The Mighty Strings of Pleasure and Pain

The Mighty Strings of Pleasure and Pain

"The universal war is not limited to the relation between different states, but takes place between villages, between households, and between individuals, and that it takes place even between the different parts of each individual soul."

~ T. K. Seung

The Only Calibration that Counts

The Only Calibration that Counts

"That's the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they're suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That's why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember."

~ Ted Hughes

Reservoir of Beauty inside You

Reservoir of Beauty inside You

"What I find very strange is this. That I think what's magnificent about Bach is that when you listen to this music, and it moves you so much, I mean, it's just a bunch of sound waves crashing into your ear, and you have to contain — you see this emotion bubbling up, you start seeing, like, tearing up, and saying, well, what's going on? These are just sounds crashing into my — what's going on in here?"

~ Bernard Chazelle 

A Different Relationship to Sadness

"We had some very important evidence here that suggested that the ability to work with sadness in people who had recover from depression may determine whether they're able to go on and sustain the benefits of treatment or whether they're going to relapse. But how do you work with a trigger of relapse like sadness when sadness is also a feature of our universal human experience? We weren't interested in trying to eliminate sadness. We weren't interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was help people develop a different relationship to their sadness. And what does that mean in terms of trying to teach people certain skills. This is really the point at which mindfulness comes into the picture."

~ Dr. Zindel V. Segal, from "The Mindful Way through Depression," TEDx Talks, April 2014

See also:

Williams, J. M. G., Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V., Kabat-Zinn, J., & Sounds True (Firm). (2007). The mindful way through depression: [freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness]. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. [Sounds True, library]

Mindfulness Research Guide

A Battle of Arguments


Excerpt from "What Can You Learn about Persuasion from Hostage Negotiation?" a Barking Up the Wrong Tree interview with Chris Voss:

What are the most common mistakes people make when negotiating?

They neglect to pay attention to emotional factors, and they really neglect to listen.

I compare a lot of negotiations to dealing with a schizophrenic, because a schizophrenic’s always got a voice in his head talking to him which makes it very hard for him to listen to you.

Now most people in business negotiations, they approach the negotiation, and they’ve got firmly in their mind all of the arguments that support their position. So when they’re not talking, they’re thinking about their arguments, and when they are talking, they’re making their arguments. They view negotiation as a battle of arguments.

If while you’re making your argument, the only time the other side is silent is because they’re thinking about their own argument, they’ve got a voice in their head that’s talking to them. They’re not listening to you. When they’re making their argument to you, you’re thinking about your argument, that’s the voice in your head that’s talking to you. So it’s very much like dealing with a schizophrenic.

If your first objective in the negotiation, instead of making your argument, is to hear the other side out, that’s the only way you can quiet the voice in the other guy’s mind. But most people don’t do that. They don’t walk into a negotiation wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They walk into a negotiation wanting to make an argument. They don’t pay attention to emotions and they don’t listen.

See also:

Deconstruct the Message Behind the Words

"A later response, and much more useful, would be to try and deconstruct the message behind the words, so when the voices warned me not to leave the house, then I would thank them for drawing my attention to how unsafe I felt -- because if I was aware of it, then I could do something positive about it -- but go on to reassure both them and myself that we were safe and didn't need to feel frightened anymore. I would set boundaries for the voices, and try to interact with them in a way that was assertive yet respectful, establishing a slow process of communication and collaboration in which we could learn to work together and support one another.

Throughout all of this, what I would ultimately realize was that each voice was closely related to aspects of myself, and that each of them carried overwhelming emotions that I'd never had an opportunity to process or resolve, memories of sexual trauma and abuse, of anger, shame, guilt, low self-worth. The voices took the place of this pain and gave words to it, and possibly one of the greatest revelations was when I realized that the most hostile and aggressive voices actually represented the parts of me that had been hurt most profoundly, and as such, it was these voices that needed to be shown the greatest compassion and care."

~ Eleanor Longden 

See also: 

They Feel Everything

Excerpt from "Learning to Live with My Son's Autism," by David Mitchell, The Guardian, June 28, 2013:

My wife and I translated The Reason I Jump clandestinely, just for our son's therapists, but when my publishers read the manuscript, they believed the book might find a much wider audience.

For me, Naoki Higashida dissolves the lazy stereotype that people with autism are androids who don't feel. On the contrary, they feel everything, intensely. What's missing is the ability to communicate what they feel.

Part of this is our fault – we're so busy being shocked, upset, irritated or looking the other way that we don't hear them. Shouldn't we learn how?

Read the entire essay...

[Thanks, Alex!]

An Internal World

Excerpt from "The Brain's Ability to Look Within: A Secret to Well-Being," by Emma M. Seppala, Feeling It: Psychology Today Blog, December 10, 2012:

Most of us prioritize externally oriented attention. When we think of attention, we often think of focusing on something outside of ourselves. We "pay attention" to work, the TV, our partner, traffic, or anything that engages our senses. However, a whole other world exists that most of us are far less aware of: an internal world, with its varied landscape of emotions, feelings, and sensations. Yet it is often the internal world that determines whether we are having a good day or not, whether we are happy or unhappy. That’s why we can feel angry despite beautiful surroundings or feel perfectly happy despite being stuck in traffics. For this reason perhaps, this newly discovered pathway of attention may hold the key to greater well-being.

Although this internal world of feelings and sensations dominates perception in babies, it becomes increasingly foreign and distant as we learn to prioritize the outside world.  Because we don’t pay as much attention to our internal world, it often takes us by surprise. We often only tune into our body when it rings an alarm bell –– that we’re extremely thirsty, hungry, exhausted or in pain. A flush of anger, a choked up feeling of sadness, or the warmth of love in our chest often appear to come out of the blue.


How Disgust Influences Our Moral Beliefs

"We have sort of a built-in poison detector. You can see this as early as even in newborn infants. If you are willing to do this, you can take a couple of drops of a bitter substance or a sour substance, and you'll see that face, the tongue stick out, the wrinkled nose, as if they're trying to get rid of what's in their mouth.This reaction expands into adulthood and becomes sort of a full-blown disgust response, no longer just about whether or not we're about to be poisoned, but whenever there's a threat of physical contamination from some source. But the face remains strikingly similar. It has expanded more, though, than just keeping us away from physical contaminants, and there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that, in fact, this emotion of disgust now influences our moral beliefs and even our deeply held political intuitions."

~David Pizarro, from "The Strange Politics of Disgust," TED Talks, May 2012

The Emotions Didn't Change

Brigham and Women’s Hospital Neurosciences Research Center, Boston, March 2012

Excerpt from "Looking Back: My First Year as a Meditation Practitioner," by Kenji, Unready and Willing, June 2012: 

Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”

For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.

The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.

Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.

Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.

In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.


Resist Getting Drawn into the Abyss

Excerpt from "Tired of Feeling Bad? The New Science of Feelings Can Help," by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, Newsweek, February 20, 2012:

Jill Greenberg for Newsweek; Photo illustration by NewsweekWhen it comes to your Emotional Style, we know that changes to the neural structure of the brain are possible. We don’t know exactly how much plasticity the brain has, but we do know that some neurally inspired interventions—forms of mental training that target patterns of brain activity—can work. Mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, can help you develop a broader awareness of social signals, a deeper sensitivity to your own feelings and bodily sensations, a more consistently positive outlook, and a greater capacity for Resilience. Do you feel yourself to be too negative in outlook? Pay heightened attention to the ways in which you can be more generous and upbeat, through processes therapists call “well-being therapy.” Are you very Self-Aware, so much so that your internal chatter threatens to take over your day-to-day life? Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations nonjudgmentally moment by moment.

This practice, known as “mindfulness meditation,” is one of the most effective tools for changing our Emotional Style. In patients with depression—whom we call “Slow to Recover” on the Resilience scale—every disappointment and setback is shattering. These patients need to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex (especially on the left side), to strengthen the neuronal highways between it and the amygdala, or both. Mindfulness meditation cultivates greater Resilience and faster recovery from setbacks by weakening the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback. It strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, promoting an equanimity that will help keep you from spiraling down. As soon as your thoughts begin to leap from one catastrophe to the next in this chain of woe, you have the mental wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind does this, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss.

[Thanks, Patricia!]

Keep Feeling Out, Little by Little, the Inner Structures of the Emotions that Once Ruled You

Vocals & Guitar by Max Lugavere (Spotify)

How To Be Emotionally Stable Without Getting Bored
by Nick Cox, Thought Catalog (@ThoughtCatalog)

Start as someone who loves with above-average intensity. Fall so in love with people and with things that you forget to eat and sleep. Stay up all night reading a certain book or listening to a certain song or gazing into a certain person’s eyes or just pacing back and forth thinking about whatever it is you can’t stop thinking. Know what it’s like to lose all control over the operation of your mind. See abyssal profundity where others see only surface. Experience moments in which the whole universe seems to close in around you and your head feels like an astrolabe and you feel the entire concentric cosmos click together into one unified image of perfect beauty and harmony and all you want to do is hold it in your mind forever and fall down on your knees and worship it.

Start to see this image more and more frequently, often at inopportune moments. Feel its beauty morph slowly but inexorably into terror. Start looking for ways to drown it out; settle on booze and drugs and deafening music. Go to bed every night drunk enough to pass out immediately, but then wake at 5am, feel it bearing down upon you once again, press your face into your pillow, and weep with fear.

Slide into the dark period you knew was coming. Go for months feeling okay only when you’re asleep. Open your eyes every morning just in time to feel the okay-ness seep out of you like blood from a stab-wound. Stop checking your email because you know it will just be your friends asking you if you’re okay, and you don’t want to admit that you really aren’t but know they won’t believe you if you lie and say you are. Stop showering because it seems like too much effort to undress. Step outside on the first beautiful day of spring and think absently about how it does nothing for you. Feel like everything is impossible; feel like doing anything at all would require a greater suspension of disbelief than you are capable of. Feel burning itches in places like the lining of your stomach and the backsides of your retinas.

Hit rock bottom. Lose your job; flunk out of school; drive your car into a tree. Wake up in a hospital bed and see your parents staring at you, weeping. Move back into the room you grew up in and spend weeks in your pajamas eating canned soup and staring at the ceiling. Feel as though you are lying on the ocean floor with seven miles of water pressing down on you. Let your mouth hang open because it seems like too much effort to raise your jaw. Feel nothing. Forget that you exist; forget that anything exists. Feel like you have passed into death.

See a psychiatrist; get on meds. Start feeling a bit better. Watch a sitcom with your parents and laugh a little. Go for a walk expecting it to do nothing for you and find that it does a little. Pull fresh air through your nostrils and feel something. Feel, after a few weeks, a vague sense of coming out of something; feel a certain presence, which you had taken for granted since before you can remember, start to pass out of you. See a bird flapping its wings on a telephone wire and laugh for no reason. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about happiness.

Start seeing a therapist. For the first time ever, see your entire life laid out in front of you all at once, like a dollhouse. Realize with a shock of recognition that you were depressed the whole time. Realize that, the whole time, you just assumed that life was this difficult for everyone, and that everyone else just had better self-discipline or better self-control or a better attitude than you did. Realize it wasn’t your fault and feel something inside you burst and dissipate. Talk about your life — family, friends, relationships, traumas — and realize that everything is connected to everything else, that every feeling you carry inside you has a history and a reason for existing. Start to figure out which of the feelings are yours and which are not; start to let go of the ones that aren’t.

Start to understand that feelings are much more than just the amorphous clouds of pain or pleasure that they feel like when you’re in them; start to see those clouds as mere surfaces, concealing complex and highly specific configurations of memories and obsolete assumptions and vestigial unfulfilled desires and lingering residues of people and things that you used to love, all hooked into one another and pulled taut like a cat’s cradle whose total shape sometimes flashes in your mind for a moment all at once. Notice that the experience of these moments of Gestalt illumination reminds you a little of what it used to feel like to fall in love, before love turned into terror and finally burnt itself out, except that now it’s not scary or overwhelming so much as gently rewarding, something like the feeling of solving a challenging but still low-key riddle.

Keep feeling out, little by little, the inner structures of the emotions that once ruled you. As you explore, start to feel them coalesce into something solid and unmoving. Start to understand that the solid and unmoving thing was there all along, waiting patiently for you to notice it. Realize you have already begun to think of it as home. Wonder if this is what people mean when they talk about emotional stability.

Realize one day in the shower that the unmoving thing you’ve arrived at and the cosmic image that once drove you mad are one and the same. Realize that it’s just you, that all along it was just you and nothing more. Laugh at how stupidly obvious that seems now. Feel the unmoving thing settle into you, and you into it, and notice, almost casually, that for the first time in your life you are completely without fear. Look at your reflection in the bathroom mirror and feel like you are seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in ages. Realize that after years of false hopes, you have finally arrived at something real, something that no one can ever take away from you.

Realize that this arrival, which is what people mean when they talk about “finding yourself,” is not an end but a beginning. You have nailed down the vital center; now for a lifetime of filling out the periphery. In living through, then recollecting, your own story, you have learned implicitly that there is a story coiled up inside of everyone and everything. Maybe you knew this all along. Maybe this was why you were so quick to fall in love with everything in sight; maybe you sensed instinctively the overflowing fullness of all things too soon, before you were ready to grasp their interior complexity. Maybe when you were in love with things, what you were really in love with was not the things themselves but rather something inside them that you could never quite get at, which was why you loved them with such annihilating desperation, as if throwing yourself over and over against a locked door. But now that you have found yourself, now that you have fought for and won your emotional stability, you will find that you have been granted a master key. As that unmoving thing was waiting all along for you to notice it, so too does the whole world now stretch out in all directions, patiently awaiting your discovering gaze; and so too does every thing hold its story trapped inside it like a spirit, waiting for you to utter the incantation that will release it. Don’t be overwhelmed by the abundance: your life has only just begun, and you have all the time in the world.

[Thanks, Brain Pickings!]

Hunting for Attention Skills in Medical Students

Excerpt from "New for Aspiring Doctors, the People Skills Test," by Gardiner Harris, The New York Times, July 10, 2011:

"A pleasant bedside manner and an attentive ear have always been desirable traits in doctors, of course, but two trends have led school administrators to make the hunt for these qualities a priority.

The first is a growing catalog of studies that pin the blame for an appalling share of preventable deaths on poor communication among doctors, patients and nurses that often results because some doctors, while technically competent, are socially inept.

The second and related trend is that medicine is evolving from an individual to a team sport. Solo medical practices are disappearing. In their place, large health systems — encouraged by new government policies — are creating teams to provide care coordinated across disciplines. The strength of such teams often has more to do with communication than the technical competence of any one member."

Reasoning Is Suffused With Emotion

Excerpt from “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” by Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, April 18, 2011:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience. Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

Illustration by   Jonathon Rosen

Illustration by Jonathon Rosen

We're not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn't take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that's highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.

Consider a person who has heard about a scientific discovery that deeply challenges her belief in divine creation—a new hominid, say, that confirms our evolutionary origins. What happens next, explains political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University, is a subconscious negative response to the new information—and that response, in turn, guides the type of memories and associations formed in the conscious mind. "They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs," says Taber, "and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they're hearing."

In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers. Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

That's a lot of jargon, but we all understand these mechanisms when it comes to interpersonal relationships. If I don't want to believe that my spouse is being unfaithful, or that my child is a bully, I can go to great lengths to explain away behavior that seems obvious to everybody else—everybody who isn't too emotionally invested to accept it, anyway. That's not to suggest that we aren't also motivated to perceive the world accurately—we are. Or that we never change our minds—we do. It's just that we have other important goals besides accuracy—including identity affirmation and protecting one's sense of self—and often those make us highly resistant to changing our beliefs when the facts say we should.

Read entire article here…

Uncoupling Negative Emotional Reactions from Behavior

From the abstract of a recent study looking at the impact on meditation practice on the decision-making process:

“Human decision-making is often framed as a competition between cognitive and emotional processes in the brain. Deviations from rational processes are believed to derive from inclusion of emotional factors in decision-making.

Here, we investigate whether a group of experienced Buddhist meditators are better equipped to regulate emotional processes compared with controls during economic decision-making in the Ultimatum Game.

We show that meditators accept unfair offers on more than half of the trials, whereas controls only accept unfair offers on one-quarter of the trials…

In summary, when assessing unfairness, meditators activate a different network of brain areas compared with controls enabling them to uncouple negative emotional reactions from their behavior. These findings highlight the clinically and socially important possibility that sustained training in mindfulness meditation may impact distinct domains of human decision-making.”

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See also:

Compassion for Fun and Profit

“The first step is attention training. Attention is the basis of all higher cognitive and emotional abilities. Therefore, any curriculum for training emotional intelligence has to begin with attention training. The idea here is to train attention to create a quality of mind that is calm and clear at the same time. And this creates the foundation for emotional intelligence.”

Chade-Meng Tan