Meditation and Mental Health

Link

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

Truth or Consequences of PTSD

Enduring Peace - Photogravure by Jon Lybrook
Enduring Peace – Photogravure by Jon Lybrook

This weekend we heard about a friend that had been traumatized at seeing the death of a child. The friend whom this had happened to, and his wife had actually been first on the scene. This child died in his arms.

This friend had soon mentally locked into the story about this child dying in his arms, and identified with it so deeply, that he couldn’t escape. It consumed him.  This is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It can hit any of us for any random event we are mentally unprepared for dealing with. The friend’s response to the horrible event was to twist every new event and every new story to somehow be about or connected to that event. His own life story had essentially stopped because of the event, in fact.  It stopped because he couldn’t accept the reality of what happened and move on. It hit some core issues with him and his wife both I’m sure, since she was also on the scene and a part of “the story”. Those deep-seated issues having to do with trust certainly come up in PTSD victims.  Hoping the ending of the story is he was able to let go of it on such a personal level, and his strong personal identification as a participant in it. This is the ego at work, stressing out while trying to change the reality of our simple or complex delusions about ourselves and the world as a whole.

While we do not generally inflict trauma on ourselves and can not control that, we can and should try to control how we respond to that trauma as best we can. If we just leave everything up to fate, after all, that would be foolish.  If our minds are not prepared for an event, then they must expand and unwind to embrace the reality as laid before us, without shame or embarrassment, but with compassion and acceptance.  This is the way things are, and we have to accept it. This is also how we learn and grow. Resisting this natural process of mental development results in a feedback loop of minor mind-body pain that gets amplified over time, until the person becomes debilitated and dies from the pain, the neglect, or the morphine. The good news it does not have to be this way!

Vipassana meditation can help with PTSD, the main cause of which is not accepting the reality of what had been experienced. While I am not a mental health professional I have had a personal interest in this subject and have found vipassana meditation to be an effective method to understand the process of how and why we suffer.

We have to accept unpleasant facts so we have a clear basis of reality from which to plan our course to make the reality better – and truly better – not just what we think might be better.  And this is where Vipassana meditation comes in. Vipassana is not a religion, but a meditation technique that was taken from the basic meditation techniques taught by the Buddha himself 2500 years ago.  It’s a pure study of the interworkings of the human mind, and how it interacts with the body. Rooted in science and based on actual results, Vipassana meditation can be the fast track to identifying some of the core issues limiting us as individuals, and providing actionable methods for addressing our limitations super-effectively, while making best use of our native virtues as well!

Interview with S.N. Goenka ENGLISH from Dhamma server Spain on Vimeo.

 

Experiencing Self vs. Remembering Self

Alot of emotional things can come up during meditation, resulting in added physical stress while sitting still.  This is one very effective way to learn about what you feel and how your emotional and rational selves co-exist of course, is to meditate.  Freudian psychology referred to this also in terms of the conflicts arising through battles between the subconscious and the ego.  Conflict in the brain causes physical pain.  Harmonious co-existence of our two selves is the simple result of acceptance – sometimes profound, sometimes, through exhaustion of all other options!

This video I found via the great people over at Brain Pickings, stretched my skull a little (as Alan Watts used to say).  In it, psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes the phenomenon of the two selves, and how our idea of happiness is very different between the two respective experiencing and remembering selves.

My question is how strong is your conviction in general, if you can’t sit by yourself in meditation without moving for an hour, and without generating stress and anxiety that cause physical pain?  What is your remembering self inflicting on your experiencing self, and why?

Aikido Rokyu Testing – Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I wrote a little about where akido and vipassana meditation intersect, but mostly about the mechanics involved in testing for my personal reference. In this installment, I discuss more about how the two practices overlap and enhance one another.

Aikido Flow

Aikido Flow – Lytescape by Jon Lybrook © 1996

Had my rokyu test last night, and all went well.  Collin also tested and did a great job as my uke (attacker). While my technique may not have been perfect, I was focused and the experience of testing brought me to a greater level of commitment having performed acceptably in front of about 30 aikidoists. Looking forward to the feedback from the judges on how I might improve, which is one of the most valuable parts of getting such an evaluation.  I will be eligible for the next rank (gokyu, or 5th kyu) in March.

In my last post I wrote about the difference between meditation and aikido practice in terms of one being solitary and the other interactive. While true that meditation is a solitary pursuit and aikido is mostly done with others, the goal of the Vipassana path I follow is to eventually integrate the vipassana technique of maintaining mental balance (through awareness of feelings and sensations) into everyday life and thus improve our interactions with others all the time. By paying attention to changes in physiology when experiencing mental conflict in meditation – breathing, heart rate, sensations on the skin – we can focus on being aware of that genuine experience in our bodies instead of getting stuck in a loop of “imagined” experiences and our reactions to these imaginings, in order to calm the mind.  I use the word imagined because however bad or good the situation, our memory and impressions, and subsequent reactions to them are often different when we’re feeling strongly about something, than if we had more objectivity. This has been proven time and again when interviewing witnesses from crime scenes and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients — our memory of a situation and its circumstances becomes distorted the more we mentally relive a powerful experience.  In other words, our tendency is to blow things out of proportion and overreact, at least internally if not externally when we’re not focused on the moment.

Similarly aikido, while martial in essence, is meant not just to provide physical skill and balance when in physical conflict with others, but also mental skill and balance internally, where our reactions to conflict originate. Keeping the mind focused and sharp while jolting and exhausting the body through continuous throwing, falling and hitting the mat can prove to be a challenging exercise and quite different from the more subtle focus required during the physical stasis of meditation.

In aikido one of the goals and challenges is to respond to attacks with an appropriate level of response.  The first part of the word Aikido means “match” or “harmony” — according to Miriam-Webster: ai- match, coordinate + ki breath, spirit + art, way. If someone attacks with moderate force, breaking their arm would be an excessive and inappropriate response. Likewise responding weakly would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective. Aikido practice prepares us for both mildly threatening as well as deadly attacks and helps us to discern the difference and respond appropriately – mentally and physically.

To not respond excessively based on exaggerated impressions, rather than the actual level of force in harmony with the attacker and their attack is a difficult thing to master, and where Vipassana meditation practice can help us to improve aikido.  The mental/physical response is not just a matter of responding to the attack itself in a vacuum, but also has to do with our current, as well as our past reactions to similar situations.  For example, if the attack is coming from a person who has hurt me before, or if the person or style of attack reminds me of being hurt or rendered ineffective in the past, I may have a prejudiced reaction to the attack.  Mental reactions (verbal or physical) will increase or decrease in intensity, sometimes quite inappropriately, based on these imagined conditions rather than the actual conditions.

People come to aikido for different personal reasons. For me at least, aikido practice provides a place where Vipassana practice of maintaining mental focus is able to be challenged, tested and improved upon in a generally safe, physical environment, in addition to being great exercise and a way to meet fascinating people of all ages with mutual goals of self-improvement.

 

 

Handing Slightly Longer Meditation Sessions

I’ve grown Long time on the mat!accustom to not looking at the time while meditating.  Occasionally the alarm I use either has the sound set to mute or something malfunctions.  During a long, unintentional 90 minute meditation today I was faced again with the fact that that the longer one goes, the more intense and difficult it becomes to stay focused.  Balance and calm eventually gives way to tension, intense irritation, and impulses to stop meditating in favor of whatever compelling thoughts take over.

What I found was that getting through such storms of emotions became easier by changing focus on the body and its sensations to focusing on the breath instead.  Goenkaji mentions this approach to dealing with such distractions in his discourses several times.

Once things calmed down I went back to the body scans.  Much like walking over hot coals, such achievements provide a sense of power and accomplishment in mental discipline that carry into other areas of life.  Unlike walking on hot coals, there’s very little chance of getting hurt!

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.

Deconstructing Misery through Vipassana

I recently attended a 10-day course on Vipassana meditation in Colorado. Although it sounds luxurious and relaxing way to spend some time “away from it all”, it was without question the most extreme, demanding and personally rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I got interested in the idea of doing this from my friend Angela who said a friend of hers had done it and was raving about the experience and how positively life-changing and powerful it was for her.

This wasn’t a retreat in the context of a “business retreat” or a social retreat in any way. It was kind of like what I’d imagine boot camp would be like without all the physical work and psychological manipulation I’ve heard goes on there. The retreat was extremely challenging for me and others, yet only one person out of 55 left mid-way through the course.

A Vipassana retreat experience means different things to different people, but the technique is very simple. What I like about it is the fact that it is simple in concept, and does not require belief in any particular religion or deity. S.N. Goenka revived and refined the technique of teaching Vipassana in the 1970s and continues as the head teacher of the Vipassana Research Institute as of today. Since so much has already been written about the practice of Vipassana Meditation is and how it works (see http://dhamma.org) this article will focus on my personal experience.

At its core, the meditation technique is to stay focused on observing changes in the body as you scan through the different body parts. Any tactile sensation or change in sensation that is perceived is taken note of during the body scans. Any unpleasant sensations are observed with compassion, without aversion, anger, or negative reaction. They are simply observed without moving or changing posture in response to them. The same is true with any positive sensations experienced during meditation. They should be observed, but not sought after or reacted to with craving or clinging.

In a way, it reminded me of giving up cigarettes. The way I was able to do it was to acknowledge what I was feeling whenever I felt a craving to smoke, then let the feeling pass. Easy to do in theory, but when the addiction is strong the mind has powerful and persuasive tricks to keep one locked in the addiction. In Vipassana the goal is to disrupt the behavior pattern of the mind to respond with craving or aversion to experiences.

Leg and back pain are common complaints during most meditation practices. For myself I’ve had an on-going mild back pain that was the result of a car accident that occurred soon after I graduated from college. The accident was my fault – a car in front of me changed lanes suddenly without signaling, and I rear-ended a stopped vehicle it had passed abruptly while doing about 35 mph. Luckily the people in the car that got hit only had minor injuries, but I was in the hospital for several days for a chest contusion as the result of the impact. My back got extremely tight in response in order to protect my chest and I was unable to sleep on it for weeks, needing to sleep only on my side. The tightness in my back came and went throughout the years and was rarely debilitating, but lingered. Some said it was “psychological” pain, which made sense intellectually, but it was never enough pain consistently enough to bother about. It did keep me from doing certain activities, like Aikido, a martial art which involves a lot of rolling around and taking falls as part of the practice.

Sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day, was a different from most activity I had done before. While first learning the technique, after about 30 minutes, the perceived pain in my back, and then legs, was excruciating. After 45 minutes I wanted to scream out in pain on several occasions, but our vow of noble silence prohibited talking or making unnecessary noise, so as not to disturb other meditators. Thankfully, before too long, the technique of observing these sensations without reacting to them either physically or emotionally is explained quite clearly in the daily audio lectures of S.N. Goenka. As I observed the sensation in my back and detached my emotional reaction from it, I was able to see it was not as horrible as it initially felt. I learned how to deconstruct the sensation from what felt initially like “raging pain that was going to kill me if it lasted another second” to something more like “a cold, tight, throbbing sensation just under my shoulder blades that was causing my stomach to tighten”. This wasn’t rationalization, but rather clear observation. I remained connected to my body still, but was able to see more clearly by not reacting to my initial emotional response.

Over time and with regular meditation practice I’ve eliminated the pain response, though a sensation of tightness is still noticeable to me at times throughout the day and during meditation. The main difference is I no longer worry about the pain causing my back to go out. What I’ve determined is the fear was actually more powerful than the “pain” sensation, which no longer has control over me or my activities. Had someone told me this prior to learning meditation, I’m fairly certain it would have made no difference in my ability to control it. Only through meditation and directly experiencing the sensation without reacting to it with fear, anger or negativity was I able to help it to subside.

Seeing all sensations as transitory with the full awareness and acceptance that, as the old proverb about King Solomon says, “This too shall pass,” is what Vipassana is all about. This concept is key to this technique of meditation practice and to Buddhism in general. Also key to both is the idea that misery and suffering are caused by reacting to feelings of blind passion, clinging, attachment, anger, and aversion. The more we react to these feelings, no matter how subtle the emotional sensation may be, the more that reactive behavior is reinforced and made habitual. Even if we don’t act on our emotions, the negative thoughts are still there and are, in fact, a reaction, and the beginnings of misery since misery is all in the mind. Even if we’re suffering from a physical ailment that causes real physical pain, our mind has the incredible power to make the pain far worse, causing us to limit our potential activities and enjoyment of life more than we might if we had a better mental outlook. The technique provides such a better mental outlook for the practitioner, giving our lives more richness and potential.

The reason this technique of meditation works is sensation can be experienced on both the conscious and subconscious equally well. We know this is true since we respond to sensation even when we sleep: A mosquito, for example, which we swat at, or the mosquito bite which we scratch even when in deep sleep. In Vipassana we use the body as a framework to create an environment to demonstrate how emotional sensations are no different from physical ones in that we can choose to respond or not to respond to them (when conscious). It is within our power, and although there is nothing wrong with reacting to physical sensations in real life, there are negative consequences in reacting to emotional sensations – both on the subtle level as well as in the extreme.

Here’s an example: One thing I noticed after the course was that during meditation I had been attempting to sit very straight, thinking that would minimize the stress on my back and make it easier to sit longer and avoid the extremely unpleasant sensation I was still feeling in my back to some degree. When I realized I was forcing my posture to be too upright in response to the fear that I’d experience unpleasantness, I realized I was actually bringing the unpleasant experience on myself. So I began starting the practice by slumping over a little, as I was used to doing. I had actually been preemptively reacting: The very thing we were instructed time and again not to do if we wished to experience success with Vipassana! Since this revelation I’ve experienced much more pleasant sensations while meditating and the perception of the pain in my back has all but gone away completely.

I think the most difficult thing about the course, about practicing meditation, and about life in general, is resisting temptation to expend energy thinking about the past or worrying about the future. In my case, my mind is constantly distracted from focusing on the present sensations by thinking about what I will do the minute I’m done meditating or in the next week, month, year, etc. Thinking about past offenses others have committed against me or that I’ve committed against others is also a sticking point. The difficulty comes in realizing these are all illusions, however, illusions that generate real emotions that result in a mental as well as physiological effect. Thinking about the past and generating anger, fear, excitement, and hundreds of other feelings where there is nothing really happening and there is nothing to address causes unnecessary agitation in the mind and tension in the body. We think about past and future events and generate emotions about things that do not exist in the here and now, while meditating and while proceeding through daily life. Dispelling these incarnations of past and future experiences and the associated emotions allows us to see reality clearly in terms of what’s really happening now, this moment, in our presence, and not just what is in our heads. Again, easy to understand, but to really know this lesson and benefit from it requires meditation practice to avoid sliding back to reacting to the illusions, which is the animal nature of humankind at work and what Goenka calls the “wild, untrained, monkey mind”. We’re all born with it, but we can come out of it, according to the teaching and according to my personal experience.

Although the religion is not explicitly preached about during the meditation course there is a lot of chanting in the ancient Pail language of India by Goenka during the audio lectures to mark the end of meditation practice or discourses. The phrasing of the language and chanting with long, drawn out vibrations of his voice were weird at first, but I grew fond of hearing them by the end…especially since it meant I could soon get up and stretch out, get fresh blood to my back and limbs, and go pee.

Would I take the course again? Absolutely. Although it’s not going to be useful for everyone, especially those who don’t surrender fully to the training experience, I strongly believe anyone would benefit greatly from it. It was a gift to be able to go. If you can see the necessity for positive change in your life, and can make the time, be prepared to work very hard for long hours every single day. It is definitely no vacation. You will not be spoon-fed, or hand-held, though the environment provides everything you need to live, learn, and work. You’re very much on your own, which, if you’re like me, can be exciting until you realize there is nothing external to distract you away from your goal when things get difficult. No TV, internet, music, writing, reading, talking or interacting with others. There are, however, many things internal: negative thoughts, doubts, fears, body pain, emotional pain, learned behaviors, and skepticism to distract you, if you let them. The reward is having the opportunity to face yourself and your own personal demons, undistracted for ten days, and learning a very well-developed and ancient technique for deconstructing and eradicating your own personal misery and suffering.