterns are almost impossibly hard to kick. Let me give you an actual example. Years ago when we were living in Calcutta, food rationing was in force. On our ration card we got so many kilos of rice, wheat, sugar etc at a controlled price. We often used rickshaws for transport, and outside our block of apartments, five or six regular rickshaw pullers had their base. They gladly gave us their sugar in exchange for our rice. They explained that they were rice eaters for generations, and could stomach very little wheat. The ratio of rice to wheat in their rations was incorrect for them... they needed (I quote from faint memory) 6 rice to 1 wheat.

I am sure nutritionists and others will argue from very strong scientific logic that wheat is as good as rice. Scientifically perhaps "yes", but genetically/culturally/realistically "no".

Our bodies have an inbuilt logic of their own, and my experience with "scientific" diets is that if I have a silent, stubborn rebellion going on within, the diet crashes in days. The secret of success seems to lie in working around the ancestral diet... modify, innovate, reduce.

I'll have a word with Daphne on your diet problem in our morning walk in the next few days. She may have some ideas of value.

I have given up eating beef. Not because I don't like a steak and 'taters... no, because it doesn't like me. If I eat a good meal of beef, my gums bleed when I brush my teeth the next morning. No one has been able to explain why. It just happens. My theory is that the additives in the cattle feed get into the meat.

I agree with Bhante. Where do we draw the line on what is "alive"? The lettuce that I eat had life a few hours ago. And there are probably microorganisms on it that I eat alive. I think one has to draw a line of personal logic+comfort, and leave it at that. More of my thoughts on this within the next week.

My dad liked brain cutlets. (That's what we called them... to you it would be a hamburger). I can't remember whether he used beef brains or lamb brains, but I remember watching him shape the brains in a hamburger sort of shape, add his secret herbs and spices, roll the thing in crumbs, and then fry them over a slow fire till golden brown.

After reading warisstupid, my head felt fried like my dad's brains cutlets. The live coals of truth after truth sizzled me. I was too cooked to go to page 2.

Posted by Greg Stone at 07:43 AM | Comments (1)

May 06, 2003

Returning . . .

It is a long-time returning from this war distraction. My mindfulness helped me during it, but I can also see that in many ways it over-powered the mindfulness.

Right now I'm back to reading in very small doses "The Power of Now." In a strange way the material feels fresh to me. I feel like I'm renewing acquaintances from the fall, but also getting a new and deeper perspective.

Tolle tends to degenerate into what I consider gibberish about inner energy fields. But reading this now I feel more generous - or maybe more relaxed. I see his talk about this inner energy fields as his way of explaining the unexplainable. Very much like ancient religions that describe incredibly silly - on their surface - creation stories. What we are really dealing with in these is myth and metaphor. To the extent we can see that - see what lies beneath the surface of the communications - we will be able to understand the author.


As in religion, the problem lies in taking all of this too literally. I need to be as forgiving of Tolle as I am of the Gospel writers.

Hmmmmmm. . . as I write this I am consciously touch typing. I have used a keyboard all of my adult life and while I know how to touch type, I came to that skill late in life and incompletely. So my usual approach is to hunt and peck - which is some mixture of touch typing and hunt and peck. The difference is, when I consciously touch type I watch the screen - the results - rather than the keyboard - the input. Anyway . . . as I do this I am struck by what Bren said the other day - as an accomplished touch typist she couldn't tell you where any letter is on the keyboard. And as I am touch tying now I am totally unconscious of where the letters are. It's a skill - a knowledge - that resides in my fingers, not my conscious mind. This is nagging at me now. . . I'm not sure, but it seems like there is an important message buried there somewhere. In any event, forcing myself to touch type I think makes me more mindful of the entire writing process - although my other self would argue that I'm getting caught up in the details of correcting typos as they happen rather than giving the input process the attention it deserves. We'll see - stay tuned. If I ever figure this out I'll come back to it.

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:58 AM

April 23, 2003

Reacting mindfully to minor irritants

Crash!

These things happen when you're not looking, of course, and so they make an interesting test of mindfulness.

In this case the "crash" was the easiest of all to deal with - my computer's hard drive was wiped out. (If I could hear I would have heard this coming, but I don't wear hearing aids while sitting at the computer so I had not noticed that - as the repairman said - it was sounding like a cement mixer. )

All that was lost was my email of the past seven months and anything that I had written during that time, but not published any where. (Yes, I had a back-up hard drive, but the system had a problem, I had disconnected it last September and had not gotten around to fixing it, so I was in violation of my own basic rules of backing up things.)

So what's this have to do with mindfulness? Well, I didn't feel agitated. The loss of information was about yesterday,not today or tomorrow. Yes, that would change today - I would have to work at Bren's machine for a few days. And it would change tomorrow - I will be weeks building new bookmarks, email addresses, filing system, and downloading stuff from web sites I manage. So I immediately saw that as an opportunity for spring cleaning and reoanization.

The good thing is, these weren't conscious decisions. In retrospect I can say that it is entirely irrational to get upset at such events. Being upset serves absolutely no purpose. Just makes me disagreeable to be with - disagreeable to others and to myself. But I never gave it a thought until well after the fact. So while I feel the Iraq war stole some of my mindfulness edge and certainly slowed my progress, this event reassures me that I have learned something this year and I have managed to change my behavior in small, but useful ways through mindfulness.

This also fits in nicely with what I am reading now about non-violent communications where part of the emphasis is on understanding that you control your emotions, not outside events. It's all in how you choose to react.

OK, so it's small stuff. But it's good training ;-)

Posted by Greg Stone at 04:31 PM

April 05, 2003

Beyond the Buddha's smile

Beyond the Buddha's smile . . .

.. to forced laughter. Fascinating idea. Fascinating story. Simple, appealing logic.

Here's the key paragraph:

Why would phony laughter work? Because your body doesn't know it's fake, even though your brain might, Professor Schaefer said. "Once the brain signals the body to laugh, the body doesn't care why. It's going to release endorphins, it's going to relieve stress as a natural physiological response to the physical act of laughing."

Thanks Dom. Please note: this story is about an experiment in the United States. It was published in the Washington Post, repeated in an Australian paper, then reached me, by way of an email from my friend Dom who lives in Sydney. There's another message in that sequence some where ;-)

Wow! It works!

I felt like an idiot doing it. It's 6 am and I didn't want to disturb Bren who's still sleeping. So I went outside to the gazebo where I hoped the surrounding bushes would absorb the noises before I woke up my neighbors.

And I laughed. I laughed out loud. I had a funny image in my head. It helped. But I really didn't think I could force a laugh and sustain it for a full minute. I did. In the end I laughed at myself laughing. I imagined neighbors hearing me and wondering what it was. Wondering if I had finally flipped.

And it felt good. I feel good. This line of research has to be pursued. How do we influence our moods with physical actions? Hey, on one level this is all just common sense, but then, why isn't everyone doing it if it's so common? Hmmm... and does it apply to the item that follows this one? To love we should love. Begin by greeting someone warmly - handshaking, hugging, looking them in the eye and laughing. Even when forced - when artificial, will this release certain chemicals in our bodies that will enhance our moods and make the relationship work better? I'll put it to the test later today when I meet with some people who I don't agree with, nor feel warmly towards.

And I wonder how you make people feel better in a listening project? Is there something in this that can help?

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:55 AM

April 03, 2003

Turning point? I have been

Turning point?

I have been obsessing over the war and doing a poor job of meditating. Over the past several weeks -actually a couple of months - I have felt myself slip slowly back into old habits - non-mindful habits - such as eating in front of the television or while reading. I have meditated, but instead of 35 minutes and sometimes longer, it's been 25 minutes and sometimes shorter. What's more, I've felt little advantage from my meditation because it seems to work less and less. It is not relaxing me the way it did, or giving me those deep insights into reality and now.

I've told myself I have to get back to basics, but the war keeps grabbing my attention. Finally, last night, I worked on a project I had been putting off for some time. It is a volunteer Web job and the person who asked me to do it had irritated me by nagging me about it last week. But last night I sat down and in the course of three or four hours finished a significant portion of the job.

Then I read the email that had irritated me in the first place and it irritated me again. I went off to do something else and I found myself carrying this irritation into the next project. So I picked up "The Power of Now" and read a few sentences. Which ones, I'm not sure. But it all came back to me in a rush.

I wasn't living "now." I was living back in the past. I was reliving the irritation of that email over and over again. And more importantly, I realized that this was what I was doing with the war. I would read something - or write something - that bothered me deeply. Then I would carry it with me in whatever I did. So every once in a while I would try to swear off war news. I would say I am not going to watch any news on TV for 24 hours. Nor would I read the news on the Web. It's silly, after all. I don't need hourly updates. That's obsession. But I couldn't do it. Which is final proof that of an addiction. I want to stop and I can't.

Why?

Because the war is important? Yes? But the real problem was simple. I was carrying it with me in my head and reliving it no matter what else i was doing. I had lost my ability to live in the now.

What's more, I was fighting this obsession and devising schemes to fight it and in so doing, I was giving it strength. Instead of simply recognizing my thoughts and letting them slip away as i return to the present.

I realized all this because I saw it happening with a much smaller, far less important thing - this other Web project and email that had irritated me. I immediately put that project aside. That is, I told myself it was done and dropped it from my thinking. And important part of the project was done. I'll work on the other part some other time. I wasn't going to act on the email, so it too was done. There was no reason to think of either and there was every reason to live in the now. To understand at that moment that I was tired and should go to bed and enjoy the experience of doing so without any other thoughts.

So now I hope I can do this with the war. I hope I can read the war news, write about the war news and while I do so, give it my full attention. But then I simply have to get up and walk away from it. No more replays in my head. Stop letting my chattering mind interfere with my living in the now. It's not a matter of meditation. It's a matter of doing everything with a concentration = both mental and physical - on what I am doing at the moment.

I have to remember that meditation is only practice - that the goal in a sense is always to meditate. That is, you practice by sitting still for 30 minutes or so - but the objective is to bring that control into everything else you do all day.

Let's see if I can do it. Right now I am going to proof this and post it. Then I am going to exercise. At a later point this morning I will spend an hour or so with the war. I will give it my full attention. Then I will put it down and move on to something else.

I'll let you - and me - know if I am successful or not.

Posted by Greg Stone at 05:13 AM