Correlates of Happiness

alex-martinez-62348Thankfully psychology has begun to take an interest in the factors underlying mental health and happiness rather than focusing only on psychopathology and mental suffering. A lot of great research has emerged from this interest and we know more than ever about the correlates of well-being.

You might not be surprised to learn that, like most things, happiness is complicated. Its a subjective emotion involving sensations like pleasure and satisfaction, contentment, serenity, comfort, meaningfulness, optimism and hope. So, there are a number of ingredients involved in the recipe for happiness.

We know that basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety must be met, first and foremost. Without this, people have very little hope for sustainable happiness because survival becomes the overwhelming focus. We also know that beyond a certain point, money does not significantly contribute to happiness. Instead, relationships (love and affiliation), gratitude, altruism and kindness, forgiveness, optimism, esteem, a sense of meaning, and opportunities for self-actualization are all highly correlated with well-being.

Just as there is a process involved in producing the necessary ingredients to create a satisfying dish, the correlates of happiness must be intentionally planted and cultivated. There are no quick fixes and we should be suspicious when we think we’ve found one.

National Geographic recently published an article on The World’s Happiest Places based on the World Happiness Report. The Report identifies several common factors that account for three quarters of human happiness: strong economics, healthy life span, good social relationships, generosity, trust and freedom. These countries takes steps to provide basic needs and mitigate some of most common human stressors such as poverty, sickness, and social conflict.

They cite several countries in which happiness was rated highest in the world. The US isn’t one of them – the World Happiness Report cites declining social support and increased corruption as factors for the plummeting experience of wellbeing in the US since 2007. The world’s happiest countries have mechanisms in place that support the common factors of happiness, while the US increasingly focuses on the almighty dollar in the hands of a few and at the expense of the many.

Denmark offers subsidized education and healthcare and provides a robust financial safety net. Interestingly, it has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Costa Rica has an environment that can’t support huge industrial farms so it has remained a country of small property owners, resulting in less power inequity than in some other countries. Education, clean water, social security and health care are all priorities there. Singapore embraces traditional Asian values of harmony respect and hard work. The government ensures that everyone who works earns a good wage, lives in quality housing, and receives necessary health care. The accomplishments require enlightened leaders who play the long game rather than seeking instant gratification.

We will all be better off if more of us are happy. You’ve heard the saying, “Hurting people hurt people.” This means that we cannot be content with our own happiness alone. We can see this playing out right in front of our eyes in the US as we stray further and further away from what the research has shown. The good news is that many of the correlates of happiness involve relating with and caring for others, so if we are following the proper recipe, the fruits of our personal pursuit for well-being ripple out beyond us. Starting from within in this way, we become natural benefactors.

Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you. – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

 

Ashtanga Yoga in Recovery

prasarita padottanasana aI recently attended the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum through the Trini Foundation, a training program for yoga teachers who would like to help people who suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction use ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustained recovery. The Trini Foundation was created by Taylor Hunt, who credits ashtanga yoga with saving his life. His foundation is endorsed by Sharath Jois who is the current head of the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India.

Ashtanga yoga is a system that has been passed down for many generations, designed for healing and self-realization. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum was a continued discussion we had about why this particular style of yoga, especially Mysore style practice, might be so useful for folks in recovery. There is research underway, but we don’t currently have strong scientific evidence to support these observations. In his book, A Way From Darkness, Hunt outlines some of the reasons the method resonated with him. I will also add here some of my own thoughts, as a psychologist and a yoga practitioner, on why this system may be a powerful ally in sustaining sobriety.

Ashtanga Yoga is Healing

The primary series of ashtanga yoga is called Yoga Chikitsa, yoga for health or yoga therapy. Along the difficult road to recovery, the abused and neglected body and mind require healing. Yoga reconnects us with our embodied selves, which is useful because the body is often the harbinger that signals trouble ahead. Neglected muscles are re-awakened and stiff joints are brought to a therapeutic edge. The foggy mind is sharpened via single pointed concentration developed through the tristhana – a coordination of breath, postures, and gaze. A sort of “internal cleansing” begins to occur and we see how we treat ourselves has a direct correlation to our experience in the practice. We discover a compelling reason to treat ourselves better, changing our diets, sleeping habits and schedules to improve our experience on the mat. The deep shame and self-loathing that often come along with addiction may be replaced by newfound self-care, self-compassion, and self-respect.

Ashtanga Yoga is Challenging

This healing system demands much of its practitioners physically, cognitively and emotionally. Memorizing the sequence and maintaining the tristhana require sustained focus and concentration. The cardiovascular system is taxed through deep breathing coordinated with flowing movements called vinyasas. Strength, balance and flexibility build through continued practice. The practitioner “earns” postures as they are mastered and this tends to be both motivating and intriguing. As abilities increase, hope is cultivated. Practitioners develop greater independence and take personal responsibility for their personal practice. We become curious about our capabilities. A sense of excitement about the possibilities encourages us to adopt a beginner’s mind, allowing us to loosen the grip of ego and open to present moment experience. We find ourselves continually surprised and delighted by what we are capable of.

Ashtanga Yoga is Spiritual

Because it has remained relatively close to its lineage, ashtanga yoga continues to be a largely spiritual practice. Spirituality involves an openness to the immaterial – that which is immeasurable. When we are willing to consider that there may be something greater than ourselves, something we cannot detect with our senses, we don’t have to take things so personally and we are better able to tolerate ambiguity.

Spirituality also also involves a recognition of the fundamental interconnection of all things. When see ourselves as interconnected, we recognize both our smallness and our vastness – we see that we are not in control and yet we are responsible to do the best we can. We discover that our own wellbeing is inextricably bound to that of others and our environment. To mistreat ourselves is to mistreat others – to destroy our environment is to destroy ourselves – and vice versa.

These spiritual understandings begin to free us from some of our self-imposed suffering. We come to understand that everything is part of a greater whole; therefore, everything is workable. We don’t need to fight so much, run away or hide from our difficulties. We don’t need to keep acquiring more and more material things, chase after intensifying pleasures, or strive for external validation to find happiness. We begin to realize we are enough and we are not alone.

In ashtanga yoga, the only variable is you.” – Taylor Hunt

Ashtanga yoga consists of set series of increasingly difficult postures and transitions choreographed to a specific rhythm. A clear pathway is laid out for us from which we need not vary. Because the series is the same each time we come to the mat, the only variable in the practice is ourselves. For this reason, the practice acts as a mirror, bringing us face to face with our afflictive emotions. The mat becomes a laboratory in which we can experiment, gaining wisdom, objectivity and clarity about ourselves, our habits and patterns. We learn to face difficulty with more patience and less reactivity. We become more attuned, which allows space for wise consideration. Over time we develop new ways of responding and relating that are healthier, kinder, and more balanced. The effects of these changes ripple out beyond us benefiting everyone we touch, creating a self-reinforcing, life affirming cycle.

Yoga is not meant to take the place of a comprehensive addiction treatment program for recovery, but it may be a helpful adjunct. I look forward to the day when there is a bibliography of peer reviewed research to support these observations about the effectiveness of ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustaining recovery. In the meantime, I am eager to be a part of the solution. If you’d like to join in this effort, please contact the Trini Foundation for opportunities near you.

References:

Jarry, J. L., Chang, F.M. & La Civita, L. (2017). Ashtanga Yoga for Psychological Well-being: Initial Effectiveness Study. Mindfulness 1-11.

Kissen M, Kissen-Kohn DA. (2009). Reducing addictions via the self-soothing effects of yoga. Bull Menninger Clinic; 73:34–43.

Maehle, G. (2006). Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy. Doubleview, Western Australia: Kaivalya Publications.

Miele, L. (1994). Astanga Yoga: Including the Benefits of Yoga Chikitsa; I & II Series. Rome, Italy: Lino Miele.

Scott, J. (2000). Ashtanga Yoga: The Definitive Step-By-Step Guide to Dynamic Yoga. Stroud: Gaia Books.

Swenson, D. (1999). Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. Austin, Texas: Ashtanga Yoga Productions.

Cultivating a Sustainable Mindfulness Practice

2015-09-23 14.01.27I teach a number of 8 -week courses in mindfulness and this is a helpful way to provide some structure, motivation and accountability within which a fledgling practice might take flight. New practitioners often feel grateful for and full of wonder at what they discover – even if its just a few precious moments of peace each day, the benefits of which ripple out into their daily lives. At the end of these courses, participants invariably express some fear they will be unable to sustain their newfound practice. Here are some of the tips I give them to help them ensure their practice will continue on long after the course ends.

Make it Meaningful
I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn saying in one of his interviews or writings that he would no more skip his daily practice than he would skip brushing his teeth. Why do most of us brush our teeth every day without any goading or prompting? Because the rewards, though not always immediate or visible, are quite profound to us. We would like to keep our teeth functional and pain free as long as possible – life with healthy teeth seems immeasurably easier and preferable to the alternative. The intention behind brushing is to be able to enjoy our teeth for years to come. What are your intentions behind your personal practice?

Most of us who have stumbled across mindfulness have done so because we have come up against a pervasive sense dissatisfaction or distress that seems to permeate worldly existence – either through witnessing the suffering of others or through experiencing our own struggles. It is helpful to remember why we started our practice in the first place and how it impacts our wellbeing as well as our relationship to the external world. The benefits might not always be immediately visible, but they are profound. Coming back to our intentions for practice again and again can help keep us motivated.

Make it Routine
When we approach something haphazardly or rely on our overtaxed memory for reminders, things often go by the wayside. We say we’ll do it later, but something more pressing inevitably sidetracks us – later never comes. However, there are some things we never seem to forget or pass up. These are the necessary and not optional things that are a reliable part of our daily routine. Try tethering your practice to one of these things that are almost guaranteed to happen every day. Some examples might include waking up in the morning, taking your lunch break at work, or your starting your bedtime routine. This keeps practice top of mind and less likely to be overlooked.

Make it Enjoyable
Think of all the things you’ve committed to at some point because you think you should, but you don’t really enjoy. How many gym memberships have you purchased and let languish? Is there a piano, guitar or some other instrument gathering dust in a corner? Maybe there is a juicer or dehydrator tucked away in a cupboard. Do you feel a sense of dread as you pull on your running shoes or tap your Headspace app? Many of us will sacrifice heroically for some short-term goal, only to burn out completely once we’ve met it (or not) and then return to baseline or sink even deeper…

Ashtanga yoga practitioner and teacher David Williams has sustained a daily practice since 1971. What he says about yoga is probably also true for meditation and other practices: “From over 40 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I realize that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day. The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing.” Making your practice enjoyable doesn’t mean it will feel absolutely awesome everyday, but in the bigger picture, it will help you anticipate it joyfully and earnestly protect the time you’ve carved out for it.

Make it Social
Surround yourself with others who make mindfulness a part of their daily lives. In this way, practice becomes the norm. Your friends make room for it in their lives and they honor the space you need for it in yours. It comes up in conversation and its something around which you can bond. Their mindful behavior inspires and influences you and vice versa. You will start to feel accountable to your mindful friends to keep up with your practice and to live a life that is congruent with common values. Practicing with a group of like-minded people from time to time can help you develop these types of relationships and feel more supported in your journey. You may even begin to look forward to the time you spend practicing together.

When practice is done for a long time, without a break, and with sincere devotion, then the practice becomes a firmly rooted, stable and solid foundation. – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:14

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More Misuses of Mindfulness

In my interactions with other practitioners and in the classes I teach, I occasionally come across someone who is rigidly attached to their particular form of practice. They become irritable or agitated when, for whatever reason, they encounter something new or are pressed to experiment.

To some extent I understand this feeling, because I am a person who thrives on routine and can become a bit scattered when navigating the unexpected or unfamiliar. Although I am pretty insistent on having some sort of practice each day, I am willing to experiment with the form practice takes when circumstances demand it.

I realize that its not the ashtanga yoga or the vipassana style meditation that brings lasting happiness – these are just vehicles – they are the finger pointing at the moon. I have come to understand that encountering the unexpected and feeling a bit off balance is just more fodder for practice. How can we truly know our minds – our habits and biases – if we rarely traverse outside the comfort zone?

When we lose our equanimity because we can’t have things the way we want them, it is much like an addict who doesn’t get their fix. Addicts are caught in the illusion that they need their drug of choice to feel OK. In the short-term, a fix seems to help. In the long-term, the fundamental problem is just accumulating under the proverbial rug its being swept under. What is needed is already inside of us, it isn’t injected into us by something from the outside.

Chogyam Trungpa coined the term “spiritual materialism”, which is the belief that certain temporary states of mind can end suffering. He wrote, “The Lord of Mind rules when we use spiritual and psychological disciplines as the means of maintaining our self-consciousness, of holding onto our sense of self. Drugs, yoga, prayer, meditation, trances, various psychotherapies – all can be used in this way… If we become successful at maintaining our self-consciousness through spiritual techniques, then genuine spiritual development is highly unlikely. Our mental habits become so strong as to be hard to penetrate.”

A common example of spiritual materialism is when we use meditation purely as a means of relaxation. The temporary relief feels good in the moment, but results in disillusionment when it fails or eventually ceases. Another example is when we use self-compassion practices as a way of avoiding difficulty rather than as a way of helping ourselves to face difficulty. We may feel soothed in the moment, but become ruffled anew when we inevitably revisit the experience. If we use practice exclusively to build ourselves up or make ourselves comfortable, this is a misuse because practice is meant to help us see things as they truly are, not as we wish them to be. A skillful practitioner experiments to find a balance between prudent self-care and letting go of defenses, so that we can open to what is, even when it is unwanted.

…In the garden of gentle sanity,
May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.
– Chogyam Trungpa, excerpted from Timely Rain

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From Illusion to Delusion

IMG_0666For most of us, day to day life, on some level, is like a mirage. We function on automatic pilot, doing without truly inhabiting our experience. We proceed as though the people and things we count on will last forever – as if we are sovereign and autonomous beings, completely independent of others and our environment. When these illusions are inevitably shattered, we feel cheated and dissatisfied. To be disillusioned means discouragement in the face of truth revealed. However, if we can learn to be open to what is here, seeing things more clearly, we make space for acceptance and wise responding.

Phenomena that trick our senses are called illusion. But, when we consistently fail to recognize  that our senses have been fooled and we carry on as if false perception is truth, this is called delusion. If we continue to hold fast to illusion even in the face of strong contrary evidence, this can lead to great suffering for ourselves and others. People who hold beliefs that marginalize, or otherwise harm other people do so, in part, because they have bought into an illusion and are living in delusion.

The Illusion of Permanence
Because of the way we experience time and our tendency to operate on automatic pilot, we forget or fail to recognize that all things are constantly changing. This is the illusion of permanence. When we take this to a level of insistence that certain things must remain the same, we live in delusion. Some examples of this are people who undergo extensive and disfiguring plastic surgery in an attempt to maintain youth, sacrifice quality of life to extend it, or commandeer enormous resources to keep an outdated technology or career path viable. Consider belief systems such as neo-luddism (opposing the advancement of technology), nationalism (maintaining cultural “purity” and opposing “outside” influence), and anti-globalism (resisting increasing global connectivity). These misperceptions cause us to expend vast amounts of energy at great cost to try to resist what is inevitable.

People with delusional beliefs often do not understand or accept the basic truth of impermanence – that absolutely everything changes in time. Belief systems that are built on the idea that things should stay a certain way forever – usually a way that is preferred by or seen as advantageous to the belief holder – create problems for believers and everyone else around them. When things inevitably change, the people who hold these beliefs tend to feel as though they are being mistreated, forgotten or ignored so they take aggressive action to stem a tide that cannot be stopped.

The Illusion of Independence
From the moment our senses begin taking in information about the world, we start building a concept of self, distinct from others. Many of us in this culture are taught that we should “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” and take care of our own. Some feel we should resist globalization because what is good for the many will deprive the few. They think that taking care of ourselves is enough. Others feel humanity is made up of separate and distinct types, and some types are fundamentally better than or have greater worth than others. They discriminate against individuals and groups based on arbitrary differences. People with these beliefs don’t understand the truth of interdependence, that we are all connected and what happens to one affects us all on some level. This allows the cycle of suffering to continue unabated.

How can we be more mindful of illusion so we don’t get caught up in delusion? First we can open ourselves to the possibility that our senses are fallible and our perceptions may be colored by our conditioning. This will give us some space to step back and examine our beliefs, collect data more objectively, and suspend knee-jerk reactions for wiser responding. In this way we can take a step out of the cycle of suffering and contribute to a more peaceful world.

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterwards repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.

Your desire for the illusory is a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame and that fantasy flees.

Preserve the wing and don’t indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.
People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings for the sake of an illusion.

– Rumi, Wings of Desire

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Mindfulness & Ethical Livelihood

courage_dear_heart
Photo by distelfliege

Being a practitioner of mindfulness without a system of ethics may help one relax, become more focused, or be less reactive in difficult situations, but much deeper benefits are available to us and to those around us when we begin to practice from a place of intentional wholesomeness. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.

The fifth rung of the path, an aspect of moral discipline or virtue, is Ethical (Right) Livelihood. Our world is monetized and so most of us must work to meet our basic needs. We are expected to spend at least half of our waking hours earning our keep. So if we wish to live a life that is wholesome and based on our highest values, how can we do so if our job requires us to harm others, either directly or indirectly?

…a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. – Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: Conditions of Welfare

Sure, it would be nice to have a job that does amazing things for the world, but most of us are doing well to just be able to survive. The method by which we make a living can be ethical or unethical in many ways, both subtle and obvious. If evolution and personal growth is our aim, it is important to look beyond our paychecks and ask some penetrating questions.

On the most obvious level we might ask ourselves, “Does my work involve killing, injuring, sickening, or oppressing other beings?” It isn’t hard to see how these tasks are incongruent with a compassionate life. But, we can also harm others through duties that involve deception, greed, exploitation, or squandering of natural resources. Are we expected to mislead people in order to make money? Do we get ahead primarily by stepping on the backs of others? Are we working to excess in order to hoard more wealth than we need – tying up resources that could benefit others? Does our work harm the environment on which we and other beings depend?

And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. – Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty

There is also much good work out there to be done that truly benefits others, although sadly our culture does not tend to reward these roles as richly as many other professions. Does your job help provide people with basic needs? Do you help create something useful that makes lives or the environment safer or better in some way? Do you protect other beings or help maintain their safety? Does your work attempt to heal other beings or ease their suffering in some way? Are you spreading happiness through your chosen vocation?

If you’ve had a nagging feeling that the work you do is unethical, I invite you to begin to think about how you might make a change. Is it possible to transform your job from within so that your particular duties are more beneficial? Can you encourage your employers or colleagues to reconsider the way they operate the company? Can you engage in some additional work (maybe volunteering) to undo the damage that is done? Will you need to pursue a different career altogether, and if so, what do you need to get the ball rolling? Are you willing to investigate other opportunities? Is there someone who can act as a guide or a mentor? Although it may seem daunting to consider, the long-term rewards of living a life in alignment with one’s highest values can be priceless.

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. – Mahatma Gandhi

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Mindfulness & Ethical Intention

AmorCorazon
Photo by Tee Cee

Mindfulness is a way of life and a practice that can enhance wellbeing. But, practicing mindfulness without ethics runs the risk of further entrenching us in the very qualities that cause suffering. If we don’t have a set of wise principles that guide our practice, we risk it becoming all about me, or “seizing the day”, or chasing after more of what we think we want. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.

The second rung of the eightfold path, an aspect of insight or wisdom, is Ethical (Right) Intention. Intention is the driver behind action – one’s motivation or heartfelt wish. It is important because our intentions orient us and point us in a certain direction. Cultivating wholesome intentions involves three aspects of practice:

  1. renunciation – taming the wanting mind by seeing ordinary desire as the source of dissatisfaction and suffering
  2. good will – generating spontaneous, selfless love for all beings
  3. harmlessness – learning to confront aggression (our own and others) with compassion rather than violence

We cannot will ourselves to achieve any of these things – rather, it requires patient observation and practice. First we must make it a habit to turn inward and notice our own internal experiences, which requires training in attentional control. Then we can observe the subtle interplay and consequences of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions. Through this process we naturally begin to favor more wholesome intentions because we see the benefit they bring.

The opposites of these three wholesome intentions are desire, ill-will and harmfulness. Intentions can be distorted by our delusions – they may appear beneficial at first glance, but actually be misguided or inappropriate. Detecting the subtler “near enemies” of our best intentions requires mindfulness, self-awareness and honesty. This allows us to be more attentive to unskillful impulses as they arise, practice self-compassion so we can have the courage to examine them, and cultivate the self-regulation skills to refrain from acting upon them. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes.

Associating with wise, virtuous and generous people from whom we can learn and be influenced can help us in this journey. It can be quite beneficial to have a trusted teacher to guide us along the way. We can also make it a habit to practice with a community of likeminded friends who motivate us on our path and keep us accountable to our highest intentions. In this way, we begin to step out of the cycle of suffering and live with more virtuous purpose.

…one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. – Bikkhu Bodhi

The Ethics of Mindfulness

FullSizeRender 3Practicing mindfulness without a system of ethics runs counter to its original purpose, which is the alleviation of suffering. This is because cultivating values like non-harming, compassion, and moderation are necessary for cutting through the misunderstandings that make life dissatisfying. Merely learning to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally can have its benefits, but it becomes just another feel-good technique when practiced to achieve goals that feed the ego (i.e. boost self-image, accumulate worldly desires) or temporarily avoid what is unwanted (i.e. distract from unavoidable problems, resist what is unchangeable).

It would be similar if you were practicing only yoga postures (asana) and never delved into the other limbs of yoga’s eightfold path (ashtanga). You would likely become stronger, more flexible and develop better balance – you might even feel better about yourself. But, unless you eventually begin to explore the virtuous habits and ethical restraints (yamas and niyamas), more profound evolution is unlikely to happen.

Our ethics inform the intentions behind our actions. In Buddhism (the root of modern mindfulness), ethics do not come from somewhere outside of us such as tradition or authority. Rather, they are discovered through experimentation and observation – the collection of data. In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone, it is said than we should mindfully reflect upon 1) our urges to perform an act, 2) our action while we are performing it, and 3) its after-effects, to see whether the act is harmful to ourselves or others (skillful or unskillful) – in other words, whether the consequences are beneficial or harmful. Then we should make adjustments accordingly and learn for ourselves what is truly helpful and unhelpful. This becomes our system of ethics. Practicing mindfulness helps us see our own motivations and choices more clearly for wiser responding.

The intention behind our actions powerfully impacts our state of mind. Research is showing that when we act virtuously, there are beneficial consequences for ourselves as well as for others. Some studies are revealing correlations between altruism and increased mental, physical, social and financial health. The Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame has funded a number of studies which have demonstrated a relationship between generosity, happiness and well-being. A compassionate lifestyle seems to be correlated with better health and longevity, perhaps through a mechanism that decreases inflammation in our bodies.

Mindfulness is a practice conceptualized under the premise that: 1) life is unsatisfactory, causing beings to suffer, 2) the cause of this suffering is that we have bought into some basic misunderstandings, which compel us to cling to the things we desire (attachment) and resist the things we dislike (aversion), 3) its possible to awaken from this deluded state and be liberated from the dissatisfaction it causes, 4) there is a path to awakening and liberation. This path serves as an ethical framework for practice, of which mindfulness is only one part. The Buddhist Eightfold Path to Liberation includes the following interconnected components (click the links to learn more about each component, a work in progress):

  • Ethical (Right) View – Understanding the causes of unsatisfactoriness and the path to happiness
  • Ethical (Right) Intention – cultivating attitudes and thoughts that are likely to result in skillful behavior
  • Ethical (Right) Speech – abandoning false, divisive, and abusive speech, avoiding idle chatter, and speaking the beneficial truth at the appropriate time
  • Ethical (Right) Action – acting with compassion for the welfare of all sentient beings, abstaining from killing, sexual misconduct, and taking what is not ours
  • Ethical (Right) Livelihood – making a living in a manner that is legal, honest and doesn’t harm others, fulfilling ones work duties diligently and conscientiously
  • Complete (Right) Effort – diligence and perseverence in developing skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful qualities
  • Complete (Right) Mindfulness – bare attention toward clear comprehension, free from the constructs and elaborations that lead to suffering
  • Complete (Right) Concentration – wholesome, one-pointedness of mind

Please visit the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative for a list of articles and papers about ethics and mindfulness. You can also read more about the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path at accesstoinsight.org.

Get up!
Sit up!
What’s your need for sleep?
And what sleep is there for the afflicted,
pierced by the arrow (craving),
oppressed?

Get up!
Sit up!
Train firmly for the sake of peace…

Heedless is dust,
dust comes from heedlessness
has heedlessness on its heels.
Through heedfulness & clear knowing
you’d remove your own sorrow.

– Utthana Sutta: Initiative

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Is Taking Offense Defensible?

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Photo by Colin Marshall

Can taking offense ever be helpful? When we are offended, it is because we find someone’s behavior morally repugnant or a violation of our values. It is more than just feeling hurt or disappointed, although these emotions may underly it. More often there is a sense of being insulted or disrespected in some way.

For most of us, our original conditioning has taught us that taking offense and the resulting afflictive emotions are necessary ingredients in effecting a needed change. But is it possible to recognize harmful behavior and effect a change without being offended?

In order to feel offended, we have to make an interpretation of events. Its not enough that we or someone we care about has been hurt, we must also feel a wrong has been committed. If a tree falls on your house, you might feel a lot of things, but it is unlikely you will feel offended by the tree. Mere blame is not enough. There must also an assumption of neglect or ill-intent – we have to believe the offender should have known better. If a toddler says something rude, we might not like it, but we are unlikely to feel offended. Its not the act itself that is offensive – rather it is the assumptions we make about the act.

When we take offense, our unexamined reaction is often to go on the offensive, which usually means we attack. This can result in all out war and many sages over the years have concluded that peace cannot arise from fighting.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes we instead go on the defensive by fighting back or closing ourselves off, protecting ourselves from further harm. When we respond to pain with anger, the focus shines on our own aggressive behavior rather than the heart of the problem. When we shut down, we are no longer open to important information. We are no longer listening and the truth remains obscured. Our hearts are closed and the potential healing power of wise compassion and love cannot do their work.

It can be helpful to notice this feeling of offense at is arises, and instead of reacting instinctively, attend to it with curiosity. How does it show up in the body? What thoughts accompany it? Are there some subtler or more vulnerable emotions that hide underneath? An impulsive reaction may give you a few moments of righteous indignation, but is unlikely to provide lasting relief or cause needed change.

Remember that love isn’t always soft and gentle – it can also be fierce or resolute. Perhaps you will discover there is skillful, compassionate action that can be taken instead of resorting to aggression. Or maybe, in some cases, you may find it better to do nothing at all. I invite you to experiment for yourself and see!

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.Dhammapada, The Pairs, Verse 5

 

MBI: Mindfulness as Medicine

FullSizeRender 2Mindfulness has long been considered an antidote for human suffering. The Buddha and his teachings have been compared to a doctor and her medicine – his Four Noble Truths diagnosed the human condition, identified the cause of suffering, and prescribed the proper course of treatment, which if followed carefully, could alleviate suffering. It is no wonder that in the modern day, we are adapting these teachings to help people who suffer from physical and mental illnesses.

A number of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) have emerged to help treat a variety of health conditions, starting with Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic in 1979. Being a practitioner of Buddhist meditation and yoga as well as a professor of medicine, Zinn used these practices to ease the suffering of chronic pain patients who had exhausted the limits of medical intervention at the medical center where he worked and taught. When offered as a complement to traditional medical and psychological treatments, research has shown MBSR to be effective in helping to treat anxiety, gastro-intestinal distress, stress, grief, asthma, headaches, cancer, heart disease, chronic illness, high blood pressure, depression, pain, eating disturbances, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), fatigue, skin disorders, fibromyalgia and sleep problems.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive therapy (MBCT) was the next MBI to emerge out of MBSR. It was created by Dr.s Zindel Segal, John Teasdale and Mark Williams in order to help individuals with chronic depression for whom medication was not adequately preventing relapse. It combines the attitudes and practices of mindfulness with cognitive behavior therapy to reduce depressive symptoms, prevent future episodes, and in some individuals, help reduce the need for medication. Research has shown that it is statistically as effective as maintenance doses of antidepressants in preventing a relapse, decreasing the risk of future depression by half. Studies are showing beneficial effects for anxiety sufferers as well.

MBIs are programs, usually of eight weeks in duration, that are informed by theories and practices that draw from a variety of contemplative traditions, science, medicine, psychology and education. Although these programs are secular, they are based upon the fundamentals of Buddhism including the four foundations of mindfulness (mindfulness of body, mind, feelings, and mental objects) and the sublime attitudes of compassion, loving kindness, appreciative joy, and equanimity. They are designed to addresses the causes of human distress and the pathways to relieving it through helping participants:

  • develop a new relationship with experience based on present moment focus, decentering, and welcoming difficulty
  • improve attentional, emotional and behavioral self-regulation
  • cultivate useful qualities such as compassion, wisdom, and equanimity
  • train in mindfulness meditation practice through an experiential inquiry-based learning process that helps develop insight and understanding

There are many other MBIs which are tailored to specific contexts and populations and more are emerging every year. The research base behind them is quite promising and growing exponentially. You can find providers who offer MBIs in the Kansas City metro by visiting KansasCityMentalHealth.com. Below are some links to help you learn more about MBSR and some of the other MBIs (more will be added as the research base grows):

So I will teach you the noble purgative that always succeeds and never fails, a purgative whereby beings subject to… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak. – The Buddha as Doctor, the Dhamma as Medicine by Thanissaro Bhikkhu


References:

Cullen, M. (2011). Mindfulness-Based Interventions: An Emerging Phenomenon. Mindfulness.

Shonin, E, Gordon, V. & Griffiths, M. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, (4) 194.

UMASS Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society