Friday, April 29, 2011

A post elsehwere

I'm going to resurrect my old blog so that I can occasionally take off my science hat without feeling bad. I'll try to post more science here, more pontificating there.

A post elsehwere

I'm going to resurrect my old blog so that I can occasionally take off my science hat without feeling bad. I'll try to post more science here, more pontificating there.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why meditation? As a psychological defense.

When you're meditating and a thought pops up, what happens? Well, you may return to your object quickly, but, especially if you're new to practicing or the thought is particularly captivating, it may grab ahold of you and whisk you away for a joyride for some time before you remember to eject. It is the quality of awareness during this interlude, and not the contents of awareness, that signal what I will call "distraction."

It's the state that ends with "oh crap, I'm supposed to be meditating." It's the quality you commonly experience while daydreaming, or any time your default network is active. And it's a state that negative emotions are great at sucking you into.

While you're meditating and trying not to generate thoughts, still they arise. This should make it clear that "you" are not the originator of all of your thoughts. When you're off-cushion and a particularly strong negative emotion happens your way, chances are it will do some damage before you gather your wits and evict it. In a mild case, the damage may simply be a mild unease for some minutes or hours. The longer you let it sideline your mind, though, the more thorough the roots it will lay down, and the harder it is to escape cleanly from.

One reason to practice nondistractedness (aka meditation) is that you'll be more frequently on your guard during the day. And don't scold yourself for every thought that distracts you on the cushion, for every return to your object strengthens your ability to "snap out of it" when in the clutches of any experience you'd like to escape.

Monday, April 25, 2011

It's 9 PM. Do you know where your mind is?

People often ask what meditation is like, or what they're supposed to be experiencing or doing. During my retreat, I thought of a few analogies. I just remembered one of them, and I thought I'd share it briefly.

Have you ever had the experience while reading where you have to re-read a sentence (or whole paragraph) because you weren't really paying attention for a few seconds? Maybe your mind wandered off to what you're going to eat for dinner, or maybe you were just thinking about the last paragraph. The point at which you realize that you've been distracted is where you typically regain mindfulness. Mindfulness is about knowing where your mind is right now.

Had you actively chosen to think about something else while reading, you wouldn't have had to re-read the sentence, because you would have known to stop reading. There would be no sense of "oh crap, where was I?" In colloquial terms, perhaps consciously choosing to think of something else could be considered "distraction," but in the context of meditation, it is not (necessarily). It is said that "when there is mindfulness, there is meditation; when there is no mindfulness, there is no meditation."

When beginning meditation, it is often suggested that one object (usually the sensation of breathing) be kept in mind. One reason is that if you make an agreement with yourself to pay attention to just one thing, it's more obvious when you're distracted. So when you start thinking about your plans for the weekend, either you're willfully breaking your agreement with yourself, or you're distracted. It's easy to tell which.

Once you get the hang of it, you might move on to practices where thoughts are not banned. Sometimes they're even active supports. If you think meditation has to be boring, you may not have spent enough time yet watching what incredible acrobatics your mind is capable of.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Check out this talk by Daniel Siegel:

I'm watching it for work, since I'll be hosting Dr. Siegel when he comes to visit soon. A few neat things:

* In his description of what the prefrontal cortex does, he sums it up as harmony. I swear I wrote the post yesterday before watching this :)

* The actions of the "middle" PFC are exactly those that meditation (at least in the Buddhist traditions) are meant to develop.

* The anterior insula, which is engaged when mindfully attending to bodily sensations like the breath, is also strongly implicated in empathy. In his experience, teaching people to attend to their breath often incidentally strengthens their empathy, even after short training.

* When describing what functions she'd lost, a woman who'd had an accident damaging her PFC described it as losing her soul (scary, I know). "Soul" and "ghost" are words I sometimes use when describing the feeling present when I'm practicing mindfulness.

If you have an hour to spare, it's a good watch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Warning: this post is likely to contain no science, a little religion, and a lotta pontificating, none of it original.

Yesterday I was chatting with a friend about happiness, enlightenment, and compassion. I indicated that I'm not really looking for "happiness" out of meditation -- in fact, in my less deluded moments, I don't even prefer happiness to sadness. Consider the distinction between the mere physical perception of pain and the suffering one typically unleashes on oneself as a result. If you can mindfully observe the pain, it's just another curious apparition of mind, a cloud drifting across the untouchable sky. So it is with regular happiness and sadness.

Similarly, I'm not looking to become more compassionate in the sense of REALLY FREAKING WANTING to save more starving children. And yet, I think something like happiness and something like compassion are likely byproducts of more meditation. Is that just wishful thinking?

The Tibetans -- having learned from contemporaries who have spent tens of thousands of hours investigating the question -- claim that compassion is indivisible from mind. Prima facie, this sounds reasonable: can you imagine spending countless hours on the mat, refining the clarity of your mind, only to discover that the right path is to stab kittens? If so, I humbly suggest you're doin' it wrong. The more you meditate, the more malice and greed seem extrinsic and parasitic, and the less compassion does. I think this is not an accident.

Earlier I referred to my "less deluded moments." In Buddhism, "delusion" or "ignorance" refers to our amazing capacity to read the world wrong. When you quit fighting reality -- that is to say, when you're more in harmony with it -- things hurt a lot less. "Happiness," check.

Eventually perhaps you realize that yours is but one consciousness amongst a sea of others. And since your particular instance isn't really so special (the worse you are at reading the world, the more special it seems), you might as well roll up your sleeves and assist the rest in moving toward harmony, too. "Compassion," check.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I'm sorry, alcohol

I've been on a booze break for some weeks now. My intention is to follow through on this indefinitely, but it appears I may have it all wrong. This page summarizes several hundred studies showing why: Alcohol and Health.

At first, I figured none of the studies suggested causation, only correlation. At least one study suggests that the apparently cognitive benefits in older adults who drink moderately (as opposed to not at all) are nonexistent after controlling for intelligence in young age:

But then I came across one damning section: "Alcohol Abstainers Who Begin Drinking Reduce Their Risk of Cardiovascular Disease":
During a ten year study of 7,697 non-drinkers, investigators found that 6% began consuming alcohol in moderation. After four years of follow-up, new moderate drinkers had a 38% lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease than did those who continued abstaining. Even after adjusting for physical activity, Body Mass Index (BMI), demographic and cardiac risk factors, this difference persisted.

This study is important because it provides additional strong evidence that the reduced risk of cardiovascular disease among moderate drinkers is a result of the alcohol itself rather than any differences in lifestyle, genetics, or other factors.
(from King, Dana E., Mainous, III, Arch G. and Geesey, Mark E. Adopting moderate alcohol consumption in middle-age: Subsequent cardiovascular events. American Journal of Medicine, 2008 (March), 121(3).)

So I may have to reconsider...

Friday, April 1, 2011

On becoming a potato

It seems that some people, interested in attempting meditation, but untrained in any techniques, resort to a process that's not so useful: they sit with eyes closed, think of nothing, and try to be aware of nothing. One Tibetan lama whose work I'm fond of has a nice description of this: "it's almost like becoming a potato." Supposedly, if you pour enough hours into this practice, you'll slowly vegetate.

As it happens, this method does have one useful purpose: it's a great way to fall asleep quickly! I used to use it as a child, when my mind was racing at night and I got tired of all the churning. I'm glad I didn't keep it up while awake, though :)

So give it a go. Just not for very long.