5 Untruths Worth Pretending Are True

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William James famously suggested that the path between emotion and expression wasn’t a one-way street. In other words, it’s not just that having an emotion causes us to express it through facial expressions and body language, but also that by assuming a given expressions we create the corresponding emotional state. James might have gone a little far in proposing the emotion can’t exist devoid of its expression, but he came by the belief that you could get to emotion through expression honestly enough.

 

I read about how James, suffering a bad cases of the blues, asked himself what would happen if he behaved as though he was in a happier state of mind. He decided to carry out this experiment, and he soon found himself in a much better mental state. This got me thinking about what else one might pretend that would yield positive results.

 

It should be noted, that there’s been a lot of research on this topic, and it’s been dubbed the “as if principle,” though colloquially people talk about it as “faking it till you make it.” Some of you may be familiar with this idea from the study showing that adopting a Wonder Woman stance made subjects feel more confident. If not, Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk can be viewed here.

 

So, here are five ideas–true or not–that are worth believing:

 

[Note: You’ve got to pretend as if you were a five-year old. Don’t bring those pathetic and puny adult imaginations.]

 

5.) I’m happy:  Starting with the self-ruse most widely known and which James brought to our attention. You may have heard the following advice: if you’re ever feeling down, stand up and pump your fists in the air at an upward angle such that one’s body forms a “Y” (or an “X if you want to keep your feet wide.) This is a hardwired victory behavior written into our evolutionary coding, and it’s hard to be depressed while doing it.

 

4. Oneness / Unity:  Try pretending that you’re connected to everything in the universe. The experience isn’t uncommon with mystics and meditators, as well as those in the Flow. This is an attempt to work it around from the other direction.

Now, some mystic-scientist out there is going to say that this isn’t an untruth because there’s evidence that we are connected to everything, citing quantum entanglement and such like. Maybe so, but as there’s no reason to believe we have a sensitivity to happenings at that quantum state, the pretending is still necessary. (i.e. Even if such entanglement exists, we can no more sense it than we could recognize if a force of 1-trillionth of a gram touched our skin.) Evolution doesn’t grant us capabilities beyond what are needed to survive to procreate, and so I’m doubtful that we have some untapped power to sense quantum entanglement lurking within us.) The oneness we feel has to do with the part of the brain that tracks the “I v.) not-I” divide fading out of operation–rather than an awareness of some web of subatomic entanglement.

This self-subterfuge is a way to simultaneously put one’s worries in perspective while not becoming demoralized about being an insignificant speck in a vast universe. One is an infinitesimal speck in an infinite universe, but one is tied into the universe such that one is simultaneously an infinite universe.

 

3.) Chi / Prana: I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the immaterial energies of Eastern traditions (Taoism and Yoga, respectively) exist. However, I wouldn’t argue that there’s no benefit from imagining them to exist.  There seems to be little doubt that visualizing the flow of these energies can have benefits–regardless of whether they’re the traditionally advertised benefits or not. Even if you don’t succeed in pulling energy into one’s body directly, sans the middlemen of food and oxygen (so one can live off the dew on a single ginko leaf–ala “Kung Fu Panda”), visualization is good for the brain and the invigorated feeling one creates in pretending chi exists can’t hurt.

 

 

matrix

2.) “There is no spoon:”  This, of course, comes from the movie “The Matrix” in which a young sage / savant attempts to teach the protagonist, Neo, how he can bend a spoon with his mind. The upshot is that one doesn’t try to bend the spoon, one realizes that the spoon is a figment of the imagination.

The idea that we are part of a simulation may turn out to be less far-fetched than it seems. I cite, for example, the TED Talk by physics Nobel Laureate George Smoot.

At any rate, the virtue of the thought exercise of pretending this is true is two-fold. First, one can ask whether one would lead the same life and give events the same weight if one was to discover that one was living out a simulation designed to advance the understanding of some entity (e.g. an alien race, a colossal supercomputer, etc.) Second–and more importantly–one may become more attuned to the fact that one’s own mental / emotional world is full of dream-like simulations. One’s brain is designed to anticipate worst-case scenarios, and it’s exceedingly good at fabricating scenarios that taint our perception of the world with anticipated negative possibilities–most of which will never come to fruition. There are many variants, attributed to various speakers, of the following Mark Twain quote:

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 

 

1.) There is no I:  A core tenet of Buddhism is that there is no self. Depending what a self has to be to exist as an independent entity, science may yet converge on a similar conclusion. The self seems, at best, to be an emergent property. In the Anil Ananthaswamy book I recently reviewed, it’s compared to a center of gravity. There’s no molecule that can be called the center of gravity, it’s a property that moves around as the body does. It’s definable, but not in terms of a specific location or physical existence.

Pretending there is no self may help put many worries into perspective. Like #4, it may also help one feel more connected to a larger world. But most importantly, it may help one to turn off those parts of one’s mind that are prone to self-loathing, self-denigration, or just self-consciousness.

 

Happy pretending.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the WorldThe Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book combines travel writing with pop science discussion of what makes people happy (or unhappy.) Weiner travels to ten countries in pursuit of happiness, and reflects upon the cultural components of bliss.

Some of the countries, like Switzerland and Iceland, rank among the world’s happiest in international surveys. Some of the countries, such as Qatar and America, have every reason to be happy, but aren’t necessarily as blissful as the rest of the world would expect. Some of them, like India and Thailand, have good reason to be unhappy, and yet they manage to be global exemplars of happiness [at least within certain domains.]

Then there are a few nations that have unique relationships to happiness. Bhutan has a national policy on happiness [plus it’s a Buddhist country, and Buddhism probably offers the most skillful explanation of what it takes to be happy of any world religion.] Moldova provides a counterweight as it’s one of the least happy countries in the world. Weiner visits the Netherlands in part because one of the biggest academic centers studying happiness is located in Rotterdam, but it also offers an opportunity to study whether the country’s unbridled hedonism (drugs and prostitution are legal) correlates to happiness. That leaves Great Britain, a country known for wearing the same happy face as its sad, terrified, and enraged faces.

I’ve been to half of the countries on Weiner’s itinerary, and—of the others—I’ve been to countries that share some—though not all—of the cultural constituents of happiness. (e.g. I haven’t been to Qatar, but I’ve been to the UAE. I haven’t been to Moldova, but I’ve seen somewhat less grim Eastern European states. I haven’t been to Switzerland or Iceland but I’ve been to cold countries in Western Europe. I haven’t been to Bhutan, but I’ve been in areas where Tibetan Buddhism was the dominant cultural feature.) This allowed me to compare my experiences with the author’s, as well as to learn about some of the cultural proclivities that I didn’t understand during my travels. And I did find a lot of common ground with the author, as well as learned a lot.

I found this book to be interesting, readable, and funny. Weiner has a wacky sense of humor that contributes to the light-hearted tone of the book—perfect for the subject. That said, some people may be offended because the author doesn’t pull punches in the effort to build a punchline, and this sometimes comes off as mocking cultures. However, in all cases—even that of Moldova—Weiner does try to show the silver lining within each culture.

The paperback edition I read had no graphics or ancillary matter. There are no citations or referred works (except in text), and the chapters are presented as journalistic essays. The chapters largely stand alone, and so one could read just particular countries of interest. He does refer back to events that happened in earlier chapter or research that related to another country’s cultural proclivities, but not often. The first chapter, on the Netherlands, would be a good one to read first because he describes many of the scientific findings on happiness in that one.

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in what makes some places happier (or sadder) than others.

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My Vipassana 10-Day Experience: No Solidified Gross Sensations, No Gain

woman-pointing-at-herself6

It’s 4:45 in the morning and I’ve been sitting on my cushion at the Dhamma Setu Vipassana Meditation Center in Chennai, India for a quarter-hour. It’s day one, and I’m observing my breath as it comes in and out through my nostrils—at least for seconds to minutes at a time before I have to coral my mind back from some random tangent. This breath exercise (ānāpāna-sati), I will soon learn, is a preparatory exercise used to reign in the mind enough so that actual Vipassana meditation can be introduced on the middle of the fourth day. In eleven days, I’ll be in the closing session of the course.

 

There are several approaches to Vipassana meditation taught throughout the balance of the course, but the gist is the same for all of them. One rotates one’s awareness throughout the body systematically observing sensations. As one does this, one works toward equanimity, a calm and quiet state of mind in which one neither covets pleasurable sensations nor shuns unpleasant sensations. The idea is to train the deepest level of the mind to not habitually lunge one toward pleasure or away from displeasure.  (FYI: displeasure = pain.  At least for a novice, such as myself, there is a fair amount of pain involved in sitting still for such long periods. It’s generally referred to a solidified gross sensation to differentiate it from the uniform and subtle sensations that one may feel in the parts of the body that aren’t in agony. I joke about it here, but there’s good reason to train oneself to not think in terms of pain, and the negative connotation the word evokes.)

 

At that course’s beginning, I knew a little about Vipassana from research, including reading the book “Equanimous Mind,” one man’s account of his experience in the course. For example, I knew that most people who quit, leave either on day two or day six. At the time, I didn’t know why, but would learn soon enough. It’s nothing about those two days, but rather the days that precede them. Day 1 seems to last forever, and it’s easy enough to discern why it might give students trouble. When one gets through day 1, an optimist says “yeah, I can do this because I’m through the first day” but a pessimist says, “I just barely made it, I can’t do this.” Day 5 is when the strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) is added, which means that one has three one hour sessions during which one is to commit to not changing one’s posture for the whole session. No opening eyes, but—more challengingly—no unfolding /refolding one’s legs.  This commitment to not changing posture steps up the difficulty of the course to another level.

 

It should be noted that one can opt to sit in a chair. However, that introduces an entirely new challenge—drowsiness. During the long sessions, when I’d get up to walk the lymphatic fluid out of my legs, there were usually two people in a straight-spined meditative position and six to eight who looked to be sound asleep.  (Drowsiness was one reason that I didn’t sit in a chair. I’m prone to get sleepy enough during meditation, especially in a complete absence of caffeine. The other reason was that I’ve not found chairs to be more comfortable for long-sits of meditation. Once your bony parts start pressing into the chair, one begins to wish one was cross-legged on a cushion. One can make the chair more comfortable by placing padding wherever it’s uncomfortable, but eventually one has a virtual La-Z-boy and the drowsiness factor becomes all the more problematic.)

 

With respect to these strong commitment (adhiţţhāna) sessions, I didn’t make it the full hour without moving on the fifth day–or any day until day 10, in fact. However, I don’t count this as a failure, because I did give it my all. I say that based on the endorphin-induced euphoria, simple hallucinations, and a proprioceptive form of Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that I experienced from toughing it out past mere discomfort. I’ll get to what that all means, but for now suffice it to say these happenings were symptomatic of sitting still through the period in which the pain came, grew, and then started to numb out.

 

In fact, these trippy experiences may, sadly, have been one reason why it never occurred to me to want to leave around day six. While I tried not to get caught up in them, these experiences were fascinating. I could see why day 2 presents a challenge to so many, but day 6 was a hoot, relatively speaking. The second most challenging day for me was day 8, because I’d reached a plateau but I didn’t yet feel myself in the homestretch. But by day 8, who’s going to leave? You’ve gutted it out that long, and are almost done. For those concerned about whether they can make it to the end, I can honestly say that I never seriously considered quitting. It’s not that hard to get through the 10 days, as long as one isn’t too addicted to comfort and communication.  That said, I wouldn’t offer a wholesale recommendation of the course as many do, but rather recommend it on a case-by-case basis. If you’ve done no meditation whatsoever, this is the meditative equivalent of going from couch-sitting to training for an ultra-marathon overnight. If you think you can’t get through nine days of silence–without no phones or books, maybe you can’t, and you should probably reevaluate your life.

 

I mentioned some of the unusual experiences that I witnessed during the course, and I’ll get into that a bit more. I should preface this by saying that one shouldn’t get caught up in these trippy happenings for reasons I’ll elaborate upon below, but they may happen so it’s worth being ready for them. Here’s a list of the unusual events I experienced:

 

-Extreme relaxation / lethargy: a little off topic, but between sessions on day 1, I noticed that I couldn’t be bothered to shoo away a fly that kept buzzing around my head with random touch downs. I don’t know how long I walked with the fly buzzing over me before it struck me that this was unusual. This was before Vipassana proper had been introduced, so it didn’t yet seem apropos.

 

-Olfactory hallucination / vivid scents: on day 2 I witnessed a distinct smell from my elementary school days (i.e. a mix of cleaning solution and milk cartons?) that theoretically could have originated at the Dhamma Setu, but which was quite probably an olfactory hallucination. It was short-lived and I never smelt it again. I did later experience an intense smell of flowers inside the meditation hall. This may well have been an actual scent as there were many blooming flowers there. These vivid scents were also short-lived.

 

-Endorphin-Induced Euphoria: on days 4 and 5, I experienced this as an almost intoxicated feeling. [Endorphins are the body’s indigenous pain-killers.] As drunks find unfunny things funny, so did I—including the pain in my legs and back. I wondered if anyone would be distracted by my occasional giggle-fits, but I think they were much more subdued than I suspected from my vantage point. Just like I’ve thought I was talking in my sleep in the past, only to be told that it sounded more like faint and indistinct whimpering. On day 6, I experienced a more sophisticated (not drunk-like) form of euphoria that expressed itself as a feeling of “oneness.” I’ve read about feelings of oneness being attributed to a form of transient hypo-frontality—i.e. a shutting down of the parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that track the self / other distinction. There may have been more happening than endorphins (and other neurotransmitters) involved in that happening.

 

-Lifting sensation: This was the single most awe-inspiring experience that I was party to. For those unfamiliar with seated meditation, one of one’s chief enemies in long meditation sessions is a proclivity to slump. Slumping translates into agonizing back pain and labored breathing. So whenever one catches oneself slumping, one has to straighten one’s back. [If you wonder why a meditator would pretzel up his or her legs in full lotus (padmasana), the alignment of one’s legs helps one maintain a straight spine.] At any rate, on day 6 I experienced the feeling that I was being lifted up straight and it became effortless to maintain a straight back for the rest of that session—as if an outside force were doing the work. This lifting sensation wasn’t like being lifted by a person, but rather like the action of a “tractor beam” from the world of sci-fi. While I have some inkling of the causes of much of what I experienced based on the science of the human body, explanation of this “lift” is harder to come by. I did read an account in Oliver Sacks’ “Hallucinations” by a woman who suffered from migraine-induced hallucinations and Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome that was a spot-on description of what I experienced as well.

 

-“Visual” [closed-eye] simple hallucinations: I didn’t experience anything even close to the what people usually think of as a hallucination—that is, there was nothing that could be confused with reality. I wouldn’t have even known to call these images hallucinations if I hadn’t been reading the aforementioned Oliver Sacks’ book. Mine were quite close to what are described as hypnogogic (falling asleep) hallucinations in the Sacks’ book. This makes sense. While I wasn’t drowsy at the time, my brain was probably in a pretty similar state of relaxation. Mostly, these were moving shapes that formed and dissipated in a field of black-fringed purple.  On day 7, there were more complete visuals—mostly of partial faces, usually with mouths wide open. I took this as my subconscious mind’s comment on the noble silence. (On the noble silence: from about 6pm on day 0 [orientation afternoon] until the morning of day 10, one isn’t allowed to talk or in any way interact with / acknowledge anyone except to direct questions to the teacher or staff. Whether one has questions or not, one will speak at least a few words to the teacher every day or two when he / she reviews one’s progress. For some, this may be the single biggest challenge of the course, but I’m a hardcore introvert and could do ten days of silence standing on my head.)

 

-Tactile Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome: Alice in Wonderland Syndrome usually refers to a visual form of hallucination in which things appear a great deal taller, smaller, closer, or farther than they actually are. What I experienced was a great deal less whacky and traumatic than that. With eyes closed, I felt a distortion of the size and shape of my arms. Sometimes my arms felt like they were six-foot long from deltoid to fingertips, and sometimes the same points seemed to lie a foot and a half apart. Needless to say, those are both distortions of the actual length of my arms.

 

-Inexplicable Beatles’ Music: On day 8 my mind bombarded me with music from the Beatles for a little while. In particular I heard “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and “All You Need is Love,” or parts thereof, in high fidelity. Now, while this is fine music, it’s not music that I’ve listened to recently nor have I listened to that album a great deal. When I was growing up, there was a copy of “Sgt Pepper’s…” at home, but I’ve only periodically heard these songs on the radio since. The experience was monotonous because only the parts that I knew the words to (i.e. the choruses) replayed on a loop, but the music and voices were crystal clear as if I were listening to the album.  Given the lack of personal relevance, I can only imagine that my subconscious thought this is the kind of music a person meditating would like to hear.

 

As I said, by about day 8 I’d hit a plateau. The aforementioned odd experiences were petering out, particularly when I did as I was supposed to do and gently returned my mind to the task at hand. Yet, the practice wasn’t getting any easier or smoother. I still had the same dead spots—areas that I could observe for extended periods without even the subtlest of sensations—and I still had growing pain zones in my back and legs—i.e. starting from isolated pains, the pain would become increasingly diffuse and of ill-defined boundaries—but often no less painful.

 

Now I’ll explain my comment about not allowing oneself to become captivated by the trippy experiences. If one seeks after these experiences, not only is one missing out on the value of the practice, one is actually moving in the wrong direction by coveting an experience while impulsive craving is what one is training oneself away from through Vipassana meditation. Beyond this, seeking out such experiences is likely to be frustrating because they are products of the subconscious mind and physiological processes that are beyond conscious control. They happen when they happen, on your body’s schedule. (Note: Some people think of these as spiritual phenomena. I don’t, but—for those who do—they still won’t happen on your schedule. Ostensibly, they’ll happen on some deity’s—presumably rather tight–schedule. And—divine as they may be—they are still a distraction from the objective of the practice—and that’s not my opinion, but according to the teachers of the tradition, starting with Gautama Buddha and through to S.N. Goenka.)

 

So when one experiences such phenomena, one should do the same as one always does in meditation, quietly and non-judgementally return one’s mind to the object of awareness—in this case, systematically witnessing the sensations on one’s body. I won’t say that this isn’t a challenge. It is, because your mind is presenting you with something fascinating and new, and you’re asking it to return to a task that has become rather mundane over hours and days of practice. It should be noted, I would broadly categorize the phenomena that I experienced into two slots, one of which is things the brain does to cope with a lack of external stimulation. (The other being, things the body does to cope with unrelenting pain.) So it takes some discipline, but one should remind oneself—as one is frequently reminded during the discourses—that you are there to give the Vipassana approach a fair trial, and as fascinating as these sideshows are they are a distraction from the practice.

 

That said, these things will happen and their unusual nature may make them points of concern or confusion, and so I’ll discuss them a bit more. I have a theory about the cause of the euphoric experiences, but it requires a little clarification and background. What makes Vipassana challenging for a new practitioner—at least for me— is that in systematically rotating one’s awareness to observe sensations, one has to ignore areas that are screaming with pain while carefully running one’s attention through areas that seem completely devoid of sensation. This requires quieting the mind and especially not feeding the anxiety about one’s pain and discomfort—hence, developing equanimity (steadiness of mind.) Sitting still for an hour at a time, lymphatic fluid piles up in your lower extremities (no pump in the lymphatic system but the one of movement), over time blood circulation may be inhibited, and this lack of circulation has ramifications for the cells not being adequately nourished. So your body notices this fluid build-up (a relatively minor concern, easily rectifiable, and which will take a while to be a serious problem for most people) and sends you some pain sensations to spur you to get up and move about. When you don’t get up and walk, it turns up the discomfort disproportionate to what’s happening with your body. You still ignore it. Eventually, your body starts to think maybe a boulder fell on your legs and you’re in shock (the conscious and unconscious minds don’t talk as much as you might think, and—even if they do—let’s face it, at least the conscious mind is a big, fat liar.) It’s at this point that your body starts to emit some feel-good chemicals. (I refer to “endorphin-induced euphoria,” but it’s more extensive than natural painkillers. In reading up on the subject, I noted references to serotonin and even melatonin (yes, the skin color chemical) in addition to beta-endorphins. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some dopamine—a reward / feel good chemical—in the mix as well. Hence, the euphoria.

 

I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the hallucinations and other effects that the mind creates in order to cope with the lack of sensory input. This is a well-studied area, and there’s been a lot written on how the mind hates the dark and the quiet over extended periods. I would recommend the aforementioned book by Oliver Sacks on hallucinations as a case in point.

 

Saving the most crucial question for last, was it worth it? In his discourses, S.N. Goenka offers three criteria by which one might evaluate whether Vipassana is worth practicing. While all three are sound criteria, I’ll focus on just one of these, which is really the bottom-line, and that’s whether it makes an improvement in one’s life. That is, does one start to be less prone to impulsively react to craving and aversion and become more equanimous of mind?

 

On this, I’ll have to say that the jury is still out. Many come out of the 10-day course calling it life-changing. I’d say that it was beneficial because I learned a meditative technique that has a sound internal logic (even if one doesn’t believe every aspect of the mechanism by which it is said to work by Buddhists—which I don’t), an established track record of benefit for many, and the feel that it’s benefiting one. However, I’m still evaluating the approach. I’ve been doing Vipassana meditation twice a day with morning and evening affirmations. Let’s face it, 10-days isn’t a long time to overhaul one’s deeply ingrained modes of operation—even sitting in meditation for 10 hours a day. I’m optimistic, and the practice sure doesn’t hurt—except for those solidified gross sensations, they hurt.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson

Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and WisdomBuddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is one of those books whose title leaves one unclear as to the book’s nature. The title has religious connotations, but its subtitle, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom suggests a secular and rationalist work. The subtitle might clear things up if it weren’t for the fact that there are so many New Agey, spiritualist types who like to glom onto scientific terminology—presumably in an attempt to lend credibility to ideas that are “out there.” Thus, one may reasonably wonder whether this is just another Biomechanics of Chakra Fluffing style book—actually, I made that one up, but if you can see why such a title would be oxymoronic you know where I’m coming from. Without further ado, let me state that this book is rooted in the science of the brain, and, while it uses its fair share of concepts from Eastern religion as pedagogic devices, it doesn’t presuppose need to believe in anything [or anybody] for which there is no evidence. [What remains less clear is whether this book is properly considered self-help or pop science?] This issue with the title may be why Hanson came out with the more secularly-titled Hardwiring Happiness book a few years later that seems to cover similar territory (though, I’ve not yet read the latter.)

The central premise of Buddha’s Brain is that the brain’s neuroplasticity allows one to change the way one experiences life by changing the way one perceives and responds to life’s little trials and tribulations. Over time, one can become happier, more loving, and wiser—i.e. one can have a brain more like the Buddha’s. “Spiritual” matters are always at the periphery of what Hanson is discussing because this type of practice has historically been in the bailiwick of religious traditions—specifically Eastern (and other mystic) traditions that focus on looking inward to be a more virtuous person. However, where said traditions have often relied on assumptions unsupported by current science—such as the existence of a unitary (i.e. universally interconnected) consciousness, Hanson considers the issue from the perspective of our current understanding of the brain. In particular, he focuses on the fact that we are capable of training our brain to respond more positively to events.

Evolution, beautiful and elegant as it may be, has made us pessimistic and prone to disproportionately focus on the negative. This is because survival depended on being ready for worst case scenarios. So we imagine what that worst case is, and endlessly replay scenarios to prepare ourselves for how to deal with said worst cases. While this approach may have enhanced our ancestor’s survival probability, it can easily get out of hand and for far too many people it has. In the book, Hanson proposes three evolutionary strategies (i.e. creating separations [us / them, I / you, etc.], maintaining stability, and threat avoidance / opportunity seizure) that often end up tainting our worldview, raising our stress levels, and causing declining health and well-being. The book does get into the mechanics of stress reduction as well as how to change the way one experiences the world so as to be exposed to less stress.

Rick Hanson is a psychologist who holds a Senior Fellowship at a center at the University of California at Berkeley. He also founded his own center called The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

The book is organized into 13 chapters arranged in four parts. The four parts are: I.) The Causes of Suffering, II.) Happiness, III.) Love, and IV.) Wisdom. These parts are preceded by front matter which includes the first chapter which lays out the basics of the brain in layman’s terms as well as discussing the evolutionary survival strategies that sometimes fail to serve us well in modern living. More detailed discussion of the brain is introduced throughout the book at is relevant to the discussion at hand, but the level of this discussion should be approachable to all readers. Each chapter is divided into many subsections to make the reading easily digestible. One of the nice features of this book is that each chapter has a bullet point summary at the end. Actually, the author uses bullet points prominently throughout the book. There is one appendix which explores questions of nutrition for brain health. There is an extensive reference section containing largely scholarly references, as one would expect of a science book.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t certain whether to classify this as a self-help or popular science book. In many ways it’s both. It does give a great deal of practical advice about what one can do to change one’s life. On the other hand, it offers more background into the science than your average self-help book—though always at a layman’s level.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in self-improvement, the science of the mind, or both.

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TODAY’S RANDOM THOUGHT: Death as the Good Drunk

I don’t think Death should be depicted as a cowled, faceless Grim Reaper.

Instead, I think Death should be the wise drinking buddy who can hold his liquor.  Not the one who acts like an idiot an encourages friends to do the same. Rather, the one who spurs you to ask out a girl who’s way out of your league, and keeps you classy if (when) she declines.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler

The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human PerformanceThe Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is NOT a book about the comic book hero. It’s a book about a mental state called “the flow” and how adventure and extreme athletes have used it to make tremendous strides in their sports. The characteristics of the flow include extreme focus, time dilation / time distortion, a vanishing sense of self, extremely high performance, fearlessness, and a falling away of everything non-essential to the task at hand.

Kotler is by no means the first author to write about the flow. The term was inaugurated by a book entitled Flow first published in 1990 by a University of Chicago Psychology professor named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in the process of conducting a study on happiness. He found that happy people tended to engage in activities in which they could immerse themselves and find the zone. Contrary to the early part of Kotler’s book–in which it sounds like adventure athletes cornered the market on flow–Csikszentmihalyi says that said activity could be work or hobby and that the flow is to be found in poetry writing, yoga, martial arts, copy writing, or potentially any activity in which the skill level and challenge are both high.

(To be fair, Kotler does get around to recognizing that extreme athletes neither invented nor exclusively exploit the flow. However, his—well-taken—point is that such athletes are unusually good at finding, and dropping deep into, the flow in part because risk-taking behavior is an important trigger. And for free climbers [rock climbers without ropes], mega-ramp skateboarders, and bodysuit skydivers sometimes there are only two possible states of existence—the flow and being scraped off a rock.) It should be noted that some of the elements of flow sound a lot like the states that have been described by various mystical religious traditions for centuries, e.g. the dissolution of a feeling of separation between self and the rest of the universe. Warning: religious readers may find it disconcerting to read that there are scientific explanations for states that were once attributed to communion with god or the like.

While I’ve given Kotler’s book high rating, I haven’t yet given one reason to read it—and I do recommend people read it. First, while Csikszentmihalyi is the “father” of flow research, his methods were decidedly low tech–i.e. surveys and interviews—but Kotler reports on more recent studies involving neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity, and neurochemistry. Second, while Kotler delves into the science of the flow, he does so in a manner that is approachable to non-scientists. Finally, all of the narrative accounts of extreme athletes interspersed with the more technical commentary make for a very readable book, even if one is not particularly knowledgeable of—or interested in—such sports. I gave this book a high rating both for its food-for-thought value, and because of its high readability.

I will admit that I was not so enamored of the book when I first began it, and other readers may find the same irritation. For one thing, Kotler’s adoration of extreme athletes comes off sounding like diminishment of mainstream athletes and others involved in “flowy” activities. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter 1. Kotler gives us an endearing description of how gymnast Kerri Strug won the gold in the 1996 Olympics by sticking a landing on a shattered ankle. However, he then comes off a bit douchey when he suggests that Strug’s achievement pales in comparison to Danny Way’s skateboard jumps at the Great Wall of China.

For another thing, in his zealousness to prove that extreme sports practitioners are full-awesome while mainstream athletes are “meh,” Kotler makes some comparisons that seem apples and oranges to a neophyte such as me. If they are fair comparisons, he certainly doesn’t explain why they should be considered so. The best example of this is when he states that Olympic divers took decades to achieve increases in rotation that extreme skiers and skateboarders surpassed in much less time. This seems unreasonable for two reasons. First, divers have a very standard distance in which to achieve their acrobatics. In other words, they don’t get to build a “mega-platform” that’s 50% taller like Danny Way creates “mega-ramps” that were bigger than ever before. Of course, if you can increase the distance between yourself and the ground you can increase your spins, rotations, or whatever much more quickly (yes, your danger goes up vastly, I’m not diminishing that.) Second, the divers gained zero advantage from technological improvements, but the same cannot be said for skiers and skateboarders. In other words, if you go from skis made of oak to ones made of carbon nanotubes (that are 50 times stronger and 1/100th of the weight) of course you’re going to make gains faster.

Perhaps, I’m overstating Kotler’s disdain for mainstream athletics, but that’s what happens when one uses a national hero as a set up to show how much more awesome a relatively unknown skateboarder is (among skateboarders Way is extremely well-known but he’s not a household name as the Olympian was–at least for a short time in the late 90’s.) I suspect that Kotler was just trying to convince a general audience that the athletes he’s speaking about aren’t pot-smoking knuckleheads who are as likely to be seen on America’s Funniest Home Videos crushing their nads on a handrail as setting a new world record. These men and women are serious people engaged in serious activities, and they give it their all. They do deserve more respect for that than they are probably given by broad sectors of the populace. Perhaps, the importance of what these folks are achieving does need to be conveyed because the demographic that reads books and the one that follows extreme sports probably has wide wings of non-overlapping area. (I’m not saying skateboarders are illiterate or bookworms don’t skate–just that the Venn diagram has substantial areas of mutual exclusivity.)

As I indicated above, in each chapter we get both some insight into the nature of the flow and its triggers and stories of adventure / extreme athletes that serve as examples of what’s being discussed. In chapter 2 we learn what the flow looks like in terms of brain waves (i.e. high theta/low alpha, or between meditation and a relaxed / resting state of wakefulness.) In chapter 3, we learn about the neuroanatomy of the flow in terms of what areas of the brain it lights up, and what areas shut down–which is more important to flow states. In chapter 4, we learn about the neurochemistry of the flow and that a cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin makes up the chemistry of flow, but, critically, not so much with the adrenaline. The subsequent chapters deal with triggers of the flow, and what conditions best set up achievement of this state of mind.

Chapter 9 stands out as an important, but quite different, portion of the book. It deals with the downside (or dark side) of the flow. This has a lot to do with the fact that the aforementioned internal substances (and the flow state in general) are quite addictive. While it’s unfair to say, and unlikely, that the extreme athletes Kotler writes about (i.e. the ones at the top of their games) are drug addicts as some might assume of skate boarders, snow boarders, and the like, it may not be unreasonable to say that they have a kind of monkey on their backs—albeit a perfectly legal one rooted in their own neurochemistry.

As I’ve said, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in this state of mind. One needn’t be interested in extreme sports to get a lot out of the book.

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Paleo-Stressing: Acute v. Chronic Stress

"What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people--not lived in your cages?"

“What happened to the good ole days when I ate you people–not lived in your cages?”

Paleolithic dieting is all the rage these days. I’m no expert on the paleo-diet, but–as I understand it–this refers to the practice of eating the foods consumed by our pre-agrarian ancestors. The idea is that if one consumes the foods that our species is evolutionarily-optimized to eating, one will be healthier.  Whether one believes in the merits of the paleo-diet or not on the whole, it’s hard to argue that one wouldn’t be better off eating less highly-processed and highly-refined foods and more things that look like food at a glance.

 

Our diet isn’t all that has changed since the days of our pre-agrarian ancestors. Modernity has brought with it an entirely new way of experiencing stress. Eliminating or reducing stress is a common topic of discussion, but not all stress is created equal. There’s a necessary form of stress, a stress that makes one better, stronger, faster, and smarter. We don’t want to willy-nilly eliminate stress; we want to reduce the wrong type of stress.

 

Our ancestors—like animals–experienced brief periods of intense stress (e.g. saber-tooth tiger attacks), followed by longer periods in which they were free of deadlines, carpools, and after-school activities. Now, no one likes to have a saber-tooth tiger stalking them. It’s unpleasant. Modern humanity has gone to great lengths to eliminate those short bursts of terror, but not without cost. (If you don’t believe me read Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

 

Whether or not you believe that eliminating acute instances of terrifying stress is bad for mankind, it’s hard to argue that modernity’s leveling process didn’t eliminate stress, but instead resulted in a chronic stress on a smaller scale. People today have impossibly long daily to-do lists, and they have to accept trade-offs between work, family, and personal development.

 

It’s true that you don’t get eaten by a giant cat when you drop the ball, but life is so packed diverse events that one may feel like one is dropping some ball constantly. If your boss thinks you’re a model employee, then your kids are probably going to need therapy. If you have a contented home life, your boss may have his or her eyes open for someone who can give the firm consistently 70+ hour work weeks. If you feel you’re doing alright on both the work and family front, your body and / or mind is probably a train wreck.

 

Chronic [mini] stress may feel better than acute [catastrophic] stress, but it takes its tolls in various ways. First, with our sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight reaction) constantly engaged our body’s power to heal itself is reduced. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the body devotes resources to long-term goals like getting healthier, but in stress mode activities not relevant to immediate survival shut down. This is a great system if you have periodic life and death stress, but is not so good if you’re under constant stress.

 

Second, chronic stress reduces sleep, and sleep is essential to one’s mental and physical well-being. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with sleep deprivation such as forgetfulness, decreased concentration, decreased alertness, reduced reasoning ability, diminished problem-solving capacity, and depression—all of which can diminish our physical health through accidents, ailments, suicide attempts, and lack of energy for exercise.

 

Third, chronic stress can make one fat, with all the health issues that result. Some people use food as a coping mechanism. Other people eat too fast or choose their food poorly because of time constraints or because they are not mindful of eating as their monkey minds churn at a mile a minute. Then there is the more convoluted and complex issue of cortisol–a hormone released under stress that is linked to weight gain in at least some cases. Even if you don’t have a problem on the calorie intake side, the stressed individual may not do so well on the calorie burning side—either because of a lack of time to exercise or a lack of energy.

 

Modern humans are uniquely suited to chronic stress because we are the only species that achieves the same physiological stress response by remembering and obsessing about a stressful event as experiencing it. Abandoning the modern approach to living isn’t an option most are willing to entertain; but there are ways to combat chronic stress.

 

Move – Meditate – Mindfully Breath: The bad news is you’ve got to shoehorn these activities into your schedule daily (or at least several times a week.) The good news is that they don’t need to take up a lot of your day. There are a number of systems that address all three components in one handy package such as Qi Gong, Yoga, and some martial arts. I don’t think it matters so much which one chooses as how one goes about one’s practice.

 

Movement strengthens and strategically stresses the body, but it also increases one’s bodily awareness so that one becomes aware of how stress is manifesting itself in one’s body. Meditation teaches one how to live in the present moment, and it trains one to recognize the seeds of negative thought and emotion earlier so that one can counter-act them. Obviously, breathing is essential to life, but learning to be aware of one’s breathing patterns and to “manually override” the breath patterns associated with harmful emotional states is a beneficial skill.

 

Massage / Bodywork: Whether self-administered or other-administered (the latter allowing greater distressing–particularly if the masseuse is skilled) massage is an activity, like movement, that can help one become aware of where one is physically holding one’s stress. These physical manifestations of stress can exacerbate the whole experience of stress. One should take time periodically to have bodywork done. A day rarely goes by in which I don’t work on my own neck, shoulders, head, or face, and I occasionally get professional Thai Yoga Bodywork done.

 

The Places that Scare You: Force yourself to go someplace (not necessarily literally a “place”) that scares you once in a while. This needn’t be skydiving or hand-gliding—but it could be. It may be a martial arts class in which one has to put on the gloves occasionally and go at it. It may be joining Tostmasters and having to give a speech in front of a crowd. It may be traveling to some backwater where you don’t know the language, but you want to learn. This is a very personal issue. (i.e. A Type-A personality he-man may not find that skydiving is outside his comfort zone. If so, sorry, skydiving doesn’t count, he may need to learn ballroom dancing, or something else that truly takes him outside being comfortable.) KEY POINT: The problem with hiding from all stressors is that it doesn’t result in a stress-free life, what happens is that smaller and smaller stressors loom bigger and bigger in one’s mind. Which brings us to…

 

Perspective:  One must put life’s challenges in perspective. Each person’s problems are important to them, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s problems, but—come on—you’re not going to be eaten by a freaking saber-tooth tiger.

BOOK REVIEW: The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert WorldThe Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

A number of books have come out about introversion in recent years. Most of these books seek to dispel common myths about being introverted, such as:

a.) Introverts can and should change teams to the extroverted
“light side” as soon as possible.

b.) There’s something psychologically wrong (re: neurotic or even psychotic) with being introverted.

c.) “Introverted” is synonymous with:

1.) Shy (i.e. having social anxiety disorder)
2.) Schizoid
3.) Anti-social
4.) Self-centered (in the pejorative sense–a more neutral meaning could be said to be true by definition.)

This isn’t to say that one can’t be both introverted and any of the above, but one can also be extroverted and any of the above (including, believe it or not, shy—i.e. it’s possible to be an extrovert with social anxiety disorder.)

Where Dr. Olsen Laney’s book tries to carve a niche is in teaching introverts how they can conduct their lives in an extrovert-centric world so as to maximize their effectiveness and minimize their exhaustion. One will note that her advice doesn’t advocate attempting to become extroverted. In fact, one of the most interesting and informative sections of the book is chapter 3, which explains the differences in brain chemistry that result in introversion or extroversion. While some of the conditions mistaken for introversion–such as shyness–can be overcome or trained away, introversion is hardwired into the brain.

The book’s ten chapters are organized into three parts. The first part explains just what defines an introvert, what traits commonly mistaken for introversion aren’t introversion, and the physiological roots of introversion. The second part consists of four chapters that delve into problems faced by introverts in four critical domains: relationships, parenting, socializing, and work. The final three chapters present the prescription for modifying one’s behavior to keep one’s energy up in the face of the demands of modern life. It’s really all about energy—how we use it and replenish it differently. The external world—most notably interaction with other people but also anything of a chaotic environment—drains the energy of introverts faster than that of extroverts.

As one reads through the book, there are many tips for mitigating the negative effects of common introvert characteristics seen as problematic in an extrovert’s world. It should be noted that some of these are genuine problems (i.e. how one metabolizes food) and others are a matter of perspective (i.e. lack of conviction v. open-mindedness.) These “problems” include: difficulty making quick decisions, difficulty with word retrieval, lack of investment in one’s own ideas (“wishy-washy” in extrovert lexicon, but arguably open-minded), tendency toward over-stimulation, lack of inclination to engage in [prolonged] eye contact, proclivity to metabolize food quickly with resultant blood sugar drops, proclivity towards sedentariness, and a tendency to fail to delegate work and reward job completion—if one happens to be the boss.

I found this book to be enlightening. There were many ideas I found myself agreeing with (e.g. using hobbies and activities as a means of controlled interaction.) There were only a few pieces of advice that I thought poor (i.e. picking a weekend day to lay in bed or on the couch all day—reading or otherwise.) While it may seem logical that movement would drain energy in contradiction of the goal of restoring energy, I find being sedentary beyond a certain number of hours to be a huge energy drainer and that periodic movement is necessary and restorative to keep my energy level robust. (And I’m about as introverted as one gets by the criteria established in the book, most of which apply to me.) Of course, there are variations among introverts–just as among extroverts—not only with respect to the degree of introversion but also with respect to specific characteristics experienced. (e.g. Some introverts may not find that all of the criteria in the preceding paragraph apply to them.)

I’d recommend this book not only for introverts, but for those who interact with introverts in key ways (e.g. familial relations, significant others, bosses, employees, etc.) Non-introverts may find some sections are more helpful and necessary than others, and may not find they need to read from cover to cover.

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In [Atheological] Praise of Grace & Fasting

IMG_1214Those who’ve read my posts, or who know me, probably know me to be areligious, which–contrary to popular belief–isn’t necessarily the same as being atheist. Personally, and on the whole, I’ve never found enough virtue in religion to outweigh what I believe to be its vices. That being said, I do find behaviors to applaud among the faithful.

First and foremost among these commendable activities is the practice of saying grace before each meal. Of course, what appeals to me isn’t the notion of saying, “Hey, God, you are really groovy for laying this food upon my plate, and it’s my most heartfelt wish that you’ll keep up the good work. Thank you ever-so-much,  and YEEAAAH, God!” [Though if a less borderline-sacrilegious version of this kind of grace is your bag, more power to you.]

What I commend is the taking of a moment to be still and introspective before eating, of taking time to recognize the importance of our food. Of course, one can do this same sort of thing without invoking a God or gods–and some people do so.

One can take a moment to remind oneself to be mindful of how one eats, to not eat too quickly, and to recognize when one is full. (Bodily full not mentally satiated, the two are often not the same and the former will usually arrive first.)

One can take a moment to remember a time in one’s life when one was hungry or thirsty and concerned about whether one would have enough calories or safe drinking water to get through.  In our modern age, I suspect many have never been in a situation to experience such a thought, and are the poorer for it.

One can recollect the image of some hungry soul,  scraping to gather enough food to survive.

One may simply say, hara hachi bu, as Okinawan people do to remind themselves to eat only until they are 80% full.

Whatever you think or say, the goal is to keep eating from being a mindless activity, done on automatic pilot. Failure to be cognizant of what one puts in one’s mouth is the number one killer among human beings–and not just the obese. OK, I admit that I made that statistic up. But of how many statements can it be said that one is better off behaving as if it’s true–regardless of whether it is or not.

On a related note, I also applaud the act of periodic and/or partial fasting as carried out by many religions, as long as the safety of the individual is put before religious dogma, which–to my knowledge–it usually is. One shouldn’t be what my father called a Red Lobster Catholic, the kind who went to Red Lobster on Fridays during Lent and ordered the most sumptuous seafood feast they could afford–missing the point entirely by treating themselves. One also shouldn’t fast to the point that one feels starvation, and then binge and gorge.  One should cut one’s intake in a safe and reasonable manner in order to observe what it’s like to feel biological hunger (as opposed to cravings of the mind,  or boredom hunger.) Then take advantage of the fact that one’s stomach capacity shrinks surprisingly rapidly, allowing one to control one’s intake much more easily.

One needn’t believe that one has to make oneself suffer as a sacrifice to a higher being to see the value of fasting. Fasting done mindfully, and not dogmatically, increases one’s bodily awareness, one’s thankfulness, and one’s pleasure in eating.

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan

How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-DiscoveryHow to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

LeShan’s book offers a secular and scientific guide to meditation. By secular, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s devoid of mention of religion. On the contrary, How to Meditate delves into a wide variety of meditation styles that have roots in religion, and it quotes from spiritual teachers across a range of religions–including the mystic branches of Christianity and Islam. I mention the latter because the book seems tailored to bringing individuals into meditation that do not normally think meditation as being their bag, which could include atheists, secular humanists, or those whose religious practices don’t involve a mystical component. I just mean that the book is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a specific religion or suggest that one needs to hold any particular spiritual beliefs to benefit from meditation.

Also, by scientific I don’t mean to suggest that the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of EKG’s or the like. How to Meditate is readable to the general reader, except perhaps for chapter 11, which deals with using meditation in psychotherapy. [However, by the author’s own admission, one can skip that chapter with no great loss if you aren’t a therapist.] What I do mean to say is that LeShan takes an approach to meditation that is grounded in real-world, observable results. He tells the reader of the mental and physical benefits of meditation as they are discussed in the scientific literature.

In other words, if you think that meditation is only for hippie-types who believe in auras and astral planes, this book may convince you otherwise. On the other hand, if you’re one who believes in auras, astral planes, or the idea that only one true guru / path exists, you’ll probably be miffed by this book. There are a couple of chapters devoted to ideas that people believe that both have little evidence of grounding in reality and which detract from meditation. This includes ESP, auras, strange maps of reality, and guru-worship.

The core of the book is chapter 8, which explains how to do meditations of eleven different kinds. The book addresses single-point awareness, breath counting, thought watching, bodily awareness (specifically, Theravada Buddhist style meditation), word association (1,000-petaled lotus), mantra meditation, meditation on “I”, movement meditation (particularly Sufi-style), sensory awareness, safe harbor meditation, and unstructured meditation. The first ten are all types of structured meditation, and an earlier chapter is devoted to distinguishing structured from unstructured approaches to meditation. There is also an earlier chapter that discusses a broad taxonomy of meditation and sub-classes of meditation.

The book is logically arranged for the most part. It begins with a chapter on why one should meditate. This first chapter sets up two chapters that deal with the psychological and physiological effects of meditation. There is one oddity of organization. The core “how-to” chapter is bookended by a chapter on ESP and one on various pitfalls of spiritualism. It would seem these two chapters should go together as they both deal with things that detract from meditative practice, and not with the central chapter wedged between them.

The last couple chapters and the Afterword aren’t as beneficial for the general reader as the first 3/4ths of the book or so. One of those chapters is the aforementioned chapter for psychotherapists and the other deals with the social significance of meditation. The last chapter before those that I found superfluous, however, is one addressing the question of whether one needs a teacher to learn meditation. This pro and con discussion seems like a good way to end this book.

There is a long afterword by Edgar N. Jackson that adds a perspective on what we should take from LeShan’s book. I suspect that if page count were not a concern the book would have ended on the chapter that talks about decisions about a teacher. The last two chapters and the Afterword seem to have been added for the twin-fold purpose of hitting a target page count and to add a couple of niche audiences—namely students of psychology and fans of Edgar N. Jackson (i.e. Christians with an interest in mystical approaches to their religion.)

Overall, I’d recommend this book for those who are new to meditation, those who are seeking to expand their practice to new types of meditation, and those who are interested in the mind in general. As I mentioned, if you think of meditation as a route to see the glow of chakras or to commune with the dead, this probably isn’t the book for you—you’re likely to find its disregard for such otherworldly endeavors to be unappealing.

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