Picture Where You Live

Family Photographs - The Author with family.

I learn alot about my life and the lives of the people in my family by looking at old family photographs. I learn which people, activities and events gave them the most experience, joy, and hardship. Still photographs and videos have a remarkable way of bringing us back in time emotionally too.

Photographs merely bind personal data to other human beings related to us, whom we may know something about. What their names were, what they did for a living, who they married, and who they conceived.  Boring facts mostly.

While photos give us insight into stories about the past, genetic studies have created a crystal ball into our stories to come in the future. Genetic work predicts what we as individuals can expect by way of heart diseases, mental health, and other degenerative disorders. This information will be the key to treating diseases ahead of time, to minimize damage and help ensure a longer, happier life.

While genetic and medical data are factual and can provide scenarios for the future, it is the personal stories about the past that provides insight into the present. The stories about others are not about the subjects so much as the storyteller through what they tell about *others* in the family. These stories are what spew out our mouths when remembering the patchy information about our distant relatives and life events to the satisfaction of ourselves.  It’s contriving the actual narrative to go along with the factual fragments we decide to share, in order to create a realistic portrayal of our ancestors (who are an extension of ourselves), cleanly washed and pressed for the world to receive.

Maggie McReynolds describes making vicarious life decisions based on what we learn from our relatives, and that some of our decisions are based on their voices, rather than our own. She makes her case brilliantly in a compelling Ted-X talk using the metaphor Living in our Great-Grandparent’s Houses.

We generally remember best about times where there are photographs or videos, but letters people wrote and the stories they tell invoke a different mode of creative interpolation where we must “read between the lines” a little to understand not just the stories, but why people told the stories they did in letters at particular times in their lives.

Disruptive life-events are often unavoidable, but some are.  Many of us find ourselves in repeating cycles of counter-productive behavior, and the only thing that breaks us out of it, is some good old chaos and drama! If we can’t get distraction through life’s normal vicissitudes of births, deaths, changes of jobs, etc, we find something to create the distraction.

There are very good reasons to do all those things too, and distraction is necessary for survival at times of course, to gain perspective and break a rigid focus.  But my point is we tend to create distractions to avoid facing certain things in life. What if this distractive energy were able to be channelled into crafting more productive habits? This way, instead of responding to agitation by engaging in trivial distractions and mindless entertainment, we use the energy to identify and patch the areas of our lives that are causing us and our loved ones the most distress?

A little food for thought as we approach the new year. I hope you and your family have a loving holiday season and new year.

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.

 

Independence

This quote seems most relevant and on-topic for Independence Day.

We must train our minds to understand that not everything someone says or does is the truth. We have the ability to believe or to not believe what is being reflected upon us from those around us.

When we come into contact with a mean-spirited person, we must feel compassion for them because those who are reflecting pain onto others are struggling within. We must also keep ourselves safe by seeing and practicing the skill of not believing everything someone says to us. By not taking things personally, we can develop a deep love for ourselves through knowing that it is our thoughts and perceptions of ourselves that create endless possibilities or the opposite, boundaries due to our lack of confidence.

We can create our own journeys of pain or pleasure when we no longer leave others in charge of how we feel.”

Borrowed from http://buddhasayings.com

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.

Talking to People About Meditation

In describing Vipassana meditation to a number of people this weekend I was met with a common theme.  Most of them said they thought meditation would be boring, and that’s why they weren’t interested in doing it. But when asked about what they thought the benefits would be, they said things like “bliss”, “relaxation”, and “supreme enlightenment!”. While that may be true of some practices, the Vipassana approach taught by S.N. Goenka delivers not just relaxation or bliss, but something much more powerful: simple “happiness” through developing one’s ability to concentrate the mind. 

Sometimes the response to this is “But I’m already happy.” (ergo, I don’t need to learn to meditate). There are of course varying degrees of happiness. Most people have something gnawing at them, even in the most serene environments. That subtle feeling of discontentment that something could be just slightly better, and so they move to change things so it can be, and then again and again until the objective is no longer to be at peace with the place and moment, but to make things better. This discontentment, it is often said by scholars in Buddhism, is what the Buddha really meant when he refers to ‘suffering’. Sure suffering could be the result of a larger physical or emotional problem, but it can also be the result of your tea being not quite hot enough, if the mind allows you that kind of focus. Maintaining charge of one’s mind to not allow unhappiness to enter into the sphere of their mental environment results in pure happiness, by definition. Easier said than done, so that is why we practice meditation.

One person asked me if meditation was like going on a hike where you’d think about things as they came to you and observe the world outside with awareness, as well as the pain growing in your feet and different parts of your body as time passes. After some consideration I answered no, that I didn’t think meditation was like going on a hike because the objectives were different.  People can go on hikes for many different reasons and, like meditation, there are physical and psychological benefits to both.  However meditation in the style I practice has the main objective of mental purification, not being aware of your environment, although that skill may improve through the practice of meditation too. By combing through the physical sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) and learning to accept them in a safe environment of focus, we eventually grow to also accept things pleasant and unpleasant outside the confines our bodies with acceptance. This is how the practice works. It was clear that the person asking the question was not happy that their analogy of hiking and meditation was not embraced.  She really wanted to be told that she was okay without meditation in her life because she liked and benefited from hiking, I suppose.

Likewise some who practice meditation of a different style sometimes grow defensive when I point out the differences between our approaches and the core objectives of Vipassana: To come to terms with one’s personal reality as a path to real happiness. There are no external devices of conscious imaginary visualization to provide temporary emotional happiness in Vipassana. In Vipassana, these things actually work against the objective of observing and accepting reality. It is hard work, but most people want their results to be pleasant and immediate while meditating instead of training to fortify the mind against unhappiness, like one might train the body through yoga or lifting weights against physical inflexibility and weakness.

It’s a tentative balance when talking with others about the practice. No one wants to think their current lifestyle and pursuits are inadequate. The acid test is, can you maintain the balance of your mind and level of happiness during good times and bad with this practice? The truth is paradoxical and is therefore somewhat had to convey in conversation to those who don’t already get it: Only by accepting the pains and inadequacies in our lives and embracing them are we free to be truly happy.

Making Meditation Easier: Controlling Our Internal Chemistry

I have a little niece who recently had a 4th birthday.  Her little brother got a musical birthday card for his birthday earlier in the year, and she really wanted one too. It’s just a greeting card with a little electronic chip in it that plays and small audio sample repeatedly. My wife remembered this and weeks before her birthday found one.  It loops the whistling chorus of Lovin’ Spoonful’s song What A Day For A Daydream.  We decorated it with pictures and sent it off.  Her birthday came and she had a magnificent party and seemed to forget all about wanting this singing card.  My sister didn’t give it to her on her birthday for some reason.  Then just this week I got a call.  My niece was home sick from daycare and she and my sister found and opened the special musical birthday card.  My sister said my niece got so excited she actually blushed and said in a quiet but excited voice, “I got my own singing card!”  She finally got what she wanted, and the result was a noticeable biological change in her metabolism and skin tone caused by the excitement.

Most of us don't get what we want...except Ralphie.

Most of us don’t get what we want…

Most of us don’t get what we want — certainly not all the time.  When we do, we may enjoy it for a while, but then it’s off to find the next thing that we don’t yet have to give us pleasure, excitement, or just keep the blues and difficulties of life away for a little while longer while we continue to seek more permanent satisfaction.

Gaining true satisfaction with life is something not many of us can claim to have done, and one of the reasons I started meditating.  Learning to meditate properly was one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in my 45 years on the planet.  Sitting still is easy for the first 10-20 minutes, but after that the body starts building tensions — thinking about all the things to do today..this week…and.next week!  The past, likewise becomes a burden:  All  the things I have said, someone else said, things I could have said, should have done differently, and again to the future…what I’ll do next time!  Worrying about all the time lost.  So much to do to make up for lost time!  Ahhh!  I need to get up and go NOW.

Yet, I am here to sit now…and for the next 43 some odd minutes I have left (I set a timer and never look at the clock so I’m never totally sure.  Are any of us ever sure how much time we have left?).

One great meditator once said the way to handle this paradox while sitting is to say to yourself, “Yes these things may all be very important to me, but right now I am meditating.”  I like that notion and have found it helpful in staying put.

The more time I spend meditating and studying the technique, the more I understand the teachings.  I practice Vipassana Meditation under the tutelage of S.N. Goenka. I would not recommend trying this technique without proper guidance as given in 10-day silent retreats offered by Vipassana Research Institute.  Why?  Because they have a training environment and structured schedule to launch a new meditator into working with the best chance at success for continuing, and gaining the benefits of it.  Most people, beginning meditators especially, get frustrated and stop doing the work without gaining anything after their first attempts at sitting for one hour.  The training costs nothing but your time (and a voluntary donation if you are so inclined after completing the course). No one bugs you afterward or tries to convert you to a religion, or sell you anything.

This is the technique, which in its instructions are simple:

  1. Sit with eyes closed for one hour in the morning and one in the evening.
  2. While sitting, methodically scan the body, head to toe, for physical sensations – heat, cold, tingling, prickling, itchiness, sweat, pressure, pulsation, pain, etc.
  3. Recognize with each sensation you experience that it is changing and impermanent.  It may increase or decrease but will eventually pass away in time, just as it arose if you accept it for what it is and relax.  This is the law of nature.
  4. Stay focused, keep the scanning going, and don’t let the mind wander.

And that’s it in a nutshell!  It’s really all there is to it, though it is far easier said than done, which is why proper training is required.  The benefits are many, including the ability to control stress, anger and anxiety along with minimizing or even curing their related physical maladies: Back pain, fatigue, stomach ulcers, migraines, grinding teeth, and sicknesses resulting from general immune deficiency.

What I’ve found is this:  Step 4 — Not letting the mind wander is not just helpful for meditation, it’s vital.  Thoughts will wander, of course, but it’s critical that we come back from the fantasy of the past and future (which is where the mind naturally goes when not focused on the present) as quickly as possible. Since we’re sitting still and can’t do anything about the past or the future, such mental meanderings while meditating actually punish us by causing added stress, making meditation harder, unpleasant, and keep us from progressing.

What I’ve also learned from listening to discourses by Goenkaji, and continue to understand on a deeper level is this form of insight meditation as taught and practiced by Buddha himself is all about monitoring and controlling our own biochemistry. It is how meditation and biology relate to biofeedback. Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of physiological functions with the goal of being able to manipulate them at will.

Here’s how it works: Stress, anger, fear, lust and hatred all generate particular biochemicals.  When we think about the external objects associated with these dark emotions, it generates a little of the biochemical and releases it into our bloodstream. The body reacts to the chemical and generates sensation on the body which we then respond to subconsciously, generating a little more of the chemical.  When we stay fixated on outside objects tied to these emotions we become stuck in a feedback loop of craving and generating more and more of this poison chemical that ultimately makes us feel more and more miserable.  Basically we become addicted to these biochemicals which can, in time, destroy both the mind as well as the body.

So why would anyone persist in craving about something they hate?  This is what took me a long time to understand.  We do so not because we want to hate, but because we want resolution, self-serving justice, and to ultimately prevent or instantiate once and for all time the things we most want changed in our lives.  The same is true for things we like and want but can not have as well as those things we despise and want eradicated.  Simply put, we react strongly to things that we identify with strongly, and things we allow to affect us strongly, but can’t control.

Since control over the things we hate (or want) is not usually attainable, at least not permanently, we who are more obsessive and egotistical will fixate on and fantasize about situations we dislike in order to come up with ways to achieve our goals of either attaining or dismantling the objects of our attention. This is true during meditation and while driving down the road, doing dishes, shopping or going about various things in daily life.  It is also where the biochemicals come in to play. The idea of getting what we want, and the end to things we don’t want stimulates this chemical reaction in the body.These chemicals give us initial pleasure in that they are the result of us feeling as if we were attaining what is desired at very that moment.  This is the dark side of fantasy.

As we fantasize about getting what we want, we get a high feeling.  Then as the high fades, we realize we aren’t where we thought we were while fantasizing.  In response to that we feel a low feeling — lower than where we started.  We then seek more of the chemical that made us feel good, so we might fantasize again – easy to do when you can do nothing but sit with eyes closed:  Rewriting past experiences in our minds (to our satisfaction this time!) and getting excited about things we haven’t done yet.  As with most addictions, we require more and more of the chemical each time to reach the desired effect, to maintain the high longer, and put off the inevitable crash.  So we keep going back to the outside object with greater and greater focus and intensity in order to get a bigger payload of the biochemical each time.  Thus the endless cycle of misery continues.

But there is a way out.  Mental discipline prevents us from going there in meditation – with the goal of not going there in day-to-day life. When we monitor ourselves against mental wanderings while meditating we are, in effect, monitoring ourselves in order to prevent this particular kind of biochemical flow from starting.  It starts because of the things that seem important to us are immediately unattainable, so unless we focus on something else personal, like the sensations on our body, as is the prescribed technique, we begin to crave – thus starting the unwanted biochemical feedback cycle again.

Things that seem important are very often things that we don’t already have — no matter how much we may have already.  Rather than taint what we have because of misery for what we want but do not have, our interests are probably better served by staying focused on the present so we can work for what we want. Meditation is, after all, meant to help us to become content in the present so that we can do our best work and make for the best possible future outcomes for ourselves and others.  Otherwise, as the song goes, “you may be daydreaming for a thousand years”…and never get any closer to true happiness and contentment.

Seeing, Focus, Clarity, and Vision

Seeing.

Focus.

Clarity.

Vision.

All these terms can pertain to both thought and the act of witnessing with one’s eyes. The metaphors between the two processes are endless.  It’s no accident that the optic nerve is the most direct pathway to the brain.  It’s also no accident that the word “Vipassana” is translated into both “Insight” and “Mindfulness” Meditation.

The word “Recognition” is often a potent reminder of how the root words provide keys to origins of words and their concepts. In today’s world, to ‘recognize’ something means to see something and know what it is, with the emphasis being on the seeing part.  More poignantly, to recognize something means to re-think it or re-“cognize” it.  To see it something, know what it is, and reflect on what you know about it.  In so doing we reprocess and reinforce the ideas about what we know about it in our minds.  Whether what we are reinforcing is true or not, is a different story.

As a child and adolescent I remember staring at myself in the mirror, focusing at looking into my own eyes and repeating the sentence “I am a human being” and dwelling on the idea of my own existence.  I’m not sure how I came up with that, but the net effect was to take me out of the whirlwind of thought and experiences surrounding my life at the moment and have a moment or two of rather deep, self-awareness.  I felt like the exercise verified and connected me to every other human being. It allowed me to, however briefly, see myself as thought I were looking at a different person other than myself, perhaps providing a glimpse into what others were seeing when they looked at me.

I find that when my mind wanders during Vipassana meditation and I find tensions arising the act of putting my attention on what I’m seeing behind my closed yelids helps awaken my mind to the reality of the moment – as opposed to whatever I had been thinking about when I noticed my attention was not on sensation.  This may be a slight deviation from the technique of focusing solely on body sensations, but I find it is instantaneously grounding.

Similarly, focusing on other sensations beyond feeling the surface of the skin:  Smell, taste, hearing could likewise may prove helpful in bringing one back to center and closer to the objective of feeling sensations on the surface of the body objectively.  The only downside is it seems to pull me out of what seem like deeper states of meditation, which may in fact be just rolling in thought and not meditation at all.

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.