Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sharing the Heart - a Simple Practice

     Why would Pema Chödrön's heart-centered meditation practice (below) be beneficial?

     Yale professor Laurie Santos, interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, provides one perspective: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/amanpour-and-company/video/laurie-santos-on-the-mental-health-crisis-among-students/
     "... we now have two decades of scientific work that is identified, exactly these behaviors that seem make us happier. And that the crux of it is that those behaviors aren’t often the things that we expect, they’re often the things that we’re putting off to do other things, thinking that those things are going to make us happy. 
     ... one of the most unexpected areas I find is the power of social connection, just literally spending time with other people and trying to connect with them. I mean, we all know social contact is important but we forget that loneliness (one of the opposites of social contact) can be as bad for us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
     We forget also that social contact can come from just simple connections with people we don’t know very well, you know, a chat with a barista at a coffee shop. Those simply kinds of things can boost our mood much more than we expect. And this is the kind of thing I worry about a lot on college campuses because loneliness is also one of these negative mental health statistics that’s increasing on college campuses today.  
     Right now, nationally, about two-thirds of students say that they’re very lonely most of the time. ... And I see why that is ... they sit in a dining hall with these big headphones on, surf scrolling & texting each other but not making contact in real life with actual humans. And so, I think that’s one of the big hints, we just need to take time to chat with people. 
     And I think we see a pattern in technology. The ATM started this revolution of folks kind of getting out of human interactions. We save a lot of time that way, it’s true, and time is very important for well-being also. But all those little mini social interactions that we have waiting in a bank line, or waiting to grab our coffee, or even chatting with the telephone operator when we’re trying to order a taxi, those simple interactions are going away.  
     And the research shows that loneliness is going up. And there’s potentially an important balance here where we do want to save some time, but we also want to make sure that we’re having these social connections in real life. They contribute to our happiness much more than we think.
     ... the problem when we design technology is that we have these mistaken notions about the kinds of things that are going to make us happy. ... we don’t realize that we need the social connection.
     There’s some lovely work by the psychologist, Liz Dunn, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia. And she has this study where she looks at whether or not just having your phone out affects smiling.
     She does this in a waiting room where strangers are waiting together. And what she finds its kind of amazing. She finds that people smile 30 percent less when their phones are around, even if they’re not really doing anything on them.  
     And so, if you multiply that by say, everyone walking around in London and the U.K. on the streets, all that decrease in smiling is probably really affecting the connection that we feel with other people. It’s probably affecting the ease with which we start a conversation with somebody new.
     These phones that we have in six billion pockets around the world are distracting us from the real life connection that we need with other humans."
 

      "Sharing the heart is a simple practice that can be used at any time and in every situation. It enlarges our view and helps us remember our interconnection.

     The essence of this practice is that when we encounter pain in our life we breathe into our heart with the recognition that others also feel this. It’s a way of acknowledging when we are closing down and of training to open up. 
     When we encounter any pleasure or tenderness in our life, we cherish that and rejoice. Then we make the wish that others could also experience this delight or this relief.
     In a nutshell, when life is pleasant, think of others. When life is a burden, think of others.
     If this is the only training we ever remember to do, it will benefit us tremendously and everyone else as well. It’s a way of bringing whatever we encounter onto the path of awakening compassion."
                                                                                                                            Pema Chödrön



Thursday, November 21, 2019

Balanced Intelligence - Hemispheric Integration

     “You are not thinking. You are merely being logical.”
                                                      Neils Bohr, physicist & Nobel laureate     
     Isn't using "merely" and "logical" in the same sentence dangerously taboo? For many of us it is. Yet a Nobel laureate in physics might know something about thinking & logic.

     “Albert Einstein called the intuitive or metaphoric mind (right hemisphere) a sacred gift. He added that the rational mind (left hemisphere) was a faithful servant. 
     It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine.” Bob Samples

     Our intelligence is, of necessity, far more complex than the self-referrential internal narrative, left-hemisphere-dominant level we're all aware of, and unknowingly, tend to identify with as if it were a direct, accurate readout of all that we are & all that life is. This is a very common - almost universal, problematic form of mistaken identity ("cognitive fusion") and underestimation of ourselves & life itself.

     “If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.” Neils Bohr
     “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.”
Neils Bohr
 
     “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
Neils Bohr
     “True words seem paradoxical.” Lao-Tzu
        “The maturity and wisdom of a human being comes when it is possible to see multiplicity, paradox, and complementary differences with a spacious mind and an open heart.” Jack Kornfield 
        “… a mature adult … can hold both conviction and paradox.” 
        Sharon Danloz Parks. “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith.” John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

     “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. But the opposite of one profound truth, may be another profound truth.” Neils Bohr
     Black-and-white, {either / or} thinking is essential for survival - to quickly, narrowly-focus down on a specific object & definitively categorize it either as 'grab & eat this', or 'run / fight.' This same objectively-distanced mode of thinking is essential for many straight-forward, practical tasks eg math, science & technology etc. 
     But the left-hemisphere alone is severely unequipped to deal with nuances, subtleties & complexities: relationships / social interactions - personalities, cultures, races, religions etc; the arts & humanities; collaboration / negotiation / mediation; depths of meaning, values, existential issues, etc. 
     Also, the left-hemisphere 'doesn't know what it doesn't know' - it was never meant to stop, question & analyze its own judgment. So there's no room for re-evaluation or negotiation, resulting in deadlock: 'I'm right / reasonable / good; You're wrong / crazy / bad.' Populists, dictators & political / religious extremists all seem to fit this mold of rigid, simplistic black-and-white snappy slogans that grab & hold the hearts & minds of fervent supporters and make mature reflective adults shake their heads in stunned disbelief. Indeed, we see left-hemisphere vs left-hemisphere 'partisanships' locking horns on the news every night
     To effectively appreciate subtlety (many shades of gray) & to manage complexity (metaphor, paradox etc), a quick either / or decision is not enough. The left hemisphere's detail-orientation MUST BE KEPT IN CONTEXT by the right hemisphere's ability to appreciate the big picture, complexities & relationships. Our complex, constantly changing, profoundly interdependent cosmos requires a both / and approach: BOTH a quick either / or decision when called for eg when doing CPR; AND a much slower, much more careful consideration of as many variables as possible, when called for eg deciding on whether to marry a person; or mediating a peace deal between long-time warring factions. 
     For individuals & cultures to thrive, mature, harmonious, left / right hemispheric integration is essential.

     Here's an ultra-condensed summary of 20-yrs of research culminating in a 588-page book: Iain McGilchrist. “The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Yale University Press, 2019.
     “If I had to sum it up, I’d say the world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language & abstraction; yields clarity & power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.
     The right hemisphere by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings, within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, never perfectly known. And this world exists in a certain relationship.
     The knowledge mediated by the left hemisphere is however within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but the perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness.
     There’s a problem here about the nature of the two worlds. It offers two versions of the world and obviously we combine them in different ways all the time.
     We need to rely on the (left hemisphere) to manipulate the world.
     But for a broad understanding of it, we need to use knowledge that comes from the right hemisphere."
        Iain McGilchrist. “The Divided Brain.” TEDtalk RSA Animate: https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain


     “Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.” Neils Bohr




Monday, November 18, 2019

What is this? - - Who am I?

     These may be the most basic, meaningful, open questions, koans or topics to contemplate. Some thoughtful peoples' reflections:

     “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.”
                                                                                                                        R. Buckminster Fuller

     "My own working assumption is that we are here as local Universe information gatherers. We are given access to the divine design principles so that from them we can invent the tools that qualify us as problem solvers in support of the integrity of an eternally regenerative Universe." R. Buckminster Fuller

      “Hara means nothing other than the physical embodiment of the original Life center in man.
     Man is originally endowed and invested with Hara. But when, as a rational being, he loses what is embodied in Hara it becomes his task to regain it. To rediscover the unity concealed in the contradictions through which he perceives life intellectually is the nerve of his existence. As a rational being he feels himself suspended between the opposite poles of heaven and earth, spirit and nature. This means first the dichotomy of unconscious nature and of the mind which urges him to ever-increasing consciousness; and second, the dichotomy of his time-space reality on this earth and the Divine beyond time and space. Man’s whole existence is influenced by the tormenting tension of these opposites and so he is forever in search of a life-form in which this tension will be resolved
     What is man to do when he feels himself suspended between two opposing poles? He can surrender himself to the one or to the other and so, for a time disavow the contradiction; or he can seek a third way in which it will be resolved. The only right choice is the one which will not endanger the wholeness of his being. Since man in his wholeness must include both poles his salvation lies only in choosing the way which unifies them. For man is destined to manifest anew the unity of life within all the contradictions of his existence. The way to this unity is long. The integration of these two poles – the unconscious, and the conscious life of the mind, as well as between life in space time reality and the Reality beyond space time – constitutes the way to human maturity. Maturity is that condition in which man reaps the fruit of the union he has regained. The realization of this union means that he has found his true vital center. Basis, symbol, and proof of this is the presence of Hara.” 
        Durckheim KG. “Hara – The Vital Center of Man.” Inner Traditions, 1975. (originally published 1956 - hence the dated terminology)

      “We are consciousness itself, knowing itself, being itself, expressing itself out of the void into form.” Jack Kornfield

      “The enlightenment instinct is the instinct for the ground of being to become fully conscious of itself.” Adyashanti


     “By means of thousands of hours of observation, Buddhist contemplatives claim to have penetrated into ordinarily hidden dimensions of the mind that are more chaotic, where the order and structure of the human psyche are just beginning to emerge. Examination of the deep strata of mental processes reveals layers previously concealed within the subconscious. Finally, the mind comes to rest in its natural state: the ground from which both conscious and ordinary subconscious events arise. This is true depth psychology, in which we observe deep ‘core samples’ of the subconscious mind, cutting across many layers of accumulated conceptual structuring. The culmination of this meditative process is the experience of the substrate consciousness (Skt. Alaya-vijnana), which is characterized by three essential traits: bliss, luminosity, and nonconceptuality. The quality of bliss does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus, for the physical senses are withdrawn, as if one were deeply asleep. Nor does it arise in dependence upon pleasant thoughts or mental images, for such mental activities have become dormant. Rather, it appears to be an innate quality of the mind when it has settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity. 
     … The substrate consciousness is not inherently human but is also the ground state of consciousness of all other sentient beings. It is from this dimension of awareness that the human mind emerges, so the substrate consciousness is prior to and more fundamental than the human conceptual duality of mind and matter. Both the mind and all experiences of matter are said to emerge from this luminous space, which is undifferentiated in terms of any distinct sense of subject and object. This hypothesis rejects Cartesian dualism, as well as the belief that the universe is exclusively physical. Moreover, this hypothesis may be put to the test of experience, regardless of one’s ideological commitments and theoretical assumptions.”
       B. Alan Wallace. “Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic. A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” Columbia University Press, 2012. 

     “The perennial philosophy states that the omega experience (not the description, but the actual experience of union with the Divine) is identical in all the mystical branches of all the world’s religions. This has implications for how we should live our lives, which Aldous Huxley succinctly laid out in his Minimum Working Hypothesis: 
     · That there is a Godhead, Diving Ground of Being, or Brahman that our reality depends upon for its existence.
     · That this Ground both transcends the world and is imminent as the world.
     · That it is possible for human beings to love, know and, virtually, to become actually identical with the Divine Ground.
     · That to achieve this unitive knowledge is the ultimate end and purpose of human existence.
     · That there is a Way or Dharma that must be obeyed if people are to achieve their final end, and this Way is a way of peace, love, humility and compassion.”
        Dana Sawyer “Huston Smith: Wisdomkeeper. Living the World’s Religions. The Authorized Biography of a 21st Century Spiritual Giant.” Fons Vitae, 2014.


Monday, November 11, 2019

Getting Along Perfectly ???

     “If we think we already know what there is to know, it is difficult to see things in a new way. Everything seems dry, boring, sterile, and repetitive, but in reality, nothing is that way. Only our minds are, when awareness is absent. Being present is something we learn to love. It is an acquired taste. Being present in meditation is training ourselves in sustaining wakefulness, whether the content of the moment is pleasant or not.
     We can apply don’t-know mind to our relationships. One common habit of mind in relationship to others is to judge and evaluate according to our views and opinions about how others should behave (as one saying goes: it’s easier to see an ant on another’s nose than a yak on your own). However, we can try seeing differently and with greater understanding and compassion. As Rumi wrote: 'Half of any person is wrong and weak and off the path. Half! The other half is dancing and swimming and flying in the invisible joy.'

      The meditator’s path is not about trying to become perfect. It is a path that leads to inner freedom. I have found meditators to be some of the most idealistic people in the world. It makes sense that we would be; after all, we are aiming for the highest happiness. But when idealism is self-centered – as in ‘I’ have to be perfect – it is debilitating and exhausting, certainly for ourselves but also for those around us upon whom we are projecting our need for perfection. As the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki reminds us, practice is making one mistake after another.  
     … Aiming for perfection can be seductive and compelling. Given that the society in which we live supports the idea that perfection is attainable, it can feel like our own personal fault if we are not.
     Here it’s worth noting that there is a difference between harm and hurt. Harm is when we intentionally cause someone pain. Hurt is what happens in relationship, when more than one person is involved. Hurt is inevitable because of our differences. Of course, to apologize when we’ve hurt someone is skillful. But to hold the moments of hurt that occur in all relationships as equal to the times we have engaged in harmful actions is unwarranted.”
       Narayan Helen Liebenson. “The Magnanimous Heart. Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation.” Wisdom Publications, 2018. (A wise, warm, well-written book IMHO)

       There’s an old story about the changes monks undergo from moving into a monastery and living in close quarters with the same group of people. At the beginning, each monk’s idiosyncrasies are like angular protrusions jutting out from the surface of a pebble. Initially, there are a lot of (at least potentially irritating) protrusions. But the years spent together in the monastery, has a similar effect as keeping a handful of pebbles in one’s pocket continuously for a long time. The pebbles eventually wear each other smooth.

     "The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain and simple to express:
Err and err and err again, but less and less and less." Piet Hein

      “When we see clearly that every single human being, regardless of fame or fortune or age or brains or beauty, shares the same ordinary foibles, a strange thing happens. We begin to cheer up, to loosen up … we find ourselves among friends. We sit back, and enjoy the ride.”

     Elizabeth Lesser. “Broken Open. How Difficult Times can Help Us Grow.” Villard, 2005.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Perspectives on our Left-Brain-Dominated Culture


     Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist painstakingly uncovered how most of us today, swept along by popular culture, are unknowingly left-hemisphere dominant. This has profound effects on every aspect of daily life, and our future.  
     Some aspects of left-hemisphere dominance is generally very useful (science & technology); while others, not so much (conflict, aggression, impatience, loneliness, disorientation, meaninglessness, despair, degradation of the environment, etc). McGilchrist argues for the urgent necessity to re-balance the influence of the two hemispheres: http://www.johnlovas.com/2019/11/control-chaos-and-our-hemispheres.html

      From our ancestral right-hemisphere dominance, the pendulum has now swung to the extreme left - "hyper-rationality":
     Hyper-rationality is the unquestioning faith in the efficacy of reason. This is something of an irony, since those who take the hyper-rational approach to reason are violently opposed to "faith" of any sort. They (rightly) condemn "faith" as "irrational," but they then go to the opposite extreme of making reason supreme. In so doing, they inadvertently turn reason into a sort of surrogate god, to whom they must pay homage at all costs ("yet another form of partisanship"). This is rationality carried to the extreme, beyond rational limits, hence the term "hyper-rationality.
     In his book Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio has amassed an impressive body of neurological evidence to show that at the biological level of brain processing, reason cannot, and does not, function on its own. Emotions are inextricably interwoven into our most 'rational' decisions and thoughts."
       Michael Mendis http://bigthink.com/articles/hyper-rationality

      Isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that there's an appropriate 'time & place' ie context for EACH of our ways of perceiving & knowing: logical reasoning, contemplation, intuition, spirituality etc?

     Isn't it optimal to intentionally cultivate, resuscitate & integrate ALL of our powers of perception & knowing, in a balanced, harmonious manner?

      "Contemplation is a third way of knowing – a missing link – that complements & enhances the rational & sensory. The contemplative mind is opened and activated through a wide range of approaches – from pondering to poetry to meditation – that are designed to shift states of mind in order to cultivate such capacities as deepened awareness, concentration and insight. Historically, the contemplative has been used throughout the wisdom traditions as fundamental for developing interiority and understanding the most essential knowledge, yet it is almost entirely absent from contemporary education." 

     Tobin Hart. "From Information to Transformation. Education for the Evolution of Consciousness." Peter Lang, 2009. 


Friday, November 8, 2019

Control, Chaos and our Hemispheres

     Clinicians love to cure - definitively fix - the sick, the broken. And many of us, at least when we feel broken, want to be fixed-up once & for all! We all dearly love 'agency,' the sense of control, the ability to reach out, grab & hold onto what we want, and push away anything we don't.
     At some level, we may realize that the above is based on an unrealistic, over-simplified, mechanistic, reductionist model. Life's complexity extends well beyond our comprehension, never mind control. However, we dread the idea of being overwhelmed by chaos - being helplessly out of control as our world crumbles around us. So to have a sense of agency, we tend to restrict our attention to manipulating - conceptually & physically - discrete details. But with this narrowed focus, many of us forget about or even become strongly averse to the big picture that includes the most meaningful dimensions of life that cannot be controlled or even be put into words! Our current Western society tends to overuse the perspective of our left hemispheres, and at best ignores, at worse ridicules & actively suppresses the perspective of our right hemispheres. This lack of balance causes serious conflicts: rigid partisanship (political, religious, ecological, ethnic, racial, gender, economic, and even academic / educational: 'hard' sciences vs 'soft' sciences & arts) instead of harmonious tolerance, balance & collaboration. It seriously impacts the education of health-care professionals: http://healthyhealers.blogspot.com/2012/02/control-and-liminality.html
     Extreme positions (eg towards control) often produce unintended, undesired results (eg chaos).

     Iain McGilchrist spent 20 years researching & documenting the neurological & Western cultural rationale for a healthy balance between the two hemispheres, perhaps summarized in Reinhold Niebuhr's 'serenity prayer':
          Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
          courage to change the things I can;
          and wisdom to know the difference.


     “Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: governed by the narrowly focused, target-driven left hemisphere of the brain.
     Forget everything you thought you knew about the difference between the hemispheres, because it will be largely wrong. It is not what each hemisphere does – they are both involved in everything – but how it does it, that matters. And the prime difference between the brain hemispheres is the manner in which they attend. For reasons of survival we need one hemisphere (in humans & many animals, the left) to pay narrow attention to detail, to grab hold of things we need, while the other, the right, keeps an eye out for everything else. The result is that one hemisphere is good at utilizing the world, the other better at understanding it.
     Absent, present, detached, engaged, alienated, empathic, broad or narrow, sustained or piecemeal, attention has the power to alter whatever it meets. The play of attention can both create and destroy, but it never leaves its object unchanged. How you attend to something – or don’t attend to it – matters a very great deal.
     Because of the way we prioritise the left hemisphere’s take on the world, we have ceased to appreciate the meaning of continuity and flow, instead prioritising discrete chunks of experience we call things. This has serious consequences for how we see our selves as human beings and our relationship with the wider world. … the world in which we live in the West is shaped by a set of beliefs about reality which we know from experience, and feel intuitively, to be almost certainly false. Though the consequences of this are widely deplored, we seem strangely powerless to resist it. We are as if in a trance, whistling a happy tune as we sleepwalk towards the abyss."
     Iain McGilchrist. “The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Yale University Press, 2019. (An exceptionally worthwhile read IMHO)

     “It’s just not compatible with the left hemisphere’s view that there could be anything wrong with itself. It has a polished, perfectionist view of what it’s doing. It’s therefore very unwilling to accept the contrary argument. As a society I would say, I believe we exemplify this mentality in our world. 
     In a nice piece of research ... they sent questionnaires to over two thousand executives to see how much they knew about their own industries. Managers in the advertising industry were 90% confident they were correct, but were actually wrong 61% of the time; people in IT 95% confident they were correct, only 20% were right; 99% of them overestimated their success. This is the world we’re now living in. 
     Now how did we get trapped in this worldview of the left hemisphere, which is that of the static, the fixed, the certain, the isolated, in competition with others, a detached, unempathic, unflowing world, which has only one value – that of utility? As opposed to a world in which things are seen as seamlessly interconnected, flowing, never certain, constantly changing, but with which we have a relationship of care. 
     How did we get into this trap? I think there are briefly a few reasons: one is that it gives us power, it makes us powerful, and that is hugely seductive. This is the hemisphere about getting. The left hemisphere controls the right hand with which we grasp; it controls the bits of language (not all of language) the bits with which we define things and pin them down, and say we’ve grasped them – so it’s the grasping part us. That makes us powerful but it’s version of the world is also extremely simple. It’s that it’s made out of bits which can be understood, and then we’ve got there. And all the bits that don’t fit with that are sheared off from the model. And so it’s possible at the end of the day to go, ‘I’ve explained everything,’ because actually you’ve only explained the things you’ve allowed into your model. Another thing is that it’s what I call ‘the Berlusconi of the brain,’ because it’s the one that controls the media. It’s the one that actually does the talking and constructs the arguments, so it’s a piece of cake for it to make its points, whereas it’s quite difficult for the right hemisphere to express things that are subtle, often contradictory and implicit. And I think the fourth reason, at the moment, why we are trapped in this is because we’ve evolved a world out there which reflects the left hemisphere’s world inside. So all around us we have the rigid, lifeless, fixed, represented world which is that of the left hemisphere.”
       Iain McGilchrist @ Schumacher College: Things Are Not What They Seem
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXiHStLfjP0
 
      “… we know intuitively that there is a dimension of ourselves and of nature which eludes us because it is too close, too general, and too all-embracing to be singled out as a particular object. This dimension is the ground of all the astonishing forms and experiences of which we are aware. Because we are aware, it cannot be unconscious, although we are not conscious of it – as an external thing. Thus we can give it a name but cannot make any definitive statement about it … 
     Our only way of apprehending it is by watching the processes and patterns of nature, and by the meditative discipline of allowing our minds to become quiet, so as to have vivid awareness of ‘what is’ without verbal comment.

     … seen as a whole, the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other. However, when it is looked at section by section we find conflict.
                       ‘for the world is a shen vessel 
                        and cannot be forced.’
     ‘Shen’ presents problems for the translator... I take it to mean that innate intelligence (or li) of each organism in particular, and of the universe as a whole, which is beyond the reach of calculation."

       Alan Watts. “Tao. The Watercourse Way.” Pantheon Books, 1975.

'Shen'