Meditation and Mental Health

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Finding Happiness

Many people turn to Vipassana meditation as a way to understand the reason they are suffering mentally. It is clear that in order to benefit from Vipassana, one must have the mental capacity to focus and carry out the technique as prescribed. Some of us are too strong willed to perform the technique properly however, and choose to do it our own way, which my seem more relaxing, effective, pleasant, or what have you. This risks focusing not on what will help us to progress in our exploration of ourselves through meditation, but on our own feelings of narcissism. This is where meditation practice that starts out correctly can go very wrong and send us wandering off the path to enlightenment, and into the swamp of self indulgence.

The mediation technique is not about feeling good, it’s about performing a mental and tactile inventory and verifying everything is connected and working, regardless of our personal preferences. This is a concept many Americans have a hard time dealing with since our culture is driven by this idea we are all independently thinking and feeling creatures with entirely different needs.  While this is true on a genetic scale, the way Vipassana meditation was designed, the meditator must stop being the subject alone, and become the scientist, observing himself objectively, as well. This takes practice, and access to a higher mental framework than we are used to in day-to-day life. We must be able to see ourselves thinking and feeling and not take any of it personally. A mental contradiction, to be certain.

How to concentrate the mind’s focus on true self-improvement to better ensure long-term happiness vs. perpetual misery or worse, meaninglessness? This video featuring the voice of Dr. David A. Kessler helps to clarify by pointing out how our ability to focus our attention deteriorates, and is succumbed by emotion, so does our grip on the happiness we can control in our lives – eventually giving in to things like the irresistible and horrifically debilitating ride of illnesses such as manic-depression.

What you focus on expands in mental importance.  Proper Vipassana meditation practice helps sharpen the mind-body connection. Follow the technique, as prescribed, without adulterating it with your creative will. Otherwise you risk inflating the ego rather than purifying the mind. If you can control your focus better, you can control your ability to stay realistically focused on things that provide long-term happiness. More at http://dhamma.org

Negativity

Negativity will make you a grouch!Happiness is our natural state of mind.  After all, it is in our best interest to be happy.  If that is true, then why do so many of us seem so miserable most of the time?

It is because mental negativity is addictive and feeds on itself.

The Buddha taught that whenever any kind of negativity arises in the mind (anger, hate, jealousy, or sadness in particular), the solution is to observe the physical sensations associated with the emotions and face them.

Physical sensations associated with negative thoughts might be a faster heart beat, harder breathing, blushing, muscle tension, stomach pain or any number of biochemically driven, fight or flight responses.  Rather than immediately picking up the bottle, a doughnut, drug, or other mechanism for escape, recognize these signs, and be with them for a moment when they arise.  Feel the feeling and know it will pass.

As soon as you start to observe this state of mental impurity objectively, it begins to lose strength and slowly withers away.  At first this requires patience, but over time and with meditation practice it happens faster.

But how to observe it objectively?  The trick is not to focus on the object or cause of the negativity (be it a person or event).  Focusing on the object of the negativity will cause the negativity to multiply and build strength. Once you know what the cause is and have learned from it, dismiss the cause and focus on the sensations.  Realize it is in the past and you are in the present.  See how these thoughts are harming you and allow yourself to let go of them.

This allows the mind to break the biochemical cycle of anger, and disrupt the root cause of misery and be happy once again.

Just one of the many, many gems of wisdom I’ve taken away from S.N. Goenka’s  Dhamma Meditation training through his famous 10-day retreats which I attended two years ago this month.  One important fact about these meditation courses which I like is they are non-sectarian in nature.  While it stems from the teachings of Buddha and how he reached enlightenment 2500 years ago, it is not about selling Buddhism, or classes. They teach a universal meditation technique with the goal of greater mental focus, gratitude, and happiness in daily life.

Just as a rocky mountain is not moved by storms,
so sights, sounds, tastes, smells, contacts and ideas,
whether desirable or undesirable,
will never stir one of steady nature,
whose mind is firm and free,
who sees how all things pass.

– Anguttara Nikaya 6.55

No, the problem is not guns.

No, the problem is not guns, though I’d still prefer not to have them in our society.

The problem is the inability of the average person to control their reactions to anger, sadness, jealousy and hatred. Our culture in America provides no effective way of dealing with these emotions. Instead we have guns, football, reality TV and other expressions of violence and primal feelings that allow us to release — and enhance and extend — these natural, yet unhealthy poisons in our blood.

Having guns freely available provides the average person an easy, illusory release from these emotions if they get too heavy, as an addict might use a drink, a pill or a needle. By using something external to solve an inherently internal problem, the problem becomes deeper – both for the culture as well for as the individual.

“Slay anger and you will be happy,
slay anger and you will not sorrow.
For the slaying of anger in all its forms with its poisoned root and sweet sting — that is the slaying the nobles praise; with anger slain one weeps no more.”

The technique of Vipassana meditation was proven 2,500 years ago to be the best solution to this troublesome problem plaguing the human condition. The Buddha saw the problem quite clearly and through the process of discovering it through meditation, solved it for himself through meditation. He also went on to teach thousands of people the technique to help them end their suffering too. The suffering caused by such discontentment with others and our situations can grow to become insurmountable, causing us to turn to harmful, “solutions” like a gun or a bottle. While the emotions are temporary the effects of a gun are often tragic and irreversible. Seeing our problems for what they really are, as opposed to how they feel to us is the key to prevent unwholesome reactions to unwholesome feelings about our problems.

What Grows in your Thought Garden?

Scanning the dial of my local radio stations I’ve found myself getting sucked into a religious station every now and then.  Since I live in America, that religion is invariably Christian.  Why, in this supposed land of religious freedom are there no Buddhist, Muslim or Jewish radio stations?  I think if there were we would find very little difference in the core message and directions given in terms of how to live and behave as a good person.  It would also undermine the tacit message that any is the one true religion. Most religions of the world teach love, how not to hate, and those things have to do almost invariably with one’s mental volition or disposition every day — not just in church.

The commentator on this particular radio program spoke in a Christian-specific context, but using concepts of universal happiness which is what intrigued me.  She also referenced the following poem, unattributed:

Your mind is a garden,
Your thoughts are the seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

Such a simple, poetic metaphor completely reflects the core teachings in the technique of Vipassana Meditation I practice.  S.N. Goenka speaks of a attendee on a 10-Day Vipassana course who happened to be the Mother Superior of a convent who accused him of teaching Christianity in the name of Buddha.  Goenkaji said “I teach Dhamma!  The law of nature.”  In my readings I’ve found no better example of a law of nature pertaining to both nature and man than the one referenced in the poem above.  Thanks Christian radio!

Sometimes that same radio station has had commentators posturing hate-related exclusionary political positions in the name of Christianity which have nothing to do with positive mental development and connecting to others. In those cases I tune out, but when they speak in terms of creating a better life for everyone, regardless of their personal lifestyle, sexual orientation or religion, it gets my attention.

Universal concepts of creating happiness like the one in the poem above are simply effective, regardless of specific rites, rituals or political positions associated with a given religion.  It requires no sales pitch as it is sensible, and apparent in truth.  It is readily easy to prove too.

What makes a bad day?  Invariably it is having bad, negative thoughts that stress us out and cause our day to be ‘bad’.  It’s not the things that actually happen to us, but how we think about them that affect our happiness. Thinking positively is not as simple as thinking of pretty thoughts and flowers, of course.  It takes practice and discipline that effective and regular meditation practices supports.  Going to church, mosque, temple, the movies or your psychiatrist can get you there too, but it’s likely to be colored with someone else’s biases.

What makes sensation-based Vipassana meditation effective is its focus is solely on the truth of your own bodily sensations, which are tied to your subconscious.  Becoming aware of and accepting them puts you closer in touch with your own personal reality.  Such perspective gives you more personal control, so as to not be taken by surprise or overreact so easily when something good or bad happens. It is also allowing you to see the garden as it is, weeds and all, and, if you’re smart, use meditation as an opportunity to pull the weeds from the garden of your mind.  When all the weeds are gone, all that’s left is flowers.

Dig?

Developing Acceptance

Interesting quote attributed to the Buddha:

I have love for the footless,
for the bipeds too I have love;
I have love for those with four feet,
for the many-footed I have love.

 

It appears to me to mean we should carry on with love and compassion for all beings regardless of their predicaments, attributes, or handicaps.

Our neighbor’s dog recently began to grow up from a puppy into a dog.  As a result, he has begun barking more.  This affects me with mild annoyance, even though I like the dog, and my neighbor.  It’s an alerting bark, one of attentiveness or perhaps apprehensiveness for not getting enough attention, but not one of fear or hostility like some other dog’s barks.

Finding compassion and love for the beings that do things that affect us negatively and that we can’t always avoid is a challenge to be sure.  Especially when it affects my ability to meditate — the very weapon I have against giving in to my own intolerance.

Talking to the neighbor may help, but I instead resorted to invoking the power of technology in the form of an ultrasonic device that chirps a high-frequency pitch when the dog’s number of barks and volume threshold surpass the parameters I set.  I love this device.  It keeps noise to a minimum, but I wonder how much better a mediator or person I would be if I could simply learn to accept the annoyance and not let it affect me.  Have I missed out on achieving a new level of skill by using simple Pavlovian tricks to cure the symptom instead of my own problem of intolerance?

I’ll be interested in hearing your comments and opinions on this.


Sensory-Based Meditation for Anxiety vs. Drug-based Treatments

An article in “Wired” from March 2012 entitled “The Forgetting Pill erases Painful Memories Forever”. describes an experimental therapy for eliminating negative memories to help patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as less severe conditions. The treatment involves giving patients the equivalent of blood pressure medication which only lasts 3 hours vs. full strength version of the medication which may last all day. Once the medication, which has a calming effect, kicks in, the patients are then asked to recall the traumatic or negative memory in as much detail as possible.

According to the article, every time we remember or relive an event, we rewrite it to our memory along with the emotional state we are in at the time we recant it.  Because the blood pressure medication lessens general excitement, the memory is re-experienced and “rewritten” to the mind from a more objective perspective with less emotional attachment to the memory of the event.

What I found intriguing about this article was that the treatment is in many ways similar to the technique of Vipassana meditation I study, where practitioners are asked to sit motionless with eyes closed and methodically pay close attention to sensations on the body. While doing so, they are instructed to stay focused and not to react with craving or aversion to these sensations on the body (no matter how pleasant or unpleasant) and to simply observe them with compassion and equanimity.  The sensations on the body are, according to the teaching, tied directly with emotions and memories in the subconscious.  By acknowledging the sensations we are tapping into subconscious memories and re-experiencing them in a direct way.  The word ‘recognize’ literally means to re-think. By remaining equanimous, or accepting the truth about how we feel about our experiences at the deepest level, we become free of them.

If they are not accepted by the mind and integrated in to the life-experience, over time and through repetition, these layers of emotions associated with the initial experience intensify, as do the physiological and biochemical reactions to the memory. If negative, these emotions can cause mental and physical stress and tension in the form of a fight or flight response.  If positive, the emotions can result in clinging or craving, resulting in an addiction to the experience.  More specifically an addiction to the biochemicals is produced by the emotions associated with the memory of the experience.

The danger is that the biochemicals, regardless of whether or not the subject sees the memory as good or bad, create a craving for more of the chemical, which is why anger or depression can sometimes spiral out of control.  The angrier we get, the more we tend to generate even greater anger, feeding back on itself into an upward spiral of fury.  Similarly downward spirals of depression create an inescapable feedback loop of angst and misery.

In either situation there is a physiological response to the emotion reaction: the secretion of biochemicals resulting in things such as an increase of adrenaline, vascular and muscle constrictions, and/or an increase in blood pressure, to name a few. This can manifest in the form of back pain, stomach problems, migraines, insomnia, heart disease, and even cancer.  Over time the increasing physical and biochemical changes in the body can and do make us sick, yet they originate in the mind.  In this way, meditation for anxiety has similar benefits to the drug-based therapy.

Whether under the influence of a calming drug, as described in the Wired article, or under the influence of a disciplined mind through meditation, there is a lessened reaction to the experience by not reinforcing the story in an environment of strong emotions.  Through repeated exposure to the memories under “safe” environments, the self-generated and self-perpetuated emotional level is diminished, as well as the physiological and biochemical responses.

The main difference between this new therapy and sensory-based meditation is that with Vipassana meditation at least, concentrating on the conscious memories and reliving experiences during meditation are discouraged.  One in instructed to only pay attention to sensations directly on the body and keep focused on that activity, since sensations are tied to the more important memories and emotions residing in the subconscious.

While the application of drugs in conjunction with talking about the memories could perhaps tap in to the subconscious to some degree, results of the therapy described in the Wired article are inconclusive. My sense is it will have limited success with victims of PTSD or other forms of anxiety, since the issues are only being dealt with closer to the conscious level.

In certain cases, there is certainly no substitute for modern medicine, especially where symptoms need to be diminished in order for the person to heal.  Ultimately though, we are our own masters and need to take control of how our mind reacts to the past, present and future for our own health and benefit and those around us.