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NeuronesSince the development of scanners that can measure blood flow in the brain without seriously harming people, we have been learning a lot about how our brains work. Some journalists have called this the Golden Age of Neuroscience, although it’s more likely to turn out to be the Dawn of Neuroscience. We’re learning that the human brain is far more extraordinary than we ever thought – as far as we know, it is the most complex thing in the universe.

One of the things we have learnt is that the brain is in a constant process of change: everything we do, think and say subtly alters the network of neurones in the brain, a process described as neuroplasticity. Any given behaviour – let’s say being frightened by a dog – strengthens the connections of a particular sequence of neurones, creating what is called a neural-network. If we repeat the behaviour, then that particular neural network is reinforced – as neuroscientist Donald Hebb put it (back in 1949!) “what fires together, wires together“.

What this means is that every time you repeat a behaviour, you gradually wire up your brain in a way that makes that way of responding to events more likely, and ultimately so habitual that it takes great effort for you to choose another way of responding. So an incident of being frightened by a dog can be reinforced again and again, so that being frightened of dogs in general becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Of course the early practitioners of Buddhism had no idea what was happening in the brain, but through seeing people’s behaviour and watching their own minds in very subtle detail in meditation, they were able to observe the way in which we gradually build, embed and reinforce our habits of relating to the world. They called this process karma.

Over time, of course, the meaning and interpretation of words drifts. Nowadays people tend to talk of karma as some kind of cosmic retribution system – it is even embedded in the Hindu caste system: if you are born in a lowly caste, then this is your karma for having been bad in your previous life – and some people have even applied this absurd reasoning to disabled people.

Sadly, some cruel and exploitative people are never punished; some kind and generous people live lives of great difficulty and distress. Your karma is your mind – your particular set of reactive habits to the world and your experiences: feeling threatened by people in authority, or the psychologically damaged person on public transport; getting angry (or collapsing) when people disagree with your opinions; whether you like or are frightened of dogs.

Karma was not, and is not, a description of a great cosmic process, but an incredibly sophisticated way for a pre-scientific society to make sense of the development of neural-networks in the brain. And the fantastic thing is, it’s never too late for you to create new neural-networks that are more helpful, more kind, more creative, and happier. John Lennon was wrong, Instant Karma isn’t necessarily gonna get you.

Poster for David Lynch's movie of Dune

When I first attended a Buddhist weekend retreat I was asked to bring with me something which was significant or held meaning for me. It took me a long time to think of anything that fitted this description, but after some reflection I remembered the ‘Litany against Fear’ from Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’, a book that had been very important to me in my teenage years:

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will allow it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

The night before I left for the dry Spanish valley where I was to spend four months on my ordination retreat I felt compelled to watch David Lynch’s (notoriously poor) movie of the book (this was before the Sci-Fi Channel’s diligent, but uninspiring mini-series). Then, a few years later, I led a weekend retreat exploring the novel, as a way of looking at the myths and symbols of science fiction and the extent to which they might be useful in terms of spiritual practice.

I have come to deeply value the role of myth and the imagination within my own spiritual practice, but had noticed that a number of my friends found the whole area completely mystifying. It seemed more than a coincidence that many of these people seemed to be fans of science fiction. My aim for the weekend was to help people to make the connection between the myths that they were responding to in sci-fi, and the mythical aspects of life and spiritual practice. It seems that for many people living in a world marked by scientific reductionism and utilitarian literalism, the world of the imagination can appear to be in the future, or ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.’

Traditionally science fiction has not been a particularly refined genre – in the sci-fi books I read in my teens and twenties, the qualities of writing and of character development were often poor, and violence and cruelty were common themes. It has also been a particularly obvious outlet for wish fulfilment, or for the articulation of contemporary views – the Cold War led to a huge number of ‘alien threat’ novels and movies during the fifties and sixties, and more recently political correctness has brought us the elected Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode 1.

At its best, however, the freedom to define new social and political systems, and even change the laws of physics (Captain!), can allow science fiction writers to introduce archetypal figures and explore the nature of the human condition in a way which is not possible in more socially realistic fiction. In this way I believe it is possible for sci-fi to provide a launching pad into the imaginal realm. Thankfully, contemporary writers have begun to marry high standards of writing with this complexity of concepts – although I don’t read much fiction these days I’d particularly recommend Neal Stephenson‘s genre-busting books.

Those who are chronically averse to science fiction are unlikely to become converts, but if you have nurtured a secret affection for sci-fi then perhaps you can begin to have the courage to come out of the galactic closet. Ultimately it may be that science fiction can even be useful in helping us to see how those that we perceive as ‘alien’ are in fact no different from ourselves.

Dune

Frank Herbert, 1965 (published by New English Library)

Set in a feudal society of the far distant future the novel charts its protagonist’s maturation and fourfold initiation: firstly to Duke, then to manhood and leadership, to prescient super-being and ultimately to Emperor. Herbert interweaves his twin interests in psychology and ecology through the symbolic aspects of the story, such as the desert planet Arrakis (the ‘Dune’ of the title) and its giant sandworms, as well as through the themes and characters. These themes include the integration of masculine and feminine, and the principles of prescience and memory. The hero’s teachers are classic Jungian archetypes, and the desert planet is peopled by the wild and fierce Fremen, who live in rock warrens, and hoard water which will one day allow them to catalyse an ecological transformation of the planet. There is also the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood who manipulate religions and genetic lines through the use of their greatly heightened powers of awareness.

As a teenager it was this combination of the psychological and ecological which appealed to me, and I was particularly struck by the incredible acuity of perception of the Bene Gesserit – a faculty I now know as mindfulness. In ‘Dune’ Herbert achieved a level of symbolic truth which surpasses anything else he ever wrote, and it is this symbolic content more than the subtlety of his concepts which makes it a great novel.

I was doing some house-keeping on my computer this morning and came across this piece, which I wrote for the Buddhist Arts magazine Urthona about a decade ago – I’ve tweaked it slightly to bring it up to date a bit. I’d love to hear your recommendations for good sci-fi – ancient or modern.

There are many hundreds of meditation practices found in religious traditions and personal development systems throughout the world, and although it might look like people are all doing the same thing when they sit with their eyes closed, they might well be doing any of this huge range of different things. One way to get an overview of all these different approaches, is to see them as fitting into one of four broad categories – or maybe a combination of two or more of them.

Concentrating
In this types of practice you focus your attention on one aspect of your experience, and train yourself in regulating your attention by patiently and consistently bringing your mind back to this focus of attention whenever it drifts off. Meditating in this way calms and focuses your mind, and brings together all your scattered energies and thoughts. Body awareness meditations and mindfulness of the breath are both practices of this type, and are this approach is the best way to learn to meditate for most people.

Generating
In these meditation practices, you bring into being, or further develop, a positive quality or state of consciousness, using your imagination, memory and will. The classic example of this type of meditation is the family of meditations known as the Brahma Viharas, which are also called The Four Imeasurable in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The root of these is the cultivation of loving kindness (metta bhavana or maitri bhavana), the fundamental state of positive regard and well wishing which underlies all others. When you experience metta and you encounter suffering, then your natural response is one of compassion (karuna), and when you encounter growth, development and happiness your response is one of sympathetic joy (mudita). The fourth practice is the cultivation of equanimity – the capacity to respond creatively and from your values without being either overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world, or intoxicated with pleasure.

Receiving  
This approach can be seen as complementary to the concentrating practices, because instead of focusing the attention on one specific aspect of your experience, when practising in this way you seek to remain open to all of your experience even-handedly. This type of meditation is often done with your eyes slightly open, so that you pay equal attention to images, sounds, physical sensations, etc. and allow them all to come and go without getting caught up with any one of them. Japanese Zazen and the Tibetan practices of Dzog Chen and Mahamudra  can be seen as practices of this type.

Reflecting 
Once your mind is settled, then you can turn your focused attention onto your experience so that you can see it more clearly. This might mean observing the way in which your thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go, or exploring your experience to try to identify the self that we all presume to be there. Sometimes, as in koan practice, this might include the use of words, but often it is more an attitude of inquiry, as your mind may be too refined for discursive thought.

Mixing and Balancing
Any particular meditation practice might include any one, or several of these four modes or dimensions of practice, with many complex meditations in the Tibetan traditions including phases of each.

It is worth remembering that these definitions are just a guideline, as the practices do not have distinct boundaries, and whenever you are meditating you need to maintain a balance between consciously guiding your attention (concentrating) and being receptive to whatever experience is arising (receiving). If you focus too much on concentrating your meditation will become tight and dry, but if there isn’t enough focus then you are likely just to drift away from meditation into daydreams.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

I have been meditating for nearly 20 years, and the more I meditate the more important awareness of the body seems to be. This isn’t the way I was originally taught to meditate, however this approach to teaching meditation is now the one that is followed by most of the meditation teachers that I know.

We live in a busy world. Most of us live in urban areas and receive huge amounts of stimulus from adverts, people, music, noise, television, ipods, phones – I could fill the rest of the page with this list, so let’s leave it there. When we look at the lifestyles of humans through most of their evolution, we can see that they had much simpler and less stimulating lives. It seems likely that we have not evolved to deal with the high levels of stimulation that we currently receive – no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time.

There has also been a huge change in what we do with our time, with a continual move away from activities that involved our whole bodies towards work that involves only our heads and our hands. Although this process has accelerated during the last century, we’ve been losing touch with our bodies for quite some time.

So what? Well the big problem is that if we lose touch with our bodies, we lose touch with our emotions. They still underlie (and so effectively control) our thinking, but if we can’t feel our feelings we can’t take them into account, make allowances for them, or compensate for them. You only have to observe how venomous and irrational many academic disputes are to see the way that denied emotionality complicates things enormously.

During the period when the founders of the great religions taught there was no need to teach about emotional intelligence – everybody was in touch with their emotions – they just had to teach about which emotions to support and cultivate and which emotions were unhelpful and should have energy withdrawn from them. For many of us, there is a lot of work to do in connecting more honestly with our emotions and feelings, as only then can we begin to transform them. If we don’t, then we run the risk of deluding ourselves, and will struggle to connect effectively with others.

The simplest way to do this is to learn to notice the subtle sensations in our bodies, particularly in the front of the body: the heart, the belly, and the crossroad of nerves between them called the solar plexus. Although we’re all familiar with carrying emotional tension in our shoulders and other muscles, it is in this tender front of our bodies that we can most fully connect with our feelings and emotions.

There’s no need for me to go into the philosophy of this stuff here, but everybody is familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”. I believe it would be much more helpful for us to be able to say “I think and feel, therefore I am”.

On my Buddhist Coach Facebook page I just posted a link to this piece on mindfulness of the body, observing just how much emphasis has been placed on mindfulness as a primarily mental (i.e. thinking/ cognitive) activity. However, as the author elegantly puts it, “what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.”

I’ve been very struck by the huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, and I suggest that a key reason for this is that the people who research stuff are very heady, and that’s how they make sense of the world. I’ve been delighted to see the results of all the research that has been undertaken into meditation and mindfulness in the last few years, and at the same time there’s a little bit of me that complains “we’ve known this works for nearly 3,000 years, why do we need a a CAT scanner before anyone believes us?”

However, this isn’t just a modern phenomenon, the same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices by the monks who transcribed the Buddhist oral tradition. That’s because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don’t really understand or value body-based emotional experience.

The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect – Naropa being a classic example. The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought altogether  – as happens sometimes, especially in New Age circles) – we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body.

This stuff is important to me because it has been, and continues to be, my working ground. I came to Buddhism with very little awareness of my body or my emotions, and the longer I practice, the more important I understand the body to be. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Eh Ma Oh !

Vajrasattva painted by Aloka

Vajrasattva painted by Aloka

Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Birthless, all things take their birth,
Yet in that birth, nothing is borne.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Ceaseless, all things cease to be
Yet in that ceasing, nothing ceases.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
Within the Non-abiding, all abides,
Yet thus abiding, there abideth naught.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In Non-perception, everything is perceived,
Yet this perceiving is quite perceptionless.

Eh Ma Oh !
Dharma Wondrous Strange !
Profoundest Mystery of the Perfect Ones.
In the Unmoving, all things come and go,
Yet in that movement, nothing ever moves.

Another great book summary from my friends at Coaching on Call which explains the consequences of a lack of mindfulness.

Leadership Insights from Coaching on Call

The phenomenon of multitasking has been defined by psychiatrist Dr Edward Halliwell as “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously!”You Can’t Multitask (so stop trying!)- by Paul Atchley
Atchley reports that neuroscientists at the University of California monitored interruptions among office workers and found that it took an average of fifteen minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.
It was also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.
Multitasking adversely affects how we learn
Research by Professor Russell Poldrack shows that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. So even if you do learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and less accessible afterwards.
So why do we try?
There are various reasons why multitasking is more and more widely assumed to be desirable. These include:
  • Increase in technology – remote distractions and modes of communication (email, texts, messaging, internet searches,  etc.)
  • We’re hard wired to respond to social messaging and expanding our awareness of the group(s) we relate to – so we unconsciously scan for information all the time
  • We crave information because it makes us feel more comfortable – multiple sources of confirmation increases our confidence in our choices
  • The illusion of achievement – the buzz of activity makes us feel productive and needed
What can you do to avoid overload?
  1. Consciously approach one task at a time and stick with it. If the task is too large, chunk it down into sub-tasks and aim to complete these one at a time
  2. Take regular short breaks – preferably in the outdoors as frequent exposure to nature is shown to enhance receptivity and even increase IQ
  3. Know when to close your door to avoid interruption and use this time to focus intently on the task in hand
  4. Be clear about what information is useful and be on guard against just seeking more and more confirmation of what you have already decided in order to make you feel good – rather, seek out information that challenges you and therefore helps you make better decisions
  5. Check email / voice messages at pre-determined times rather than being constantly interrupted by them throughout the day
There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time
Lord Chesterfield – advice to his son in 1740

 

I have a conundrum with my website, and I’m wondering if I should remove the most popular part of it.

On my Buddhist Coach website I have a (still incomplete) section on different types of Buddhism. This is by far the most popular part of my site, receiving vastly more traffic than the rest of the site combined, and generating something like 95% of the search engine traffic to my site – it comes about 4th on on a Google search for the term. It looks like I’m providing a useful service in explaining some of this stuff, and at the time that I wrote it, it seemed far clearer an explanation of this complex topic than anything else I could find on the interwebs.

My main problem is that this page doesn’t lead people to my site who are very likely to  make use of my services, and all this site traffic makes it impossible for me to make sense of the analytics to the rest of my site – so I can’t tell if the people who are looking for me and/or the services I provide are getting what they want from my website. By contrast, my Helping Change website gets very little traffic. On the whole, the only people who visit it are specifically checking me out, or looking for the kind of service I offer. This makes it easy for me to see which pages are read, and which are ignored or skimmed, and thereby improve the site.

Arthur Quiller-Couch is said to have advised writers to ‘murder your darlings’ – that is, delete their favourite phases or passages in their work, to benefit the whole piece. Is it time for me to murder (or at least relocate) my website darling, or is all traffic good traffic?

 

I wrote the following on Saturday as part of a workshop that Chris Hoyle (Tejamitra) and I were running in North London. Like many things, it had a certain resonance at the time that it loses out of context, but I thought I’d share it anyway. I’m putting it here because it’s too long to use as an update on the Buddhist Coach Facebook Page.

Credo

I believe that there is no God – we must take responsibility for ourselves.

I believe that seeing oneself as separate from others is painful, exhausting and lonely.

I believe that craving and hatred are painful and self-propagating.

I believe that actions have consequences, both in our own psyches and in the cosmos.

I believe that to act kindly changes the universe for the better.

I believe that love is always better than fear.

I believe in the transformative and therapeutic powers of meditation.

I believe there is delight in stillness.

I believe the means justify the ends, not the other way round.

I believe it’s all too easy to lose a sense of the transcendent, so we need those who are more in touch with it to remind us.


There is a profound teaching in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked by the evil Benjamin “How do you feel about making a change?”, Wayne’s friend and side-kick Garth responds in a deadpan voice “We fear change.” It’s a popular part of the movie, with thousands of references to it online, and like many jokes it has a significant truth at its heart.

We really do fear change. We don’t know what change may bring us, and for many people that fear of the unknown is so strong that it not only stifles their growth and development, it keeps them in abusive relationships or jobs that they hate. For many people the security of the familiar, however unpleasant, appears preferable to the uncertainty of change.

I recently took part in some training on the Solution Focus coaching methodology OSKAR, and I was very struck by the way that this approach is particularly effective in working to overcome our innate fear of the unknown.

As you’ve probably guessed, OSKAR is an acronym, and the O stands for Outcome. (I don’t intend to explore the whole methodology here, you can follow the links if you’d like to know what the other letters stand for.) In OSKAR, Outcome has two aspects:

• clarification of what the client wants to achieve, both overall and within the context of the particular coaching session (known as Building the Platform)

• imagining a Future Perfect, in which a miracle has taken place and the desired outcome has been fully achieved (in Solution Focus this is known as the Miracle Question)

In demonstrations of the OSKAR approach I was struck by the way a whole session could focus almost exclusively on clarifying what the client wanted to achieve. Sometimes we’re so hung up on what we don’t want in our current situation, that it’s hard to see through to what we do want instead. Just gaining this clarity about the desired goal can be all that we need – a strategy and the imperative to act seems to naturally emerge from it.

Of course different people have different responses to the idea of change, and different responses to life itself. In Buddhist psychology a simple distinction is made between what are traditionally known as ‘greed types’ and ‘hate types’. I usually explain this by asking people to imagine a buffet table at a party or event. A greed type will approach the table and have an internal discourse along the lines of “Ooh look, mushroom vol-au-vents, I like those … and there’s some nice looking samosas … oh, and look at the puddings!” because he (or she) pays attention to the aspects of their situation that they find attractive.

In contrast, a hate type’s inner discourse will be much more along the lines of “I hate eating standing up … and I can’t eat chicken wings … and look they’ve put celery in the salad, I can’t stand celery … and those puddings are really fattening”, because they pay attention to the aspects of the situation that they dislike.

When they look at the future, greed types and hates types imagine very different things: greed types get excited and enthusiastic about all the things they’re looking forward to, and hate types worry about how everything might go wrong! Greed types are natural optimists and hate types are inveterate pessimists, and as the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives – albeit with an occasional tendency to naivety and seeing life through overly ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.

Of course I’m exaggerating the differences here to emphasise a point. We are all greed types and hate types to different degrees at different times, depending on circumstances and how well-resourced we are. Nevertheless this simple model can be one of many useful lenses to look at our habits and help to address our resistances to change.

Useful though the OSKAR methodology can be, the importance of clarifying your goal is fundamental to change of any kind. It’s not a new observation, but we seem to need reminding of it again and again. Back in the 1940s the Hindu teacher Swami Ramdas was unequivocal: although many embark on a path of spiritual development few make progress because most lack a clear idea of the goal they wish to reach, and they also lack a clear idea of how to get there.

If you don’t like where you are now, then be careful to clarify where you’re trying to go at the very start of the journey, otherwise fear of the unknown may undermine your ability to get anywhere at all.

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