"I think mindfulness meditation is very well suited to becoming more aware of our how minds work and doing something about it."
~ Robert Wright
"One thing that you find in most of the great wisdom traditions is the idea that reality as we see it is an illusion, it’s a veil, it blinds us, and enlightenment is taking down the veil, seeing things as they are, transcending dualities. And that, I think, is really crucial for thinking about civility, because that’s what happened to me in writing this book and in doing this research."
~ Jonathan Haidt
"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."
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]
"Our memories are constructive. They're reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people…
Maybe my work has made me different from most people. Most people cherish their memories, know that they represent their identity, who they are, where they came from. And I appreciate that. I feel that way, too. But I know from my work how much fiction is already in there. If I've learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it's this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn't mean that it really happened.
We can't reliably distinguish true memories from false memories. We need independent corroboration. Such a discovery has made me more tolerant of the everyday memory mistakes that my friends and family members make...
Meanwhile, we should all keep in mind, we'd do well to, that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing."
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.
100 Acres, June 16, 2012
Excerpt from The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels:
Everyone one of us has a fantasy of a "magical something"—a relationship, job, achievement, or possession—that will remove us from the treadmill that is real life...Phil [Stutz] calls this fantasy of living an effort-free, undemanding life "exoneration." Most people think of exoneration in terms of being cleared of a crime, but it has another meaning: to be excused from a task or obligation. Here, it refers to the ultimate obligation—to make an effort for the rest of your life.
Deep down, we all wish for a magical something that will exonerate us. It could be money, an award, a high-achieving child, looking cool in front of your friends, etc. Take a moment to identify what it is for you.
It doesn't matter what it is, it could be the smallest thing; just be honest with yourself. Then, try the following exercise:
Let yourself fantasize that you get the "magical something" and it does take the struggle out of your life. Let yourself feel that for a moment. Now, crush that fantasy: imagine it can never become reality. How does it feel knowing you can never escape life's endless struggles?
...Exoneration is impossible—for an individual or for a society. When, inevitably, this false hope for "easy street" is shattered, we're left demoralized. This is an inescapable law: exoneration always ends in demoralization.
There's a path that can lead us out of this mess. But we have an enemy that's dead set against us taking it. It attacks us every waking moment: when we turn on the TV, go on the Internet, or read a magazine; it gets to us even while we're driving, and especially when we enter the dark, inner sanctum of its power, the shopping mall.
The enemy is called "consumerism." It speaks to us through every advertisement, endorsement, logo, roadside billboard, etc. Its underlying message is always the same: there's something out there you must have. Helpless to resist, we feel compelled to acquire thing after thing. Yet we don't enjoy each new item for long; once we possess it, we shift our focus to the next thing.
Inevitably, consumerism insinuates itself into all of our activities, not just shopping. We consume life experiences the same way we consume iPods, jeans, and European cars. A given song, idea, or friend is new and different until it's not. Then we discard it and go on to the next thing. Consumerism has become our model for living. This is the tail wagging the dog...
This "treasure hunt" is a quest for the impossible, but rather than admitting that, we relentlessly search for the next magical something.
This misdirected search for magic surrounds you every day. Consumers might deny this, but it shows in their behavior. They pursue something—a new spouse, a new wardrobe, a new hobby—with tremendous expectation. The expectation is never met, and that just makes them search even harder...
But you're not really free until all hope for magic is crushed.
The Tools: Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity
by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
ICA | The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, March 24, 2012
Psychology Today: What’s one lesson kids of all ages could benefit from?
Ravi Chandra (The Pacific Heart): The most important lesson lies in understanding one’s fear and anger, and the primitive brain. Fear of loss, isolation, and abandonment are [like death threats] to the amygdala, which pushes us into fight-or-flight mode. The most important work involves soothing the amygdala, as well as generating love, compassion, and wisdom from our cerebral cortex.
Being Human 2012: The Science of Human Experience
Palace of Fine Arts / San Francisco, CA
We live at the dawn of a scientific revolution. Every day brings new findings from a broad range of disciplines – behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, social anthropology, philosophy – that promise to overthrow long-held biases and stories about what it means to be human.
The coming decades will bring a shift in our worldview as fundamental as any in the past five hundred years. As we use the tools of science to explore the nature of humanity, we are learning more and more about how our brains function and what motivates our behavior, built-in biases and blind spots.
These fresh insights are interesting scientifically, but they also evoke significant questions about our lived experience. These perspectives challenge our basic assumptions of who we are, both as individuals and as a society.
Being Human 2012 offered a multidisciplinary public dialogue led by the scientists, thought leaders, and philosophers pioneering this exploration to discover and experience:
"It's not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time." ~ Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work
Stumbled upon this quote on the Scientific American's Oberservations blog (Jan. 8, 2012):
“There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.
Often, people buy them as a kind of talisman, like 'I bought this book. I won't be Predictably Irrational.' It's like people want to hear the worst, so psychologically, they can prepare for it or defend against it. It's why there's such a market for pessimism. But to think that buying the book gets you somewhere, that's maybe the bigger fallacy. It's just like the evidence that shows the most dangerous people are those that have been taught some financial literacy. They're the ones who go out and make the worst mistakes. It's the people that realize, 'I don't know anything at all,' that end up doing pretty well.
...So if you think which set of stories you end up hearing, you end up hearing the glamour stories, the seductive stories, and again I'm telling you, don't trust them. They're people using your love of stories to manipulate you. Pull back and say, 'What are the messages, and what are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell?' and start telling yourself those, and see if any of your decisions change. That's one simple way -- you can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent to which you think in stories and make some better decisions.”
"When you desire meaning, when you want things to line up, you see patterns everywhere. Order makes it easier to be a person, to navigate this sloppy world. You're born looking for clusters where chance events have built up like sand into dunes. Picking out clusters of coincidence is a predictable malfunction of a normal human mind." ~ David McRaney, from You Are Not So Smart
If you look at the history of the behavioral sciences and the intersection of behavioral sciences with biology, the 1960s was the heyday of behaviorism, when the environment was actually emphasized as being the primary cause of our behavior and there was no attention to the mind, no attention to biology, and the pendulum was very far to the extreme of considering what is inside the head to be really irrelevant, and we begin as a tabula rasa, an empty slate, and the environment through conventional mechanisms of learning determines who we are.
And then, in many ways, I think the pendulum swung in the opposite extreme for quite some time, where everything was attributed to our genes. And there were voices among public intellectuals who were pulling into question any programs, for example, like Head Start and other programs to help disadvantaged individuals because the claim was that it's all in our genes anyway and there's nothing much we can do about it. That's a bit of a caricature, but, you know, I think it really does contain the kernel of truth in some of those statements.
And I think that what modern neuroscience is teaching us is that, in fact, there is a lot of plasticity, that change is indeed possible, and the evidence is more and more strongly in favor of the importance of environmental influences in shaping brain function and structure and even shaping the expression of our genes. So it's not that genes are unimportant. It's just that they're much more dynamic than we previously understood.
The work with long-term practitioners that we've done, as well as we're continuing to do, is important because it sort of defines the further reaches of human plasticity and transformation...when we study these experts, we see things in their brain that have not been reported before in human brains.
There is a brain rhythm that is called gamma oscillations, and gamma oscillations are recorded through the electrical activity of the brain. When you observe gamma oscillations in a normal conventional person who has not gone through this kind of training, you see the oscillations for very short periods of time, typically one second or less. What we observed in the long-term practitioners during certain kinds of meditation, particularly meditation on compassion, was that these gamma oscillations persisted for a much longer period of time than has ever been reported. They persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude. This was just something that had not been observed before.
We know a little bit about what the phenomenal logical correlates are in these long-term practitioners, and the clearest is a quality of clarity of their perception. They are very good at providing granular accounts of their experience because they spend a lot of time interrogating their own minds. And actually, the word meditation in Sanskrit, one of its meanings, comes from the word familiarization. We can think of these individuals as being just utterly familiar in a very deep way with their own mind, and that familiarization allows them to provide very granular reports. When they give those reports, it turns out that they could scale the extent to which their experience has this quality of clarity, and that quality of clarity turns out to be very highly correlated with the presence of these gamma oscillations. The more clarity, the more gamma.
There are literally hundreds of different kinds of meditation practices. And so often in the West, we have this idea that meditation is one thing and that every kind of meditation will produce the same kinds of effects, and that's just simply not true. The contemplative traditions from which we draw have literally hundreds of different kinds of practices and they are designed for different kinds of people or for a person in different situations. They are understood within their own traditions to produce different effects and, biologically and behaviorally in the laboratory, they produce different effects. And it's kind of the way I often talk about it lay audiences is that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports. There are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. Some are more active, some are less active, some are performed in groups, some not. The same is true of meditation.
I'd like to believe that some of the work that we do may have some implications or relevance for kind of on-the-ground, in-the-trenches psychotherapy or related strategies for behavior change in several ways. One is a kind of meta-level which helps a client or patient understand that, based upon everything we know about the brain in neuroscience, that change is not only possible, but change is actually the rule rather than the exception. It's really just a question of which influences we're going to choose for our brain. But our brain is wittingly or unwittingly being continuously shaped. Another thing is the idea of practice. The classical model of Western psychotherapy which is, you know, a client coming to a therapist for an hour a week for a 50-minute session without doing daily practice in between just flies in the face of everything we know about the brain and plasticity.
So if we want to make real change, that's not a good prescription for doing it. If we want to make real change, more systematic practice is necessary, in my view. This is something that comes directly from neuroscience. And I think that certain kinds of psychological therapies are now understanding that, so certain kinds of cognitive therapies, for example, do assign specific kinds of homework or practice for people to engage in on a daily basis. So I think there's growing recognition of that.
I think that most people still don't think of qualities like happiness as being a skill rather than it's typically conceptualized as a fixed trait and some people have more of it; some people have less of it. But if you think about it more as a skill, then it's something that can be enhanced through training. Fundamentally, I think that the kind of mental exercise that we're talking about is no different than physical exercise. People understand that they can't just do two weeks of physical exercise and then expect the benefits to remain for the rest of their lives. And the same thing with mental exercise.
...and I think that that's a very different conception of happiness, one that is a more enduring and I think more genuine in the sense that it's a kind of happiness that is not dependent on external circumstances.
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
“Instead of waging war on himself, it is surely better for a man to learn to tolerate himself, and to convert his inner difficulties into real experiences instead of expending them in useless fantasies. Then at least he lives, and does not waste his life in fruitless struggles.
If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance towards oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.”
When I started my work in Positive Psychology, my original view was closest to Aristotle’s—that everything we do is done in order to make us happy—but I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. Moreover, the modern ear immediately hears “happy” to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling. “Happiness” historically is not closely tied to such hedonics—feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared that we have the right to pursue—and it is an even further cry from my intentions for a positive psychology.
To understand what “happiness” is really about, the first step is to dissolve “happiness” into more workable terms. When I wrote Authentic Happiness a decade ago, I thought that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Positive emotion refers to what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and other such emotions that contribute to the “pleasant life.” Engagement is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity, experiences which contribute to the “engaged life.” The third element is meaning. I go into flow while playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. Human beings, ineluctably, want the “meaningful life”: belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than you are. Happiness and life satisfaction, I thought, could be increased by building positive emotion, engagement, and a sense of meaning in life.
This is not enough.
I no longer think that positive psychology is about happiness, or about a quest for increasing life satisfaction through positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. It turns out that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question. Averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report. If positive psychology is to be more than a “happiology” of cheerful mood, we need to shift our focus to well-being. I believe the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. Flourishing rests on five pillars, each of which we value for its own sake, not merely as a means to some other end. Positive emotion, engagement, and meaning are three of the pillars, but they cannot do the “heavy lifting” of supporting human flourishing by themselves.