The Need to be Mindful of the Mind!

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People of Christen belief are less likely to die 20 days before Christmas than after Christmas. People who believe in something higher themselves are more likely to live longer, generally healthier and more resilient than people who are non-believers. People who meditate are more to feel a sense of wellbeing and are generally happier.

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These statements are rooted in science and from them one may conclude that these people are somehow living and seeing the world in a different way that confers them some benefits.

What’s special about these situations and these people that causes them to experience these benefits?

Research seems to confirm the age-old suspicion that these individuals’ brains are firing differently! That is to say their mind is processing the world differently.  In a sense they are creating their own reality and their own happiness.

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The Buddha realized the world is suffused with suffering and always advocated cultivating the mind to free one of suffering. Science is now discovering that cultivating the mind is indeed very important determinant of our health and wellbeing.

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It is easy to say cultivate your mind but how does one do that? There are many ways, but none surpass the practice of training your attention, which really means meditating. The practice of meditation is a technique used for thousands of years to improve concentration and focus, which improves the control of  our awareness.

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When we are more aware, it allows us to “see and map out” our own mind.  This then allows us to see different aspects of our self. These different aspects of ourselves have different drives, they are all driven to fulfill our different needs and if these needs are in conflict with each other, then this will result in uncomfortable feeling of either chaos or rigidity within us, resulting in ill-health, relationship conflicts and feeling of depression.

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Sciences is now finding out that Practices like prayer, meditation, tai chi, qigong, yoga all help to cultivate our minds in a beneficial way. Even simple exercise is shown to help depression and improve neuroplasticity in the brain.

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So if you are doing any of these practices please don’t let them lapse and if you were thinking about starting, I wholeheartedly support your effort because the benefits are obvious.

Resources

The Mindful Brian by Daniel Siegel

http://flickrhivemind.net/

Skills of Compassion.

In the last blog we looked at what it is to be compassionate. It is now time to look at the skills we need to be compassionate. Lord Buddha thousands of years ago recognized this and recommended the following. Science is now catching up and suggesting the same skills.

Skill 1. The right view is knowing that suffering is caused by viewing the world in a way that’s not serving us and causes us to live in an illusion. We have to remind ourselves that we are not independent of everything; we are dependent on animals, plants, earth, sun, moon, water for our survival and well-being. To be independent of all this would mean we are like god himself, omnipotent. We all know we are not and yet we behave and act like we are. When we truly realize that we are not independent our behavior may change in a way that’s respectful towards others and our environment; we may not pollute the earth and the air, we may look at our fellow humans as fellow travelers in the same boat; what frustrate our needs will also frustrate theirs.

Skill 2.  The right concentration is that which allows us to focus in a way that is life-giving or life flourishing for all rather than self-motivated focus that doesn’t account for the needs of others.

Skill 3. The right intention is when our sole intention towards everyone is to relieve suffering even though there may not be any benefit for us.

Skill 4. The right speech is a communication in a relationship which is non judgmental, comforting and helpful. Non-judgmental does not mean giving up discernment.

Skill 5. The right action is one where we strive to help satisfy human needs that is life-giving or helps us to flourish.

Skill 6. The right livelihood we are lucky if we are doing a job that is promoting healing and human spirit. There are some jobs that are very bad for human spirit and people doing them become numb and “hardened”. In these jobs there is little opportunity to show kindness, promote healing and human flourishing. These jobs are bad for those that do them and for the human spirit as a whole.

Skill 7.  The right effort we have to make the right effort and be dedicated to learning and practicing the skills of compassion.

Skill 8. The right mindfulness we have to learn to be present in the moment so that we are fully engaged in life and not dead in the past or not yet born in the future.

Resources

The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

http://flickrhivemind.net/

Feeling of Contentment

In the last post we looked at satisfying our desires. We noticed as soon as one desire had been satisfied the contentment resulting from satisfying that desire did not last very long, soon another desire appeared which also needed to be satisfied otherwise we risk being unhappy and discontented. We found ourselves in a vicious cycle of desiring and satisfying the desires because our need for desire never ends. In a way more we satisfy them the more hungry we get for more. We spend a lifetime trying to satisfy all our desires and in the end we die without experiencing real happiness and being content. I witness this all the time in patients with terminal illness. Very few people are content at the end of their life. In this post I hope to explore the sources of this elusive contentment.

In the previous posts I also looked at how we react when we feel threatened. How we are wired to deal with treat and desire has evolutionary benefits. We would not be here as a human species without these systems. They help us to satisfy our basic needs. We humans, however, have the potential for much, much more than just having our basic needs satisfy. We have the ability to be happy, lovingly compassionate and content.  We do this by our ‘emotion regulation system’ that helps to balance the other two systems, of threat and desire, and it’s a major source of our feelings of well-being and connectedness. This system uses natural chemicals in our brains called endorphins and opiates; that enables us to have a sense of well-being and being at peace.

The question is how do we enhance this system in our brains? The answer seems to lie in the certain type of exercises and trying to adopt a certain lifestyle.

 

We will look at the exercises and the life style in the future posts but for now lets look at how we feel safe by creating positive feeling in the minds of others. Most people have had the experience of feeling soothed and content, safe and at peace when they feel valued, cared for and cared about. We spend a lot of our time thinking about other people’s feeling towards us and trying to earn other people’s approval, appreciation and respect and be accepted in our group. We want to be valued, seem desirable, helpful, talented and able. Paul Gilbert writes

 

If you can create these sorts of feelings in the minds of others, three things will happen. First, the world will be safe and you will know that these people won’t attack or reject you because they value you. Second, with them you’ll be able to create meaningful roles for mutual support, sexual relationship and / or sharing. And third, receiving signals from others that they value and care for you will have direct effects on your body and on your soothing/ contentment.

 

Given that this kind of behavior towards us by others makes us feel good, and given that other people have the same needs as us, then doesn’t it make sense that compassion and kindness should be at the centre of our relationships and engagement with the world? In this way we improve our quality of our thoughts in our consciousness. The thought would no longer be fear based but rather be based on trust, caring and being valued. Paul Gilbert writes…

When our brains are in a caring mentality pattern, this brings on-line certain feelings and ways of thinking and certain behaviour e.g. concern and kindness for others and working for their welfare. However, it’s a brain pattern and so the feelings and behavior it supports and encourages can be lost when either the incentive/ resource-seeking system or the treat/self –protection system becomes dominant and regulates feeling and thinking. By learning compassion, we learn how to activate a particular state of mind and brain pattern in us associated with caring and nurturing that have soothing qualities. We can learn certain exercises that will stimulate this system, a kind of physiotherapy for the mind.

Resources:

The compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert

Elusive Pleasures and Contentment

We spend a lifetime pursuing things that we think will give us pleasure and contentment. Great minds like Aristotle and many others have devoted time thinking about pleasures that would bring happiness and contentment. The puritans were fearful of pursuing such feel good pleasures in case they led them into temptation. Some claim that Buddha was also not too keen on feel good pleasures; he taught real happiness comes from completely eliminating these desires.

We have come a long way to understanding what these pleasures are. Let us take a step back and try to understand what’s going on when we find pleasure in something. When we seek out certain types of food or sexual experiences, new job, new car etc; and when we actually acquire it, our brain then gives us a boost of certain chemicals such as dopamine, which gives us a feeling of good ripples through our consciousness, making us feel happy. This acts as an incentive or the reward for pursuing our object of desire. The more we acquire, more rewarded we feel and more we want. This is the force or the urges and feelings of the incentive / resource seeking system.

Think about the last time you did something that you really enjoyed, perhaps enjoying an evening with friends, having a good holiday or sexual experience. It may have felt good, but it probably didn’t last that long because those kinds of pleasures usually don’t. Pleasure ALWAYS come to an end. Sometimes the feeling of the fulfilled desire is so fleeting that we are on the lookout for the next one in no time at all.

All this does not mean that we renounce our pleasures, but we can engage in seeking pleasure in more skillful way. If we base our happiness only on operating from our incentive system and fulfilling our desires, life will be a roller coaster ride of short-lasting pleasures, striving, seeking, frustration, wanting more and better, with increasing effort s to control our lives and those of others to give us the next fix of pleasure.  These kinds of pleasures are dependent on the world and other people giving us something in some way. In this way we are always distracted or running away from the unpleasant thoughts or experiences of life; we try to lose ourselves and forget the unpleasantness of life by indulging in pleasure. These short-lived pleasures leave us wanting more and we live in constant pursuit of them, hoping we will be content one day but we never seem to reach that state. Moreover, the pleasure prevents us from reflection, exploration, gaining insight into and experiences of the very nature of our mind.

Insight into our mind will allow us to experience other positive feelings that are based on contentment, non striving, being mindful and living –in – the moment.

We will explore these in more detail in the next article.

Resources

The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

http://flickrhivemind.net/

Did you know people on the other side of the world are patterning our minds.

Can we live without being influenced by our surrounding and be an island to ourselves where no outside influence can affect us? I don’t think so. If we believe that we cannot  BUT be influenced by our environment, our culture, our neighbours, our leaders, our religion, our family, our friends  by the media than doesn’t it make sense that we conduct ourselves in such a way that its beneficial to both our society and ourselves? ( or if you like ourselves and our society?).

In my previous posts I mentioned how by interaction with others we are patterning our mind to react or behave in a particular way. But our quality of interaction and the kind of relationship we have with each other is dependent on the kind of cultures and societies we live in. This means our cultures and social structures can activate and pattern our minds, too. In our fast paced , competitive society we are going to be interacting and stimulating different patterns in each of us than if we were in slower , more contented societies.

Does it not than follow that we have to think about ourselves radically differently than “island among ourselves.” It would be more accurate to think about ourselves as “mutually influencing beings” ? So on individual level, our irritation with each other will raise our stress and increase our vulnerability to range of health problems and to social discord, while our kindness to each other will lower our stress and impact positively on our well-being and increase our social safeness. At a societal level mental illness and criminality are born from complicated genetic, social mentality and cultural/ social interactions. At international level , the ways in which our societies operate, seek goods and services, secure trade agreements and enable international companies to extract huge profits from stock markets will greatly affect the lives and pattern the minds of people far away. Clearly we are all connected , even to those we have not met and are far away on the other side of the world.

So we have a choice of either encouraging selfish tribal behaviour in ourselves and try to be an ” island among ourselves” or we can choose a compassionate approach that’s more thoughtful of others.  Ideally, of course , we want to  blend our interest and interest of others. We will have to reflect and think carefully about our values and try to be the ‘best we can be’ but at the same time, not ruthlessly exploitative.

 

Resources:

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert.

http://www.flickr.com

Has Our Brain Evolved Enough To Show Us The Way To a Better Life?

In the last post we looked at how the reptilian brain evolved to solve problems of survival and how we are still influenced by that pattern of behaviour; since what is encoded in our genes cannot be changed, future life forms can only evolve by building onto what we have already inherited from the previous life forms. I also mentioned how the  mammals attempted to adapt to new situations and what some of the drawbacks were  associated with their strategies. Today I want to look at how humans have evolved, what strategies have been adopted by us and if they are working for us to live a good life.

Remember with primitive brain, as I mentioned in my previous posting, there is a quick, aggressive and  automatic response in a given situation; either to satisfy a desire or to protect oneself or to protect a territory . These are strategies that got evolved and developed over millions of years; and have a survival value. That’s why we still carry them in our genes today. They have become like a game plan for life. Overtime these game plans or strategies have become very elaborate and there are components in our minds that are quick to pick on certain types of information and then helps direct our attention, feelings, reasoning and behaviour. These patterns of behaviour can be activated quite fast and sometimes become active before we are even aware of them and you find yourself asking ” why did I do that, what was I thinking ?”

Lets looks at some of the strategies/ archetypes and how they influence us in everyday life. Quite often some of these guiding strategies and archetypes have element of a seductive quality to them because we like the way it makes us feel and its mode of thinking. Let say for example we belong to a particular religion, we like the way we feel about it and its way of thinking. This suggests that we have accepted the archetype of the religion and identify ourselves as belonging  to it. It also means that this religious archetype will fill us with passion and direct our thinking so that we believe and follow all its teaching. So far so good. Now, suppose another religion who we had been working with for many years on joint projects, suddenly started to advocates for having abortion in certain situations and your religion thinks allowing an abortion in any situation is a serious error.We will automatically , without thinking , starts to condemn this new position taken by the other religion because we have already endorsed the archetype of our religion. When we first endorsed  the archetype of our religion no one at that time advised you of the risks of losing your own individuality or the potential of violence due to disagreement with other religious groups. One simply gets infused with the desire to belong, be part of , follow and conform. We forget we maybe limiting our way of being.

Lets take another example of girls with blonde hair. You say “she is starting a new job and she is a blonde.” Immediately image of this person flashes across our minds without even giving it a thought. Or a blonde girl may say I can’t do mathematics because I am blonde and we immediately understand her reasoning. It’s because there is an archetype about girls with blood hair. You can see these strategies and archetype limits our thinking and therefore our behaviour ; but they do communicate information which can either be accurate in certain situation or very distorted in others. We can also see we can easily fall in with archetypes of  feeling and thinking; which doesn’t allow us to think critically about the assumptions we adopt. Knowing this can lead to some very important insight about the whole nature of our minds.

Let us see now see how the human brain has been improved so that our behaviour is not just a destructive reaction triggered by impulses of our desires? The major new abilities are the use of language and symbols, to think things through, to reason, to reflect, imagine new possibilities and even impossibilities. These new abilities allows us  to stand back from and reflect on what is going on in our minds, and in what we are feeling and doing,that we can do things differently then what our impulse dictates. This potentially  gives us a great flexibility in how we choose to enact different desires and motives. For example, we can separate sexual pleasure from the consequence of the act by using contraception; acquire status and put off having children altogether ; or become celibate in pursuit of enlightenment.The point is than that the desires may not have changed that much over time but because of  our human brains, we can invent thousands of ways to act them out or to refrain from them,which is both a blessing and a curse.

So what can we do to improve ours lives so that we are at peace, live without fear and with ease ? We can learn to understand how the old strategies and archetypes influence us. We can then learn to stand back from identifying with any archetypal process and instead, first think of ourselves as sentient life form that owe our current existence, experiences and competencies to the millions of other life forms that have gone before us. Next, we can identify ourselves with other human. We have all ‘simply arrived here’ and are trying to do the best we can with the brain we neither designed nor, to some degree, understand. We can recognize that we have enormous capacities for being benevolent or malevolent,which we need to understand with compassion. Only then should we start to think about ourselves in more local terms, such as our religious or political group. Our mind seems to be wired in the opposite direction, to stir up strong passions of identification with our local group. BUT it is understanding how we work against those passions generated by selfish interests AND by identifying ourselves as human being in the flow of life that can become key to our action for a better life.

Resources:

The Compassionate Mind  By Paul Gilbert 

Looking For Nourishing Mind Food

In the last post I talked about how we had little say in the design of our brain and  how we had little control over our minds.  I will elaborate on these themes in the future posts but todays I would like to give you overview on what we can do, so that we are not always at the mercy of our automatic responses. I feel the overview is necessary  at this time because people intuitively know that some of what I said in the last post rings true at some level; and I also sense some urgency of readers wanting to know the possible solution to this predicament in which we find ourselves.

Let start where we left off in the last post; we have a brain that is unique to ourselves, it is the result of the genes we inherited from our parents and the experiences we had in our early life. We will react to a given situation in a very unique way, it will be according to how we have been hard-wired to react by our genes, our experiences and whether we have learned to ‘control’ our impulses. The key to our predicament is how we view ourselves and others in the world.

I want to remind ourselves that all the people in this world had no say in the brain and the mind they find themselves with, we are all in the same boat. Sure some had better childhood experiences than others, some may have ‘ better’ genes for some useful skill; but it all happened by chance. With this realization it is hard for me to blame and condemn myself or others because at some level we have no control over it. I hope no one is going to conclude from this that we are free to behave as we wish without taking any responsibility for our behaviour. Over millions of  years, nature ‘ realized ‘ that we have to control some very raw and aggressive impulses for us to be able to live in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. These aggressive impulses served a very important role in our evolution( which I will elaborate in the future post)and they may still serve us today in some situations but over all things have changed , we have to refine our raw impulses and use them only on a rare occasions where they maybe still quite appropriate. You may wonder about what the nature, through evolutionary process, has equipped us with to deal with these difficult situations ? Well, it is our ability for thinking ahead, being able to stand back from and reflect on what is going on in our minds, and in what we are feeling and doing. It is these special gifts that have evolved over millions of years that allow us to behave differently  from other animals; like crocodile for example. Crocodile  behave in a very predictable way according to it primitive reptilian brain. We too have this reptilian brain, but evolutionary process have added on new parts which allows us to behave and enact our desires in novel ways.

Once we stop blaming others and ourselves we will be freer to genuinely move towards developing the insight , knowledge and understanding we need to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. None of us is responsible for having brains that is capable of feeling great fear, rage or all kinds of sexual desires. But, learning and practicing compassion will help us feel more content and at peace with ourselves and more concerned for others. I should point out that compassionate behaviour is not just about acting in kind, warm and friendly ways. It’s also about protecting ourselves and others from our own destructive desires and actions;it’s about being assertive , tolerating discomfort and developing courage. We can reason similarly for much wider issues, such as issues about our planet. There are many destructive processes going on that are killing our planet , drilling for oil for example. It is not the posture of  blaming psychology  that would be helpful but instead our genuine desire to nurture and repair  that requires  our attention. Without it, it’s so easy to get stuck in denial or simply get angry and say ‘why should I.’

Paul Gilbert writes …”We can learn to cultivate certain aspect of our minds such as our compassionate mind, which will help us with other aspects of our mind and promote our well-being. We can also become more aware of how our societies may stimulating the selfish ‘me first’ part of ourselves with unrealistic fantasies and desires and setting us up to want more  and more and, at the same time, to feel more disappointed and personal failures.”

You can see from the general theme that we have to learn some important skills if we are to feed our brain and mind with the nourishing food that would be healthy not just for our own mind but also for others who share our world with the same predicaments. More in the future posts.

Resources

The compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert.

Mind, Brain and Relationships as a Single Reality.

In a new field call the Interpersonal Neurobiology, the mind, brain and relationships is viewed as a single reality rather than three separate entities. First let me quickly review the single reality story and then I will look at the value or benefits of this new view.

To understand how  mind, brain and relationships are connected as a single reality we can envision a visual image of  triangle that signifies one reality with three facets. The one unified reality, represented by the triangle, is the system of energy and information flow (at times I will refer to it as ‘the flow’).

The triangle represents the process by which energy and information flow and how the flow changes across time. The relationships are the sharing of that flow. The brain here represents the neurones in the head, as well as the nerves in the whole body; and it represents embodied mechanism of that flow. And the mind is an emergent process the arises from the system of energy and information flow within our bodies and between people; another wards the mind result from the brain and the relationships as the energy flow. The mind is an emergent process that regulates that from which it arises.( i.e. the mind arises from the movement of energy in the brain and the relationships; and then the mind regulates the flow in the brain and in a relationship). What arises is the emergent self – organizing process that regulates the energy and information flow. So the mind, among other attributes, is in part the regulatory process that shapes energy and information flow within and between people

In the Interpersonal Neurobiology field, the brain, mind and the relationships are not separate from each other, they are three elements of energy and information flow that represents the same single reality. These three elements communicate, relate and exchange information with regulation of “the flow”  between them. The better the communication and linkage between them  then better will be the “integration”, which is important as we will see in a moment.

From  an interpersonal neurobiology perspective , integration is the definition of good health. Integration is, as mentioned  before, the linkage of differentiated elements. A healthy mind, a healthy brain, and healthy relationship emerge from good integration. The structural connections of differentiated areas to one another in the body enable flexible and adaptive regulation. A well-regulated brain coordinates and balances its functioning through having a good integration with all its differentiated parts.

What are the advantages of this model ? Well, for one, we can understand better how the energy and information flow trough the brian as revealed in various brain scan findings; for example we can see what happens to energy flow on a scan when someone sees a loved one or an enemy or what happens when we trying to solve a problem etc.  We can also reinterpret the field of mental disorders; instead of listing properties of a particular disorder and giving it a name such a depression or schizophrenia, we can understand depression or schizophrenia as process of energy flow disruption or inadequate integration between differentiated parts of the brain . We can also reframe how we approach understanding relational experiences within families, couples, classrooms, or companies. Integration becomes the framework for looking for dysfunction ; the energy and information flow becomes our focus for correcting the dysfunction.

Integration creates harmony. Impaired integration results in chaos and/or rigidity. Brain or relationship that are not integrated move into dysfunctional state. The brain is unable to balance the flow of energy and information in a flexible way. So it either adopt a very rigid way of handling the energy or it may become very chaotic. The same is true for the relationships, if the information and energy cannot be handled between a couple in flexible and balance manner the relationships become rigid or chaotic.

The natural implication of this interpersonal neurobiology view of integration at the heart of health is that we can empower each other to discover novel and effective approaches to promoting wellness in our relationship, our brains, and our minds.

The nature of the impediment to integration may be some combination of genetic , experiential , or chance factors. This strategy then recognizes each individuals innate potential to heal and become whole by releasing the blocked capacity of that person to integrate the brain and relationships. The role of the clinician , teacher , or parent , then , is to facilitate the discovery of this potential for integration inherent in each of us. This is the way we awaken the mind to create health in the person’s life.

Daniel J. Siegel writes in his book ” Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology” ...

“…the triangle in everyday life enables us to see how our minds emerges not only from neural mechanisms but also from relationship we have with other people and with our planet. This means that we don’t ” own ” our minds , but rather we have an expanded sense of identity that goes beyond the boundary of our skin , beyond a definition of ” self” that is limited to just our bodily encasement. When studies of happiness, health, longevity , and even wisdom are reviewed , the key feature shared by each of these attributes is relationships. We can see how the triangle makes relationships equally as important as the embodied mechanisms of the brain in shaping the mind.When the relationships are integrated, a person’s mind thrives and the individual is healthier, happier, wiser, and live longer.”

At the heart of well-being is a fully integrated view of energy and information flow: the way it is shared in relationships, passes through  the embodied  mechanism of the brain, and is regulated by the self-organizing emergent embodied and relational process of mind.

Resources

Daniel J. Siegel  ” Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology” 

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