Wednesday, January 6, 2021

MINDFULNESS MAY ASSIST IN THE TREATMENT OF MIGRAINE

A recent study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has found that MBSR can assist in the treatment of migraine.

Migraine is a neurological condition that can cause multiple symptoms. It is frequently characterized by intense, debilitating headaches. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, difficulty speaking, numbness or tingling, and sensitivity to light and sound. The condition of migraine often runs in families and can affect all ages.

Photo credit: MedicineNet. All rights reserved.

MBSR is an eight-week program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Thereafter, participants are encouraged to practise mindfulness on a daily basis. For what it's worth, here is my definition--description might be a better word--of mindfulness:


Mindfulness is the watchful, receptive and purposeful presence of bare attention to, and choiceless awareness of, the content of the action—both internal and external—of the present moment ... from one moment to the next.

 

The outcomes of this recent study indicate that while MBSR does not appear to reduce the frequency of migraines, pain perception and other secondary outcomes including quality of life did improve.


Migraine is the second leading cause of disability around the world. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of migraine sufferers discontinue migraine medications for various reasons. In recent years there has been a growing interest in non-pharmacological approaches to the treatment of the condition.

 

‘For a condition with recurrent, lifelong unexpected attacks,’ the study authors wrote, ‘improving a patient’s pain perception and ability to function despite migraine has significant implications for overall long-term emotional and social health.’


Reference


Wells R E, O’Connell N, Pierce C R, et al. ‘Effectiveness of mindfulness meditation vs headache education for adults with migraine: A randomized clinical trial.’ JAMA Intern Med. Published online Dec 14, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7090

Saturday, December 19, 2020

ZEN AND THE ART OF CALMING THE MIND

‘Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day,’ wrote Etty Hillesum, ‘is the rest we take between two deep breaths.’

Here’s a famous bit of Zen. A pupil goes to the master and says, ‘I have no peace of mind. Please calm my mind!’ The master replies, ‘Bring your mind here and I will calm it for you.’ The pupil then says, ‘Yes, but when I look for my mind, I can’t seem to find it.’ The master replies, ‘There, you see, I’ve calmed your mind already.’

There are many interpretations of this piece of Zen wisdom. Here’s my take on it, but first I want to say a few words on the subject of the mind and the brain.

The classical materialist view asserts that the mind and the brain are one and the same. However, recent discoveries in neuroscience and quantum physics suggest that the mind and the brain are not co-extensive or identical. There is mind—or intelligence—throughout the whole body. The brain uses the mind—to think, feel, and so on—but the mind is ‘larger’, for want of a better word, than the brain. The brain is infused with mind, as are all parts of the human body. In addition, mind exists outside of and even beyond the brain. Mind is intelligence and there is intelligence wherever there is life in any shape or form. The brain is a physical object that can be seen by the eye. It is perceptible by the senses, and like all material objects it has size, weight and form. Not so the mind which has no constituent parts. 

In a fundamental sense, we have no individual mind at all. Hence, there is no mind to calm. So, what exactly are we, each one of us? Well, each of us is a centre—both an inlet and an outlet—of consciousness from which all things are a matter of observation and awareness. We are made up of ‘mind-stuff’ and consciousness is the ‘stuff’ or very ground of our be-ing. Let me explain. You have a body but you are not that body. You experience sensations in your body but you are not those sensations. You have a brain but you are not that brain. You have thoughts but you are not those thoughts. You have emotions, feelings and desires but you are not those emotions, feelings or desires. All those 'things' are impermanent and insubstantial. So, what are you? You are that in you that lives and moves and has its be-ing in and as you. You are the impersonal, and you are the personal. You are your very own be-ing.  Life is be-ing, and its be-ing is your very own be-ing.

There is no need to calm your mind. For starters, where is your mind? Can you find it? You cannot calm it—or for that matter do anything else with it—unless you can first locate it. In the Zen exchange set out above the master does the only thing any teacher or so-called guru really can do. The master manages to get the pupil to have an enlightening experience in which the pupil comes to ‘see,’ know and understand for himself or herself, perhaps for the very first time. Here, the master successfully leads the pupil to experience, in that Zen direct intuitive way, the fact that they have no mind to calm. All the pupil—and all of us for that matter—has to do is to … be calm.

Do you want to be calm? If so, practise calmness. Practise stillness. Practise quietness. Practise silence. The very truth of your be-ing is calmness, stillness, quietness and silence. A good way to start—and finish for that matter—is to get the body calm. Yes, the body. If the body is calm, you will soon be calm. Dr Norman Vincent Peale offered this gem of advice: ‘Sit still, be silent, let composure creep over you.' Got that? Sit ... be ... let ... .

So, stop looking for your mind. Stop analyzing and judging the contents of what you take to be your mind (eg your thoughts, feelings, memories and mental movies). Stop identifying with those ‘things’ as if they were you, the person among persons that in truth you are. 

Sit. Be. Let.

There, I’ve calmed your mind already. You're welcome.


Note
The photos in this post were taken by the author in the Topes de Collantes, which is a nature reserve park in the Sierra del Escambray mountain range in the central region of Cuba. The bottom photo is of the famous Vegas Grande Waterfall located in the park.


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Tuesday, December 8, 2020

WHO ARE YOU?

Recently, I left my cell phone on the bus. Fortunately, the phone was handed in to the bus driver and was taken to the lost property office at the bus depot nearest to where I live. The next day I went to the depot to collect my phone. Now, on the home screen of the phone was a photo of myself, taken in July 1991. I am seen at the summit of Diamond Head, at Waikiki, on the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu. I am wearing a T-shirt to prove it. (LOL.) 

Anyway, the man at the lost property office brought out some phones. I pointed to the one that was mine and said, ‘That’s my one.’ He looked at the photo on the home screen and said, ‘Is this your son?’ Now, I wasn’t at all taken aback. I simply said, ‘No, that used to be me.’ I was then 36.

I remember seeing a TV show around 1983 in which the American singer Patti Page sang a song ‘The Person Who Used to Be Me’.* In this song Ms Page contrasted her then present self with black-and-white images of a much younger Page projected on a screen behind her. The images were from some of her 1950s TV shows.

Here are some of the lyrics from the song:

Who is that person on the screen?

I am sure it is someone that I’ve seen.

Though it's been so very long

And I could be very wrong

To believe that the face I see
Is the person who used to be me.

 

Time can play tricks on me, I know.

I have trouble now remembering the show.

Yet I’m sure I know that face

From some other time and place

That is lost in the used-to-be.

It’s the person who used to be me.

Now, do you really think you are the same person you were 5 years ago … 10 years ago ... 20 years ago? Well, in one sense you are, but in another sense you are an altogether different person both in body and in mind. Even your sense of self this very moment is different from your sense of self 10 minutes ago, or 10 seconds ago, let alone 10 or more years ago. Your sense of self is undergoing constant change as a result of every new experience. Buddha taught that the so-called ‘self’ is only an ‘aggregate’ or ‘heap’ of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations and memories. The self, in the words of Manly Palmer Hall, is nothing more than ‘a summary of what is known and what is not known’. 

Each one of us is a person who recognises that there was, yesterday, and even before then, a person whose thoughts, feelings and sensations we can remember today, and THAT person each one of us regards as ourself of yesterday, and so on. As a result of this, we create a sense of self. We even come to identify with that self as us … as you and me. Nevertheless, our ‘self’ of yesterday consists of nothing more than certain mental occurrences which are later remembered as part of the person who recollects them.

Here is a short ‘sense of being meditation’ which I penned many years ago. It is designed to assist you in the task of dis-identifying with ‘the self’:

I am a person who has a body, but I am not that body.
I am a person who has a brain, but I am not that brain.
I am a person who thinks thoughts, but I am not those thoughts.
I am a person who feels feelings, but I am not those feelings.

I am a person who senses sensations, but I am not those sensations.
I am the reality of me ... the person who I am.

I am not my sense of self ... the false and illusory ‘I's’ and ‘me's’ which well up and later subside within me ... from one moment to the next.

Yes, you are a person ... a person among persons ... a vital part of life’s self-expression. You are a person who sees, thinks, feels, senses and acts. More accurately, you are a person in which there occur, from moment to moment, the various activities of seeing, thinking, feeling, sensing and acting.

P F Strawson, pictured, a British philosopher, wrote much on the subject of the person. He articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it. Each one of us is a person among persons—a mind-body complex. 

The point is this. We are much, much more than those hundreds of waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ with which we tend to identify as 'us' in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me’, that is, the person each one of us is. Only the latter is ontologically real. None of those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ are the real person each of us is. Never forget that!

Personal freedom, as well as personal transformation, come when we start to see, think, feel, act and live from our personhood as a person among persons. We need to get our mind off our temporary, ephemeral ‘selves’. We need to rise above them if we are to get real. Self can’t change self. Why? Because self is image inside a person. It is not the real person at all. The person each one of us is can indeed change—and change for the better—if we want, that is, really want, change more than anything else and are prepared to go to any length to get it.

Finally, please also remember that there is no human problem that’s not common to other persons among persons.

* ‘The Person Who Used to Be Me’: [from] Here's TV Entertainment / lyric by Buz Kohan; music by Larry Grossman. Fiddleback Music Publ. Company, Inc. & New Start Music. 1983. All rights reserved.


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Sunday, October 11, 2020

HOW AWARENESS OF YOUR BREATHING CAN HELP YOU IN THIS CURRENT PANDEMIC

Some of the most satisfying work I’ve done in my career was lecturing in mental health law at what is now referred to as the mental health portfolio of the Health Education and Training Institute. When I lectured there the body was known as the NSW Institute of Psychiatry.

Our mental health is so damn important. Sadly, the current COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in elevated rates of stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, self-harm and suicidal behaviour. Now, in serious cases professional help will be needed but there are some things we can do by way of self-help. One of them, the subject of this post, involves simply being aware of our breathing.

Now, there’s a saying, ‘Your breathing is your greatest friend. Return to it in all your troubles and you will find comfort and guidance.’ How true that is. What happens when you are stressed? Well, a number of things. Among them, your heart rate increases, and so does your breathing which ordinarily becomes more shallow as well.

At the first sign of your becoming stressed, immediately become aware of your breathing. Don’t try to change it. Don’t try to slow it down or deepen it. Indeed, don’t ‘try’ at all. Sometimes effort defeats itself, and this is such a case. Simply be aware of your breathing where your breath is most prominently felt. Perhaps that’s in your nostrils, mouth, throat, lungs or abdomen. This varies from person to person. Wherever your breath is most prominently felt, simply be aware of the sensation—and stay with the feeling. Don’t attempt to change this in any way. Just observe and be aware.

Does your breath feel warm? Cold? Fast? Slow? Deep? Shallow? Again, don’t attempt to change any of these things. Forget all about judging yourself. There’s no right or wrong here. Things just are.

Simply observe, be aware, and stay aware, of your breathing for 5, 10 or 15 minutes—that is, for as long as it takes for your breathing to slow down as well as deepen.

That’s right. Stay aware of your breathing until it slows down and deepens of its own accord. Your awareness of your breathing will result in your breathing slowing down and deepening. How is this so? Well, awareness is non-resistance—that is, non-judgmental self-observation. Awareness is letting be and letting go. Yes, awareness effects positive changes in your body and mind. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, pictured, writes:

Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used. 

Now, if at any point in time during your awareness of your breathing you become mentally or emotionally distracted by some troubling thought, feeling, idea, memory or sensation, gently — please note that word ‘gently’ — bring your awareness back to your breathing.

One more thing. Don’t forget to breathe. Some people, when they become consciously aware of their breathing, forget to breathe. I am sometimes guilty of that.

Conscious awareness of your breathing will bring you relaxation and comfort. Try it.


Note. This post is a slightly reworked version of a previous post, ‘Your Breathing is Your Greatest Friend’, published on July 5, 2015.

Photo credit. The photo of Thich Nhat Hanh is by Dana Gluckstein. All rights reserved.


 


 

 

 

 

Monday, July 6, 2020

MINDFULNESS INCREASES PROSOCIAL BEHAVIOUR

New research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin provides evidence that mindfulness meditation training results in increases in prosocial behaviour, even in the absence of explicit ethics-based instructions.

The study author Daniel R Berry PhD, pictured, who is an assistant professor at California State University San Marcos, states:

Based on our lab’s experimental research, we believed that training in mindfulness promotes positive interpersonal outcomes through social cognitive changes that entail how we pay attention to others’ needs in social interactions.

The interesting finding is that mindfulness need not rely on appeals to act ethically.

The study does include some caveats. One such caveat is that the effects of mindfulness training on prosocial behaviour were only reliable when prosocial behaviour was measured immediately after the training concluded. 

Secondly, Dr Berry has stated that one must be in careful interpreting the effects showing that mindfulness reduces prejudice. Specifically, most studies of prejudice in the study’s meta-analysis did not use social ingroup as a reference to examine the gap in prosocial behaviour between social ingroup and outgroup members. Thus, mindfulness may be increasing prosocial behaviour toward others in general but not closing the gap in helping that typically favours ingroup members. More research is needed in that regard.


Study: Daniel R Berry et al. ‘Does Mindfulness Training Without Explicit Ethics-Based Instruction Promote Prosocial Behaviors? A Meta-Analysis.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 46, Issue 8, 2020. First Published January 23, 2020

Thursday, May 14, 2020

THE PRACTICE OF SILENCE

Silence is golden, according to an old aphorism. There was also a song with that title in the 1960s. I remember it well.

There are few things more important in life than learning—yes, learning—to be silent. A wise person knows when to be silent and not speak. An even wiser person knows how to practise silence. Why? Well, in the words of the British historian, essayist and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, 'Silence is deep as Eternity.' That is so true, for when we penetrate the Eternal Now, beyond all the noise and commotion, there is perfect stillness and silence.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of there being an inward stillness:

Let us, then, labor for an inward stillness, —
An inward stillness and an inward healing;
That perfect silence where the lips and heart
Are still, and we no longer entertain
Our own imperfect thoughts and vain opinions,
But God alone speaks in us, and we wait
In singleness of heart, that we may know
God's will, and in the silence of our spirits,
That we may do God's will, and do that only!

The Bible has a lot to say about the importance of silence. Here are just a few of its verses on silence:

There was silence, and I heard a voice. Jb 4:16.

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Ec 3:7.

The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. Hb 2:20.

Be still, and know that I am God. Ps 46:10.

Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord. Ze 2:13.

Those five verses on the importance of silence are just a few such verses in the Bible. There are many others. The important thing is this: there is a direct connection between the practice of silence and coming to know and experience God. Now, who or what is God? Some theological abstraction? Yes and no. For starters, the Bible tells us that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Listen to these words: ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’ (1 Jn 4:7-8). The Bible also tells us that God is Spirit, that is, the very spirit of life (Jn 4:24). Another way of understanding the spirit of life is as pure Being. All things come from the One Source of all Being. God is pure Be-ing—the self-existence and self-consciousness of life itselfand we have our be-ing-ness in God. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being' (Ac 17:28).

So, if you think that God is a giant man 'up there' or 'out there', some supra-personal Being with a face, body, arms and legs and genitalia, you are horribly mistaken. In short, God is love, life, truth and power—and the very ground of our being. The English metaphysician and judge Thomas Troward referred to God as undifferentiated Consciousness—that is, the formless awareness that creates by Itself and becomes that which It images Itself to be. I like that. That makes sense to me. If quantum mechanics has shown us anything
and it has shown us plenty—it has shown that consciousness or mind is fundamental, eternal and all-creative. In short, God is the one Presence and Power active in the universe and in your life right now.

Here's an Eastern story. A king went to see his spiritual advisor and said, ‘I am very busy. In a single sentence, how can I reach union with God?’ The king’s advisor said, ‘I will give you the answer in a single word—silence.’ The king said, ‘But how do I attain silence?’ The advisor said, ‘By meditation.’ The king was puzzled. ‘And what is meditation?’ he asked. ‘Silence,’ said the advisor. 

You see, silence means going beyond words and thoughts. Silence is all about be-ing as opposed to do-ing. Silence is letting be … and letting go.

Now, here’s what I consider to be the best advice I ever heard on the subject—and it comes from Dr Norman Vincent Peale:

Sit still, be silent, let composure creep over you.

That's all you have to do. It’s that simple.

First, sit still. Let the body remain as motionless as possible. Be conscious of your breathing, and perhaps the beating of your heart. Be aware—just be aware, no more than that—of any bodily sensations, external noises, and thoughts and feelings you may experience. Whatever happens … SIT STILL. That is the only 'doing' thing in the whole procedure. That means not moving or making a sound. The poet and playwright T S Eliot wrote of the 'still centre' or 'still point' where the true reality is to be found. Yes, stillness is indeed the name of the game.

Secondly, be silent. Note that word ‘be’. It is not something you do—it is the total absence of doing—but something you are. What are you? I will tell you. You are be-ing-ness itself. An inlet and an outlet of life’s self-expression, that's what you are. Just be … and be silent. Say nothing—and that includes nothing interiorly to yourself. Silence is more than saying nothing. It means remaining as motionless and quiet as possible. Don't try not to think (because then you will think). Simply be as still and quiet as possible--and then you will simply forget to think.

Thirdly, let composure creep over you. The most important word in this third instruction—indeed, in the whole advice—is ‘let’. It is something entirely passive. Again, it is not something that you do. It is something that happens of its own accord—as soon as you remove the barriers to its happening. Once you sit still, and are silent, composure will creep over you. Merriam-Webster defines ‘composure’ as ‘a calmness or repose especially of mind, bearing, or appearance’. Here are three other words that mean more-or-less the same thing: equanimity, serenity and imperturbability.

Sit still. Be silent. Let composure creep over you. Let this happen to and in you many times a day if necessary.

Remember—sit ... be ... let. It's as simple as that.





Wednesday, April 8, 2020

WE ARE PASSING THROUGH A PERIOD OF CRUCIFIXION

We are in Holy Week. This year’s Holy Week has become ‘holed up’ week for most of us, at least the lucky ones.

The world today is passing through a period of crucifixion. The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc almost everywhere. However, the message of Easter is that resurrection always follows crucifixion when there is faith, which for me means living with courage and confidence, despite any appearances in the world to the contrary.

First, let me tell you what I don’t believe about Easter. I don’t believe that Jesus literally and bodily rose from dead. I like what the now deceased Anglican bishop Dr David Jenkins said about that idea. He called the notion of Jesus' physical, bodily resurrection ‘a conjuring trick with bones.’ How wickedly funny, albeit irreverent.


I do, however, know this—Jesus rose spiritually from the tomb. Punishment and death could not destroy the power of his personality and his spirit and his message. Jesus lives today, not in the lives of those who purport to follow him (but show little or no resemblance in their daily lives to Jesus at all), but in the lives of those persons, many of whom would not want to label themselves as Christians, who give constantly of themselves to others in practical service and self-sacrifice so that the troubles of suffering humanity might be relieved. At this dreadful time, I think especially of all the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals and workers in our hospitals and clinics. I think of those working in supermarkets and pharmacies. I think of many others as well. What incredible service and self-sacrifice we are seeing! Sadly, we also see stupidity, selfishness and greed at work among far too many members of the public.

I now want to say a few words about what I refer to as the ‘macro' and the 'micro’ of the Easter story.

In a previous post I have written about the ‘macro’ of Easter, namely, that the Crucifixion is an 'object lesson' and acted parable or dramatization of the ongoing cosmic sacrifice—the self-limitation (crucifixion) of life itself—in which the spirit of life, the one absolute reality which antecedes all manifested things, ever descends into matter, ever offers itself, and ever gives of itself to itself in manifestation, so that life, in all of its multiplicity of forms, may be perpetuated. It is a mystery. It is a wonder. It is divine. What a tragic and terrible thing it is that conventional, mainstream Christianity has so totally literalized and carnalized this truly sublime myth, distorting—even destroying—its true meaning.


Now, the ‘micro’ of Easter. Easter, as we all know, is about dying and rising again. The end of every day is a ‘death’ of sorts. It is gone forever. Now, that is a very good thing, for if it were not to happen there could be no tomorrow. Every new day is a rising of sorts. But it’s even deeper than that. Every new moment is a new beginning—a resurrection of life. We must constantly ‘die’ and ‘rise again’ into newness of life. Most importantly, we must die to self each moment of the day if we wish to be free from the bondage of self. I have often said that we are in bondage to self. All our problems result from that. Freedom lies in constantly dying to self and being resurrected into newness of life. No, not even Jesus can do that for you, despite what some misguided people may have told you. You, and you alone, must do ‘it’ for yourself. You, the person among persons that you are, can and must break the bondage of self—the prison-house of self you have made for yourself—if you want to really become the real person you were destined to be.

Don’t seal in a tomb your faith, hope and love, not to mention your potential future. All too often we shut those important things in with a stone of indifference, despair and fear. We all need to roll away the stone and be resurrected into newness of life. Easter means coming to know and experience personally that there dwells within each one of us an almighty power that can resurrect and remake our broken lives.

Easter is today, tomorrow, and every day. Easter is now.

Keep well. Stay safe. Do the right thing. Follow the experts’ advice. Think of others, not just yourself.


Note. This post reproduces material contained in my previous post, ‘Beyond Traditional Religion: The Real Miracle of Easter’, which appeared on April 18, 2014. Some new material has been added.


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