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

Pluto Photos Illustrate The Granular Nature of Truth

In 2006, New Horizons Spacecraft left earth in search of better data about the solar system.  This week it achieved a significant milestone in the mission and returned some stunning data about the only planet ever to become publicly demoted from planet to dwarf, after over 75 years on the top charts.

Below are before and after photographs of Pluto from the NPR Website.  The left shows Hubble Space Telescope’s image of the former planet compared with the flyby image returned by the New Horizons spacecraft.

The difference in what is now known about Pluto’s shape and topography visually is nothing compared to the granular geologic and biological data that can be collected by spectroscopy during this flyby.  These photos show that only by going after the truth and finding it for ourselves, first hand, will we see how little we really knew.  And how fuzzy our assumptions are seen in hindsight, and how clear they seemed again here in the present.  To sum it up:

True understanding is subverted the moment we are comfortably satisfied  with our understanding of the truth.

“True understanding is subverted the
moment we are comfortably satisfied
with our understanding of the truth.”

– Jon Lybrook

Meditation: There’s not an App for that.

As a web developer I wish writing software were as easy as thinking and making it happen, as with art. The more complex the system, the more one small change has repercussions effecting potentially all aspects of the system.

When you think about how many things have to happen in order to drive yourself to the store and buy a bottle of soda, if you broke down every required action into steps, there are probably 50 or 100 or even 1000 individual steps allowing you to do the “one” task you want to do. In software each of those things has to be written and all possible use case scenarios accounted for and tested so nothing breaks. Yet we naturally just think of any action we perform in working with existing software as one thing.

Software models reality, which in actuality, is way more complex than our amazing brains give credit for, because it can process and make adjust naturally to things at lightning speed. In software every single thing must be written.

Likewise, meditation is a step-by-step process that slows down the mind to focus on each part of the body and analyze it in terms of sensations, but without judgement or attempting to fix it. For me, like most people, this is the hardest aspect of Vipassana meditation.

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!

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.

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?

Bioenergetics, NLP, and Vipassana

A friend of mine sent me a few videos on the topic of Bioenergetics recently.  Bioenergetics is kind of a group-based and body-based psychological therapy where people act out their aggressions and fears.  I’ve heard about this kind of thing, and knew it was referenced alot, especially in the 1960s.

Based on the brief introduction I’ve had there seems to be a fair amount of conceptual overlap with S.N. Goenka’s style of Vipassana training even though meditation is (ideally) physically static.

With Bioenergetics patients are put in situations of physical stress and encouraged to act out scenes of their past in order to release the mental and physical stress.  This approach seems to require some certainty on the part the patient and therapist that trauma has been inflicted by a specific event, person, or persons.  Once established, the group and therapist work backwards to try and undo it.  One way is by replacing ‘somatic markers’ left in the body by the trauma with more neutral ones through physical touch by others and psychosomatic exercises.  This may be vaguely similar to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) where the patient is encouraged to visualize different, more positive outcomes to nonconstructive stories about the past or future that run through their mind with some degree of frequency. In one of the NLP books I read, it is referred to as replaying the same “tapes” (i.e. recordings) in the mind over and over. Bioenergetics is different, however, in that it has a direct, physical, touch component to the therapy while the physical markers (and presumably the mental tapes) get overwritten.  By releasing the harmful, residual tensions in the body, one is more at peace in their body and therefore, it is assumed, their life.

With Vipassana it’s implied that everything comes out in the wash through their simple technique of body scanning, without having to define or discuss specifics about our past hangups or trauma with anyone.  Things come up in the mind without our having to interpret or attest to them in any way as being a root cause of our problems.  The hard part in Vipassana is to simply observe without reacting (and thereby perpetuate) the things that have been disturbing us.

Vipassana, through the awareness of sensation on the body, provides a recognition of specific tensions in the body.  While we may not know the event or mental condition associated with these tensions specifically, the technique instructs us not to be concerned with such specifics, and allows us to release the tension naturally, by training us to allow it to pass regardless, rather than clinging to it out of fear or anger about it, as is our habit.

 

Gratitude Toward our Enemies

Nobody likes to feel they have enemies, and maybe you do not. If so, you probably haven’t made many mistakes in life, or, more likely, you haven’t been trying very hard at anything! For most of us, there are people we’ve offended in the past, intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe they were once even our friends.  A few of these people may even hate us or maybe we sometimes feel we hate them.

Haters are My Motivators

Obviously hate is destructive and counterproductive, so most of us tend to avoid it. Holding a grudge is proven to cause all sorts of damage to the body, mind and spirit.  While this often happens unintentionally, there are people who gravitate toward it as a means of getting the attention of others and gaining a sense of self-worth, however. “Haters are my motivators.” is a great phrase I’ve seen around the web of late. It’s a good reminder that there are indeed evil, sadistic, misdirected and self-centered people in this world with literally no conscience.  In some cases they intentionally cause harm for the fun of it. To cause and witness this suffering in others demonstrates their power over others, at least in their mind.  They exist, it’s a fact and we must be sufficiently motivated to overcome our resistance to that in order to accept the truth.

These kinds of pitiful people are clinically defined as sociopaths, which means they themselves literally can not feel empathy.  I don’t mean to say all people who wind up becoming our enemies are sociopathic, but a recent statistic says that 1 in 25 people are, in fact, without a conscience.  You can’t hurt them, because they don’t feel emotional pain, so they don’t know how other people feel it.  One warning sign of a sociopath is when they wrong us, yet can make us believe we were the ones doing harm to them. This paradox give us perspective into the wide array of moral interpretations such people can conjure up to their advantage, and how meaningless all such philosophies are. Being kind to others, or at least not harming them, is the only morality that exists. Even in self-defense, we can disarm and disable without harming in most cases, as the practice of aikido teaches us so deftly.

Mental Defilements Cause Pain

Seeing the unconscionable actions of others can bring about dark, angry feelings of injustice – causing us to want to do harm to others and drawing us closer to the selfish tendencies of our own minds, causing us pain and suffering while we plot to take revenge!  If we do manage to generate enough hatred to retaliate, the cycle perpetuates and we remain in perpetual misery. These are what Goinkaji calls ‘mental defilements’ in ourselves – those which poison our psyche and body if left unchecked. These mental defilement occur naturally and are what we strive to purify through meditation. By allowing such thoughts to come to the surface, fully recognizing and accepting the pain they cause, how they are affecting us physiologically as well as psychologically, and staying with them quietly while keeping the mind objective and focused, they eventually fade and disappear. Much like allowing a fire to burn itself out or with the help of a steady, constant, stream of water. If we instead try to work with the negative thoughts, justify them, compound them, and roll in them, it will stir them up worse – like trying to extinguish a fire by putting on more wood or, in some cases, gasoline!

Pain Helps Us to Be Aware

Yes, pain or discomfort teaches us – just as a child touching a hot stove learns what not to do.  However, experiencing pain during vipassana mediation works on a deeper and more sophisticated level. By staying with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aches and pains in meditation and facing them objectively we learn to face not only our pain, but our fear of pain.  Through this we have the opportunity to conquer and ultimately be free from it.  Physical pain makes life difficult, but not unbearable, unless we make it so by giving in to it mentally.  Likewise, whatever pain we feel from verbal or emotional difficulties through our interactions with others does not require a knee-jerk, fight or flight response from us all the time.  Only our habitual behaviors make us feel that way, and following through with those primal feelings is simply running from the problem which will catch up to us again sooner or later.

Through the ally of meditation, our enemies allow us to experience things that cause us pain, over and over again if need be, until we learn both not to hurt others nor to feel arbitrarily hurt by them.  In so doing they can teach us vast amounts about ourselves if we choose to see it for what it is, rather than get angry about their actions and perpetuate the cycle.  For that they deserve our sincere compassion, thoughts of loving kindness and yes, our gratitude.

In metta.

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.