Category Archives: Mindfulness Brain Research

What’s In a Label?

labelIf you practice mindfulness meditation, you’ve had this experience: you are focusing on your breath, one inhale and exhale at a time, when suddenly a compelling thought arises, distracting you. Maybe the thought is about work, or a relationship, or the vacation that starts next week, or whatever. That thought then leads you down a series of mental rabbit holes until – five minutes in – you realize that you’ve completely lost the breath. It can be humbling to realize how little control we have over our minds. Those thoughts are so compelling!

One powerful way of working with distracting thoughts is the simple technique of labeling. Whenever you notice that your mind has been wandering, silently say to yourself, thinking, thinking, or wandering, wandering. If you’ve been planning your day instead of noticing your breath, you can note planning, planning. If you’ve been remembering an event from yesterday, you can say remembering, remembering, and so on. Labeling our thoughts can have the effect of giving us some distance from them, leading to what I call “dis-identification.” We tend to identify with our thoughts and believe them to be true. Haven’t you noticed this in your own experience? Even if our thoughts are destructive, we give them credence because we are familiar with our mental patterns. That familiarity breeds an auto-pilot relationship to our thoughts. Because of this we tend to act on our thoughts without questioning or examining them. But when we label our thoughts in meditation, it’s as if we are freeing ourselves from the spell our thinking cast on us, as if we are waking up from a dream. We no longer believe the thought automatically. We see the thought merely as an event in consciousness. It may be an important thought that we need to act on; it may be a worthless thought that can be easily discarded. The important thing is that the act of labeling creates some space around our thoughts, allowing us to be aware of them and therefore giving us a choice about what thought to believe and act on and what thought to ignore.

This labeling technique also works with emotions. When we are feeling angry, we can note, angry, angry, or sadness, sadness, or desire, desire, etc. And labeling is something we can do even when we’re not meditating. It can be especially helpful during difficult conversations. If you’re talking politics with a close friend and you find yourself getting angry at an opinion your friend is sharing, acknowledging your anger can give you much needed separation and time to process the emotion. As a result you will probably be less likely to respond to your friend by saying something you might regret.

Research has shown that the inability to identify emotions makes it harder to regulate them.(1) Other research has shown that labeling emotions tends to lead to a lowering of stress levels.(2)

Keep the labeling simple. One word labels are best. The tone of your labeling is important as well. Simply note the bare experience without adding any emotional tone to it or any commentary. If you’re frustrated that you keep getting distracted by your thoughts, labeling THINKING! THINKING! impatiently will just make you feel bad about yourself.

Like just about any other meditation technique, mental labeling doesn’t always work. And it works better for some people than others. But it works often enough to be a useful addition to your meditation tool box.

Bill Scheinman is a mindfulness teacher and corporate mindfulness facilitator in the San Francisco Bay Area. His next 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction starts Feb. 20 in Berkeley. He also offers online mindfulness courses which you can learn about here.

citations
1. Vine & Aldao, Journal of Social & Clinicial Psychology, April, 2014; 2. Craske, UCLA, 2012.

Some Thoughts on Thoughts

So many Thoughts

So many Thoughts

“There is nothing good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”
-William Shakespeare

Our thoughts create our reality. The way we think conditions our behavior and leads to results in the world. So the types of thoughts we tend to think, believe, and act on have an enormous influence on our personal destinies, on whether or not we’ll achieve emotional resilience, career success, and happiness in relationships. Yet there is a common misconception that one of the goals of meditation is to rid ourselves of our thoughts and have a clear, empty mind. But mindfulness meditation is not about getting rid of our thoughts. It’s about learning to see clearly into the nature of our thoughts and begin to relate to our thinking differently.

Here are some points to keep in mind when exploring how to mindfully work with your thoughts:

95%

It’s been said that approximately 95% of the 60,000 thoughts we have each day are the same thoughts we had yesterday. Which means that the vast majority of our thoughts are not original and not particularly useful. And because we are hard-wired with a negativity bias, many of those thoughts tend to be of a ruminative, obsessive, and dark nature, forming the basis for our tendency to catastrophize and feel overwhelmed. It’s summed up in the famous quote from Mark Twain: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. But most of them never happened.”

Distorted Thinking

Many of these repetitive thoughts form narrative patterns that psychologists have termed thinking distortions. If left unexamined, these thinking distortions can color our perception of the world and others. Here’s an example: You’re walking down the street and you see someone you know across the street. You notice the person catch your eye and you wave, but the person doesn’t respond at all, then disappears into a store. Your first thought is, “Oh my god, so and so just ignored me. What did I do?” This particular thinking distortion is known as reading minds. It’s the idea that we know exactly what people are thinking and what must be motivating their behavior. In the above example, though, are we even sure that the person recognized us? So much suffering is caused when we let these distorted thoughts control us.

And this points to another problem with our thoughts. Which is, we tend to believe them. Think about that for a minute. If we have 60,000 thoughts a day and most of them are repetitive, not helpful, or even negative, how does it effect our experience of being alive? If we believe our thoughts and don’t even question them, then it means we’ll tend to act in accordance with our thoughts even if they are wildly inaccurate. By failing to look at our thinking critically, it means that we are literally at the mercy of our unconscious patterns and habitual tendencies.

How Mindfulness Helps

When you try to focus on your breathing for any length of time, you’ll notice that things get in the way of your focus. Many of these “things” are thoughts – plans, memories, fantasies, inner dialogues. The more we try to focus on the breath, in fact, the more we see these thoughts. As we continue to practice, it is inevitable that at some point we’ll start noticing the patterns of thinking that our mind produces: the desires, fears, hopes, and judgments we make about ourselves, the world, and others that influences our actions – and the outcomes of our lives.

Many of these habit patterns were unknown to us before we became meditators. As we deepen our practice, though, we get to know ourselves well. Mindfulness of thought patterns helps us see two crucial aspects of thoughts that lack of mindfulness will shield us from seeing: 1) thoughts are impermanent and insubstantial, and 2) certain thoughts lead to stress and suffering while others lead to greater ease and well-being. Mindfulness helps us see that thoughts are like clouds passing in the sky. For a time they seem solid and steady, but like clouds they are just passing and will actually not last. Have you ever been able to make your thoughts last? When we see that our thoughts are impermanent, we begin to recognize that thoughts are actually just events in consciousness, not facts. I’ll repeat that: thoughts are events in consciousness, not facts. This perspective provides a critical distance that allows us to see thoughts without necessarily believing them or acting on them. By seeing thoughts in this way, we begin to develop cognitive freedom and beginner’s mind.

The act of sitting and noticing our thought patterns over and over again gives us the space to digest thoughts before believing them or acting on them. Sometimes thoughts give rise to emotions, or act as a response to emotions, so when we are mindful of our thoughts we are also aware of the emotional underpinnings that influence us. By observing our thoughts rather than reacting to them we can understand which thoughts, if acted upon, will lead to suffering, and which thoughts will support a healthy respsonsiveness.

Mindfulness teaches us the humble lesson that we are not really in control of our thoughts. But it also teaches us the hopeful lesson that we are in control of how we respond to them.

8 Common Mistakes of Meditators

meditation-manMany meditation teachers say that there is no wrong way to meditate. That showing up and doing the practice is what’s important. Having said that, the following list of common mistakes or misconceptions about meditation keep showing up in my teaching with students. They are:

1. Not Doing it Every Day

Like any healthy habit, meditation should be practiced every day. When we embark on a meditation practice, we are essentially committing ourselves to an ongoing process of training the mind. That doesn’t mean training the mind on some days but not on days when we don’t feel like it. Sitting every day for just a few minutes is far better than sitting once a week for an hour. That’s because the continuity of mind-body observation established by daily practice keeps us close to the realm of awareness. When we practice sitting every day, we are more likely to respond with awareness in our daily activities and to be less reactive. Even if you only sit for 10 minutes a day, your practice is having an effect on your brain, on the way you relate to the world and others, and on your ability to focus. So if you take your practice seriously, find a way to carve out some time each day to do it.

2. Trying to Get Rid of Thoughts

It’s a common misconception that when we meditate one of our goals should be to have a blank mind, without any thoughts in it. Unfortunately the mind doesn’t tend to cooperate. One of the more humbling aspects of meditation is the recognition that we can’t really control our thoughts. They tend to come and go rather randomly. If we try to get rid of our thoughts, essentially trying to do the impossible, we place ourselves in a contentious and aversive relationship to our minds. We are being unkind to ourselves. What we can control, however, is how we relate to our thoughts. Rather than trying to get rid of our thoughts, we should aim to notice how they appear and disappear, and what mental habit patterns they reveal. When we see the transitory nature of our thoughts, and the thought patterns that drive our behavior for good or ill, we see that we have a choice about which thoughts to follow and which to let go of.

3. Trying to Have Only Positive Thoughts

On the flip side, many people have the misconception that if we do have thoughts during meditation, they should be positive, wholesome thoughts. “I must be a terrible meditator,” people say, “because I have so many negative thoughts in my head!” Since many of our thoughts are based on a negativity bias in our brains and distorted habitual thinking from our personal histories, ruminative and unpleasant thoughts are very normal. They are a part of being human. And when we let those negative thoughts into our awareness, we are giving the fullness of our humanity its due. You are far better off knowing the judgments, biases, and fears inside your mind than not knowing about them. To know your thoughts rather than to judge them is a very helpful attitude.

4. Thinking that Being Calm is the Precondition for Practice – or Its Goal

Over the years many people have told me, “I couldn’t meditate this week because things were really frantic. I just wasn’t relaxed enough.” Or, “I was so agitated when I tried to sit that I knew it wouldn’t do me any good.” Etc. People have the idea that they need to get rid of all the negative stuff before practicing. But if we waited for things to become perfect before we meditated, we would never meditate! In addition, many people believe that their practice is a failure if they don’t feel relaxed at the end of it. “Isn’t being calm the goal?” they ask. No, actually. The goal of meditation is to be present for what arises without needing to change it or fix it. If you sit for 30 minutes with your anguish, doubt, anger, or fear, you will become very knowledgeable about the forces driving your behavior. You will also have cultivated patience, insight and self-compassion. If you sit with your negative states long enough, your relationship to those negative states – and the states themselves – will start to change.

5. Believing that Frequent Loss of Focus is a Sign of Failure

When you go to the gym, every time you do a rep with a dumb bell you are developing the strength of your muscles. It’s the same with meditation. Every time you notice you have lost your focus and then come right back to your breath, you are doing a mental rep which increases the strength of your mindfulness. So instead of thinking that you are a bad meditator because you frequently wander away from your object of meditation, take it as a sign of success that you keep bringing your mind back. They call it meditation practice for a reason.

6. Not Making Adjustments When Conditions Change

Your meditation practice is alive. It reflects the conditions of your life, your world, and the changing nature of your body, mind, and heart. Just like life, a meditation practice is something that evolves over time. It isn’t static. It lives. What worked for you for the last year may suddenly stop working for you now. What happens then? For years I knocked my head against the wall by counting my breath when it wasn’t effective for me. No one had told me there were other things I could do besides count! I finally figured it out and realized that my practice was a vital, growing thing. One of the things that makes meditation practice an art is that you need to use your intuition to determine how to work with changing experiences. Conversely, some people make the mistake of changing their practice too often. Getting bored with something they’re trying then moving on at the first sign of difficulty. Your own judgment and inner knowing, and the advice of skilled teachers, can help you stay the course when you need to, and try something else when that’s what’s needed.

7. Believing Your Boredom

Meditation is the act of sitting and being with ourselves and noticing how things are and what’s going on. A big part of this is the willingness to be curious about our experience. People have often told me that they hated doing this or that practice, because “It was so-ooo boring!” I always tell people that if you are experiencing boredom, get interested in it! Often beneath boredom there are other emotions, like doubt, anger, and fear. Boredom is a great way of putting a veil over our wounds and keeping us from knowing ourselves. You don’t need to change your boredom per se, but try not believing it either. If you stay with your boredom long enough, treasures will be revealed.

8. Beating Yourself Up

Being kind to yourself and practicing self-compassion is the most effective way of sustaining a lifelong meditation practice. Because meditation reveals the messiness of our all so human lives, it takes great courage, patience and self-care to endure it all. If we beat ourselves up, we’ll stop practicing. If we care for ourselves with an open heart, our practice will serve us for life.

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Appreciative Joy: An Intelligent Way of Being

When I was a younger man, I used to be something of a curmudgeon. I tended to envy people who were happy and successful. I remember times when, as a single man, I would glance at couples in San Francisco holding hands and feel bitter resentment. They seemed like such ordinary people, what right did they have to flaunt their happiness in my face by holding hands! Would love ever find it’s way to me? I’d wonder. Or I’d be walking down the street in a lovely San Francisco neighborhood, past gorgeously cozy Victorian mansions, and feel like a total failure in life because I didn’t own such a beautiful house. I’d feel the same way about people driving fancy cars, or going on long and expensive vacations to exotic climes. Or about so many other things.

Couple Holding Hands at Sea Sunset

Then something strange started to happen. I started catching myself smiling at beautiful houses as I walked past them, feeling genuinely happy for the people who lived in them. I also began noticing a swell of enjoyment whenever I saw couples holding hands, being openly affectionate. And when people told me they were going on long expensive vacations, I would be sincerely delighted for them.

One day it hit me: I had stopped being a curmudgeon! But what had changed? I asked myself. Then I realized: my meditation practice, which I’d been engaged in for many years, had started to show up for me as the heart quality known as appreciative joy. Appreciative joy, sometimes known as sympathetic joy, is that quality of an open and wise heart that rejoices in the happiness and success of others. When it is directed at one’s own good fortune, appreciative joy is embodied in the emotion of gratitude. What was amazing to me is that I hadn’t consciously tried being grateful for what I had or appreciative of others’ happiness. The emotions just arose naturally as a result of my practice. I realized as well that if I was spontaneously experiencing joy for others, my brain must have been changed as a result.

Through meditation, we practice letting go of distractions, comparisons, and private obsessions again and again, by simply coming back to our breath or whatever object we’re focusing on. That act of letting go and coming back, repeated countless times over hours, days, weeks, months, and years, has a structural impact on our brains, thanks to neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains can be changed through repeated experience. Those structural changes are then reflected in our behavior. The hard edges of our comparing and judging mind soften, and we gravitate towards a state of inner contentment. When we are feeling good about ourselves internally, we don’t have to compare ourselves to others externally. Feeling good about ourselves, we naturally wish others to be happy as well. If we feel inner joy, it frees our heart to feel joy for others.

And research has shown that joy and gratitude can have a protective influence on psychological and physical health. In one study by Emmons & McCullough, those who kept weekly gratitude journals were more likely to exercise regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, and felt better about their lives as a whole. And research by Richard Davidson has shown a 50% increase in antibodies to the flu in people who rate high in joyful emotions.

Because of the fact that our brains are plastic, our curmudgeonly tendencies don’t have to be our fate. We can intentionally cultivate positive states like joy and gratitude through practices such as mindfulness, concentration, and lovingkindness. We are not at the mercy of the brain’s default negativity bias or of our habitual ruminative thought patterns. In a very real sense, happiness, joy and gratitude are ways of being rather than static states. And because feeling appreciative joy also makes us a better colleague, leader, friend, or spouse, a joyful mind is also an intelligent one.

Angry Political Speech Got You Down? Try Kindness Practice.

The regions of the brain that control emotions are much older than those regions that regulate rational thought and executive functioning. The function of emotions when we were evolving was to help us manage threats to our survival. The emotion of disgust, for example, originated as a means to avoid bad food or a bad smell.

But the complexity of modern life makes the experience of emotions far more complex than it was a million years ago. To quote Daniel Goleman, “While in the ancient past a hair-trigger anger may have offered a crucial edge of survival, the availability of automatic weaponry to thirteen-year-olds has made it too often a disastrous reaction.”

Because our emotions are so powerful, they can get control of our rational minds rather easily. Even if we might like to see ourselves as emotionally positive, as kindhearted and compassionate people, a sudden emotional spike can ruin all our good intentions in a moment of anger.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of politics. Politics is one of those things that can really rattle us emotionally. Politics in the United States has always been a contact sport, but over the last few decades, as many people have observed, the political landscape has become increasingly polarized. It seems like people identify with their values so strongly that they find themselves hating others who have different values. We admire political figures who represent how we feel about the world, but often demonize political figures who hold views we dislike. We find ourselves avoiding people who hold different political views than us, unless they’re family, of course – in which case we do our best not to argue at Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the tribalization of media is to blame for the tendency many people have today to visit only the newspapers, websites, Facebook pages or Twitter feeds that validate their view of the world. But for whatever reason, politics can really get our blood boiling.

In 2016, the current political season seems to have hit new lows for negativity, anger, vilification, blaming, disgust, and overall nastiness. So much negative information gets disseminated in the form of campaign ads, flyers, media coverage, speeches, demonstrations, and debates, that it’s a wonder that our psyches aren’t overwhelmed by the toxic atmosphere. This is especially true for political junkies, who feed off the news during political season the way a vacationer eats rich food.

If you are one of the people who is feeling emotionally exhausted by today’s politics, a simple practice of cultivating kindness can be a big help. Both the ancient practices of mindfulness and kindness meditation and modern research point to an amazing fact: deliberately cultivating kindness, friendliness and compassion is not only possible, it’s good for your health and sense of well-being. Research findings have shown that practicing kindness can decrease blood pressure, that it reduces inflammation and delays aging, that it enhances the immune system for both the giver of kindness and the recipient, that it improves our relationships, and makes us overall happier. And the amazing thing about us human beings is that our brains are trainable. We can develop kindness like we can any other skill.

The first step in a kindness practice is altering your perspective a little bit by considering a simple yet irrefutable fact: every human being wants to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. This is a radical understanding of the human condition that is very helpful when we find ourselves hating or feeling disgust for others. This basic desire for happiness and dislike of suffering is true even in the case of someone whose behavior is malevolent or in some way deplorable. Even people who do bad things want to be happy; the bad things they do, they are doing out of a misunderstanding of what will make them happy. Another way of shifting perspective on people we dislike, is to consider this idea: how much better off the world would be if all of its difficult people were happy.

Once these perspectives are in place, the next step in a kindness practice is to set your intention to cultivate kindness within yourself. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to repeat to yourself phrases of kindness and well-wishing. The ancient Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, which the man known as the Buddha recommended to his followers 2,600 years ago, uses a series of simple phrases which set the intention for kindness and also recognizes the need of others to be happy. A simple version of these phrases are:

May I be safe
May I be healthy
May I be happy
May my life be filled with ease and well-being

You can certainly modify these phrases and use your own words to make them align with what resonates for you. In doing this practice, start with yourself. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion, and repeat these phrases of well-wishing for yourself in silence, over and over again. Don’t worry about the outcome. Focus on the repeating of each phrase. Each time you repeat the phrases, you are basically repeating your intention to be happy. Do this for a few minutes, then repeat these phrases for a good friend for the same amount of time. Like so:

May [friend’s name] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

Then repeat the phrases for a neutral person in your life. Like so:

May [neutral person’s name or description] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

And then for an enemy or difficult person, including a political figure that you dislike. Keep in mind that when you say the phrases for the person you dislike, the goal is not to like that person. The goal is to recognize your common desire for happiness, and in some way to unfreeze your heart.

May [political figure or enemy] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

Finally, you can say these phrases for all beings everywhere.

As you spend time doing this practice, you may feel strong heart-opening emotions when you say these phrases to yourself. If that happens, just welcome them, and keep opening to that experience by repeating the phrases. If nothing seems to be happening, or you feel numb, that’s perfectly fine, too. The phrases of well-wishing are like seeds that are planted and they’ll sprout in their own good time.

Sometimes kindness practice brings up the opposite emotions. So if you experience anger or grief, extend kindness to yourself and to those emotions that you’re having and don’t judge them. Remember this: to practice kindness is to be present with whatever blocks kindness. Above all, keep saying the phrases, acknowledging whatever else is arising without any judgment at all.

And the next time you find yourself getting upset by something in the political realm, it may be a bit easier to come back to a sense of emotional balance and an even-handed perspective.

Awareness is Not What it Knows

Clouds in a blue sky
Awareness is one of the most miraculous things about being alive. Scratch that. It is THE most miraculous. Without awareness, we would know nothing. We would not know the trees, the sky, the mountains, the stars, the eyes of our beloved, the laughter of children. Or love, fear, anger, or joy. And yet, what is this awareness? One of the insights that can arise when we spend intensive periods of time focusing on a simple meditation object like the breath is that the awareness which knows the breath is not itself composed of the breath. Likewise, our awareness of pain is not the pain itself; our awareness of our thoughts and emotions is not the content of those thoughts and emotions. Our awareness, in fact, is not what it knows. Nor is our awareness bound by the conditions of everyday life.

Nor can we shut awareness off. As long as we are alive and awake, awareness is present. Sit with your eyes closed for 30 seconds and try not being aware. You can’t do it. Another powerful thing about awareness is that as we develop our ability to focus and still our minds, our awareness can turn around and observe itself. As we learn to relax the habits of the egoic personality, the non-judgmental clarity of awareness starts informing our lives more and more. Instead of getting completely identified with the pleasant and unpleasant experiences which occupy our days, we are more likely able to step back and see them as passing events which we can relate to with more ease and wisdom. The more we align ourselves with the point of view of awareness, the more we can hold the joys and sorrows of our lives without getting swept away in knee jerk reactivity to them. This holding of our experience means that we are relating to our lives with more mental clarity and freedom and are less likely to experience suffering from the changeable, unsatisfactory, and selfless nature of events.

From a working perspective, aligning ourselves with awareness makes us better colleagues – we’re more present during conversations, and more likely to see our colleagues with fresh eyes. Awareness tells us when we’re in need of a break, when we’re losing our focus, or when we need to reset our work priorities. Awareness keeps us on track so that we can manage our time better, and it helps us stay present during long meetings. Awareness puts us in touch with our emotions so that, when responding to an upsetting email, we pause long enough to acknowledge how we’re feeling, defusing the raw emotions so that we can craft an appropriate response that isn’t coming from a place of anger. Awareness helps us see the unskillful habit patterns of our minds, dis-identifying from negative narratives that hold us back at work and socially.

One of the most amazing things about awareness is that it is not static. It is a living experience, something that we can keep opening and deepening the more we practice.

The Meditating Brain

This is a great graphic from an article in Scientific American showing the different regions of the brain that light up during the different phases of the meditative process. From focused attention, to mind wandering, to awareness of wandering and redirecting of attention.meditation_brain

Happiness is a Skill That We Can Learn

The pursuit of happiness is an idea deeply embedded in the American psyche, stretching back to the Declaration of Independence. But the idea of happiness is often distorted in our culture. We are told that happiness is about getting things. The right job, the nicest home, the best car, the perfect partner, etc. Yet lasting happiness isn’t about these things. It’s about how we experience our lives internally; it’s about how we respond to the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions of our daily existence. Mindfulness practice points to the very real possibility that happiness is a skill that can be trained. Whether we train ourselves in an 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction, or in our daily sitting practice, opening to the experience of the present moment – no matter what it contains – allows us to digest experiences while letting go of the stories we tell about them. This capacity to allow things to be as they are leads to more ease, peace, balance, well-being, and a sense of the richness of our lives – surely qualities that we can include in any definition of happiness.

Meditation Helps Preserve the Brain

“A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators.”
-Forbes Magazine0728_deep-brain-stimulation_650x455