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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Overview: Ever thought about chucking it all and rebooting your life? That’s sort of what Pico Iye
r did; he headed for Japan.  Along the way he met musician Leonard Cohen, who had become a contemplative monk, steeped in the wisdom of being alone. Cohen told Iyer that stepping away from your daily work was so that you might see it anew and “love it more deeply.” The ironic subtitle of this book, by a travel writer no less, says it all: ‘Adventures in going nowhere.’  It also could have been called ‘the journey inside’ or ‘finding happiness without ever looking for it.’ So this is a book about experiencing the world within a “framework of stillness.” It’s also about being present. As the author says, “Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.” And in a hyper-speed world chock full of distractions, finding respite within ourselves might just be the best thing we can do every day.
1.     Charting Stillness: The author tells of his covering the Dalai Lama’s trip to Switzerland, where he met Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, an MIT molecular biologist who left that scientific world for a more contemplative, inner journey. Ricard, who is renowned, especially for his TED Talk and appearances at Davos says: “Simplifying one’s life to extract its quintessence is the most rewarding of all pursuits I have undertaken.” Called the happiest man in the world, Ricard earned that reputation after having had his brain studied by neuroscientists. Employing special MRI equipment with amazing results, these scientists were able to objectively show Ricard’s ability to control his emotions and experience a level of compassion and happiness few will ever know.
2.     Needing Stillness: The author takes a trip to the monastery in Kentucky where philosopher Thomas Merton (also called Father Louis) went to be on his journey to nowhere. The science of interruption tells us that it takes up to 25 minutes to bounce back from a sudden, unexpected visit or phone call, which happens all day long for many of us! So we’re all fragmented and not fully present. In Google’s Search Inside Yourself Initiative, all Googlers are offered a course dedicated to helping them at work and in life. Research that supports their ‘going nowhere’ program leads to not only clearer thinking and better health but also to emotional intelligence. Indeed, mindfulness and meditation have become mainstream in corporations like Aetna, General Mills, LinkedIn, Twitter, and many others. And with good results. For example, at General Mills 80% of execs who attended a mindfulness program for 8 weeks reported a positive change in making decisions and 89% said they were now better listeners. Worth noting: According to the World Health Organization: “Stress will be the health epidemic of the twenty-first century.” And the simple act of mindfulness can help us work toward a cure.
3.     Getting Away: Ironically, the more difficult the day, the more time we need away from it—or the more breaks we need within it. The great Mahatma Gandhi once noted that the harder his day would be, the more time he needed to meditate alone. While this seems counterintuitive, it makes sense if you think of meditation like charging the battery of your mind. People need breaks. As the author warns: “…the clock is exerting more and more tyranny over us.” We need time to do nothing and just allow our minds to solve problems in a kind of stealth mode. Thomas Merton says that in the contemplative life, we need to sit down and let life solve problems for us. Letting the mind relax allows it the perspective and freshness to solve difficult problems.
4.     Final Words by the Author: The author comments in the last chapter about the value of going nowhere:“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer (TED Books, 2014), reviewed by Steve Gladis, February 2016.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How Awake and Present are You - Even after Your Morning Coffee?

Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan Smalley, PhD, and Diana Winston (DeCapo Press), reviewed by Steve Gladis.
Overview: This is a book about the science and art of mindfulness written by a scientist and an artist, of sorts. The authors are colleagues at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) www.marc.ucla.ed.  Early on, the authors give a definition, “Mindfulness may be thought of as a state of consciousness, one characterized by attention to the present experience with a stance of open curiosity.”  Mindful Awareness Practices (MAP) describe meditation and relaxation techniques in this book. “Mindfulness changes your relationship with life.” How? In this book, the authors describe what mindfulness does and why it works (the science) and how to do it (the art). For example, science has demonstrated that mindfulness reduces stress and chronic pain; it fortifies our ability to cope with painful events, fear, greed and anger; it improves attention and positive emotions (like happiness and compassion); and it improves interpersonal skills, creativity, and performance at work, school, and play.
  1. What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is like the seat belt of mental health protecting us from anxiety, depression and pain. Research demonstrates that mindfulness changes our brain—our immune system (toward healing), our brain activity (toward calming), our emotions (toward lessening depression and anxiety and toward happiness). Neuroplasticity means that the brain changes, and mindfulness practice affects neuroplasticity. Mindfulness helps quell “reactivity” or knee-jerk responses to stimuli that produce stress. Instead, mindfulness helps you respond with a “kind attitude” and compassion toward yourself, others and the present experience.

  1. Getting Started: Change is difficult, but mindful meditation helps. Habits are ingrained and automatic. Four steps to change habits (like starting to meditate): 1. Take simple steps—make it easy; 2. Create a supportive environment—hang out with supporters, not naysayers; 3. Motivate people with evidence and practice positive self-talk; 4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Mindfulness increases attention in just 5 days with 20 minutes a day. Postures for mindful meditation include lying down, sitting in a chair, sitting on the floor or on a cushion. Free meditations: www.marc.ucla.edu. Meditative breathing helps asthma and heart patients, lowers blood pressure, and reduces anxiety. Indeed, breath is the foundation for calming the mind.  Focusing on an anchor spot—like the nostrils, abdomen, or chest—helps you concentrate on your breathing. As you breathe, the mind wanders. Bringing your mind back to the breath is the fundamental practice of meditation.

  1. Mindful Movement: Becoming more attuned to your body can help heal it and prevent disease by strengthening the immune system. Mindfulness and weight loss studies show reductions in binge eating. Furthermore, trying to suppress thoughts about eating or attempting to avoid certain foods only increases our engagement with them.  However, with mindfulness, you note its presence and then let it go. Faster rates of healing and resistance to disease were found to correlate with meditation. Moving meditations like t’ai chi, walking, and yoga increase self-awareness. “The body is the doorway to mindfulness.”

  1. Working with Physical Pain: In biology, pain indicates danger and makes us retreat from it for self-preservation. We don’t feel pain when we’re unconscious—as with anesthesia. We feel pain through 3 systems: sensory, response, and evaluation systems. We sense pain somewhere in the body which gets referred to the spinal column, then to the brain—which then triggers a defense mechanism to inhibit pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that we become solely an ‘observer’ of the pain, which separates the pain from any story we might attach to it. This “delinking” separates the sensation from the story. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Some techniques: Breathe into the pain, practice mindful distraction, use kindness and compassion toward caring for the pain.

  1. Feeling Bad: Emotions (fear, anxiety, sadness, happiness, joy) are biological reactions to danger and competition.  Our emotional brain circuits are much older than our rational brain and so override our thinking many times. Mindfulness develops the pause between emotion and action. The fear response is evolutionary and protects us from threats. Anxiety is fear when no reasonable threat exists—the amygdala is on overdrive. Mindful breathing helps to put the brakes on the amygdala—which can act as the gas pedal for our brain. For the anxious person both cognitive reappraisal and suppression work. Reappraisal works best. Assume the best and move on is a good philosophy. “Mindfulness can be a key to learning how to relate to emotions in healthy and useful ways.”  Use RAIN to control the emotions: Recognition (cognitive labeling)—Acceptance—Investigation (explore the emotion)—Non-Identification (my emotions are not me).

  1. Feeling Good and Finding Happiness: We catch happiness from others, and it arises from the fulfillment of living a meaningful life—one with purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth. Mindfulness increases our feelings of well-being and happiness and opens up our capacity for intuition and problem solving. The brain does this through “coherence” or pulling parts of the brain together (synchronicity) like a symphony conductor. Self-compassion leads to happiness and has 3 components: kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of our connection to humanity.

  1. Paying Attention and Stressful Thinking:  Our time and attention are the best things we can give another person. There are three kinds of attention: alerting (preparing to react); orientating (directing attention to someone or something); and conflict attention (paying attention when distractions interfere). Conflict attention is critical to self-regulation. Concentration and mindfulness go hand in hand, whether focusing on your breath or on an object. Often, we worry about many things that never happen. Symbolic language developed 77,000 years ago and with it the prefrontal cortex (PFC) grew to accommodate abstract thinking. The PFC is the master architect—shifting attention, adjusting, and suppressing. The PFC functions to move us toward our goals—to plan, organize, and execute. Mindfulness allows us to see things in their conceptual bareness—as they are, not with our stories attached that can narrow them with a kind of prejudice. Meditation keeps us from getting on the train of cascading thoughts (often negative ones) by focusing and staying in the moment. Don’t Believe Everything You Think! Focus on the body, not the story the mind is telling you.
  2.   Mindfulness in Action: Mindful communication leads to better decision making.  Mindful dyads seek information, have a positive perspective, see multiple perspectives, can describe their thoughts and feelings, acknowledge partner’s communication, use participative language, and demonstrate turn-taking (Jackie Krieger, Western Michigan University). “Better than/less than” thinking is the source for evil in society. Note the Stanford Prison Study where “guards” treated “prisoners” cruelly due to this kind of thinking. Mindfulness helps us overcome this bias. Mindfulness in Schools:  Studies in schools in India, Britain, and the US (New York, Arizona, California) demonstrate that more mindful students perform, test and behave better in class, and exhibit less anxiety and stress. Teaching mindful practices to students from kindergarten through college enhances well-being. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

Each year our family puts up a Christmas tree. My principal role in this annual ritual is to serve as unskilled labor. I drive my wife to the local United Methodist church, which sells the trees as a fundraiser. I hold the candidate trees with my leather work gloves while she methodically compares and chooses; lash her selection into the trunk, and wrestle it into the tree stand in our living room. After that, I’m not allowed to do anything else associated with the process.
That’s when my wife, serving as skilled labor, takes over. With delicate care she unwraps hundreds of ornaments she’s collected over our nearly 37 years of marriage. She then selects the precise branch on which to display each. Slowly she creates a mosaic of bright-colored wood carvings, ceramics, hand-sewn fabric figures, multifaceted crystals, and tiny white lights from top to bottom. This glittering mélange gets joined together by a two-inch wide, finely textured gold silk ribbon that winds around the tree from its base to the gold-silk, tree-top bow. And while I admire the annual tree in the aggregate, I never understood it until one time (in January) when my wife asked me to help take down the decorations.
For once, I wasn’t in a rush to just get it done. I actually looked at the decorations.

“Hey, didn’t your mother make this one?”
“No, that’s the one Mrs. Maupin made. She’s in a nursing home now.”
“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a delicate tin star with fine-hammered designed impressions covering its surface.
“From Santa Fe,” she said, referring to a family trip to New Mexico in 2001.
Then my wife held up an ornament that said, “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” one from my days as an FBI agent.
“Here’s one from Julie when she first started painting,” she said, holding up a glass ball hand painted by a woman whose first art gallery showing we’d attended a year ago.
Then more ornaments came down: the walnuts my wife had painted red and topped with green felt leaves to look like strawberries—hand-crafted to save money when we were young and broke; the carved miniature figures like the old, bearded Alpine skier, which we picked up traveling and camping in Europe when my wife was pregnant with our first child, now 34; the silver claddagh, an Irish symbol of love, friendship and loyalty, given to us, like a number of other ornaments, from close friends we’d made over the years as we moved around the country; the raft of gaily colored felt ornaments of whimsical characters that my mother-in-law and her friends—many now gone or infirmed—had sewn by hand in their church basement; the University of Virginia ornament, representing the place where I also used to work; and the rudimentary ornaments our now-adult children made when they were very small.
Two ornaments in particular caught my attention. One was a tiny colored-glass encrusted frame with a picture of my wife and her father, “Pop,” who died several years ago. The photo was taken at his 90th birthday party—one of the last large clan gatherings he was able to attend. His health declined over the next year and, after hospitals, hospice and heartaches, he died—leaving a gaping hole in our holidays, not to mention our family.
The other special ornament I noticed was a grey cat in a basket. Originally, this particular decoration had represented “Mellie,” my wife’s cat from many years ago. After Pop’s death when my widowed mother-in-law was feeling lonely, she decided, with some urging from my wife, to get a cat. We all went to the animal shelter and found “Smokey,” a beautiful grey cat who has become a loving member of the family. My wife picked up these two special ornaments and inspected them before wrapping them with deliberate care and putting them away with the others in the large box marked “Christmas Ornaments” to be stored away for next year’s tree.
Participating in the careful undoing of our tree has given me a new appreciation for this old custom. Christmas trees are much more than holiday accessories that provide a wide base for mounds of gifts—they are bright tapestries of memories and living histories of our lives. Every decoration on our tree symbolizes a story about someone who’s crossed our family’s path, and every year the tree gives us a way of honoring those people and our relationship with them. It’s a way of retelling our family history so we don’t forget. And when our children have their own families, their own trees, their own rituals, I hope they’ll have an ornament or two to remember us by. *
*This story originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2008 -- the title the editor's used was The Undoing of Christmas Becomes a Joyous Surprise.

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