Attention and Awareness

monkey-10The Monkey in Our Mind

The aspect of mind we’re working with in meditation is our meddlesome, hyperactive and mischievous attention – the part of the mind we were nagged about all through childhood, all those parents and teachers exhorting us to, ‘Pay attention!’

For most of us, given our modern culture and the lives we’ve lead, of doing many things at once and relaxing by using distractions and entertainment, our attention has become extremely jittery and reactive, which forms the main source of most of our suffering.

The Buddha called it ‘monkey mind’:
‘Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.’ [Samyutta Nikaya 12.61]

Like this monkey, our attention leaps from thought to thought, reaction to reaction and distraction to distraction, chattering and babbling all the time. So if we are to train the mind to let go and be still, it seems obvious that it’s this monkey attention we must train first. So let’s take a look at the attention and see what we’re dealing with.

It’s generally assumed that our attention is the same as awareness – that they perform the same function. But they don’t.Though they are certainly related aspects of the one mind, they each have very different characteristics and abilities. And it’s exactly this difference between them that’s so important to what we’re doing in meditation.

A simple demonstration of the distinction between attention and awareness is this:

Right now, you’re paying attention to reading these words. In this, your attention is the interactive part of your mind – the part you use to gather information and create thoughts. It flits from object to object like a laser beam, building concepts and reactions, and it does this very quickly – indeed, most of the conscious activity in your mind is created by your attention.

As you read, you are passively aware of everything around you – the room you’re in, whether it’s hot, or cold, and various sensations coming and going in your body. But this awareness is passive. It does not think, or remember, and it is always in the present moment.

So, as the busy monkey of your attention flits about collecting information and projecting your personality and what you think to the outer world, the awareness is passively cognizant of everything around you. It positions and connects you with the environment you’re in.

This distinction between attention and awareness is extremely important. In fact, it’s fundamental to everything we’re doing in meditation, so I’ll reiterate what I’ve just said.

Your attention is the interactive part of your mind

And your awareness is the surrounding theatre your attention moves about in – of everything you sense in each moment. Awareness doesn’t think. And it doesn’t remember. It simply  knows. And it is always in the present moment.

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So why is this distinction between attention and awareness so important to meditation?Well, lets look at meditation itself, and see what we’re trying to do.

Our primary objective is to create an ability to be able to disengage at will from the incessant thinking and reacting our attention is constantly creating, which keeps us revved up all the time … to be able to go still, without it making us anxious, so our mind and body can unwind and rebalance, as they naturally do when they’re given the space and leisure to do it.

So why can’t we stop and be still?

Well, that’s because the monkey of our attention doesn’t know how to stop. In the lives we live, and the culture we’re conditioned to, we’ve been trained from birth to be active, get things done, compete, win, and cling to what we’ve got.

We’re told, ‘don’t be lazy’ and ‘get off your bum and do something’. But when were we ever told to ‘stop and do nothing’.  Never.

For this reason, stopping and being still is very stressful for us. It creates feelings of anxiety, guilt and restlessness. Which is why, unlike every other creature on the planet, we have to learn how to be still.

And that’s where meditation comes in. It is the means by which we learn how to stop.

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So what do I mean by stop? Stop what?

Well, if we examine everything that disturbs us, we see it is our attention that creates it. Attention creates the thinking and reacting, which creates memories and emotions which, through the reactive cycle, stimulates more thinking and reacting … and so on.

Awareness does not create these effects. It’s momentary, simple, and unconditioned – there is no good, bad, right, wrong in awareness.There just ‘is’. In each moment sensations are there or not there, and they are always changing.

As such, awareness is acutely in sync with the changing environment we’re in, in a way that our attention, which is busy freezing moments so it can think about them, is not.

Because that’s what out attention does – when we switch our attention to something we’ve become aware of, it immediately converts what we were aware of into information, so it can freeze the event in our mind and evaluate it. Then it dredges up similar experiences from our memory, to decide if we like this thing, or not – then creates a spreading fog of thinking and reactions around it.

And, big or small, our attention is doing this constantly, and mindlessly, because the habit is so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it. And it’s that mindlessness we’re seeking to change in meditation practice. With meditation, we’re learning how to disengage out attention when we don’t need it to be doing stuff. We’re learning how to stop.

The Party in Our Head.

A lot of people think it’s thoughts and thinking that disturbs us. But that’s not so.
If we didn’t pay attention to the thinking, it would rapidly evaporate, even as it arises in the mind.

It’s our attention that excites the thinking, ordering the thoughts into stories which makes us happy, sad, angry, excited, fearful, whatever. So we assume it’s thinking that’s the problem, but it’s not. The problem is that we cannot control our attention’s addiction to reacting to every thought that appears in our head.

I liken our attention to an overeager host at a very busy party. Every thought that rushes through the front door, our attention is there, asking questions, arguing, entertaining and reacting. And because it’s paying attention to every thought that rushes in, the room of our mind gets filled up with a cacophony of chatter.

With meditation, we’re teaching the attention to stop being such an eager host. As each thought rushes in through the door, we’re encouraging the attention to fold it’s arms and keep its mouth shut – to not speak to it.

In the beginning, because we’re new to this, the thoughts will keep talking, trying to get the attention to do what it’s always done – to participate. But if we keep on applying the meditation methods to help the attention to ignore the chattering thoughts, they will eventually slink off out the back door.

As we practice this letting go and ignoring, because the host is not engaging any more, the party slowly empties -the room of the mind goes quiet.

And though thoughts still rush in, because our attention is getting better at not engaging, they rush right out again. As our skill at doing this disengaging becomes more effortless, the rushing in and rushing out happens faster and faster, until ,eventually, though thoughts are still rushing in and out, the mind is effectively silent – still.

We’ve stopped.

The problem is, we cannot force the attention to do this.

Like the Monkey in our example, the more we try to tie the attention down and gag it, the more it will squeal and fight and try to escape. After all, everyone knows, when we’re told ‘stop thinking about it’, it only creates more thinking, making us more anxious and agitated.

So it’s pointless trying to force the attention to stop.

So the meditation methods are not there to stop anything. They’re simply strategies to gently tame the attention and coax it to relax until it eventually disengages and goes still – a process that must be tinged with compassion, patience and understanding.

In meditation, we apply the methods, understanding that in the beginning it will be difficult, and the attention will struggle.

We also understand that it’s not the attention’s fault that it’s become so meddlesome and noisy – it’s not trying to be difficult. It’s simply doing what we trained it to do. So we keep gently applying the meditation methods until our attention gets used to being quiet.

Eventually, our attention get used to being quiet, and that’s when we can drop the meditation method – at that point, the skill of stillness is innate.

And through all this process, the awareness is allowed to shine brightly – which it will. The more the attention calms, the more vivid and expansive the awareness will become.

At that point, we become aware of amazingly subtle sensations in the body, and quiet bursts of intuitive understandings in the mind, and we realise we never had to think so much at all – that the thinking was just a messenger for what we already knew.

And there’s much more you’ll discover which, in the fury of our old habits, you were previously unaware of .And that’s when life becomes interesting.

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LINKS

Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.

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LINKS

 

Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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LINKS

Don’t Fight to Meditate.

img_0349-001Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.

But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

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When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.

Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.

To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.

In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.

And it’s understandable.

From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.

And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.

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So let’s go back to the beginning.

For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.

By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.

So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.

This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.

So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.

To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.

Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.

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But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.

But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.

With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.

To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.

In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.

This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.

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As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.

We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.

Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.

And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.

But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.

And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.

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Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.

So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.

The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.

So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.

 

When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.

This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.

In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.

In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.

I hope this has been helpful.

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LINKS

Depression: Is it The Immune System?

One in 10 of us will experience depression at some point. Just what causes this highly debilitating disease, and the best way to treat it, remain controversial: last month, Danish researchers reported that antidepressants raise the risk of suicide when taken by healthy people.

The most widely prescribed antidepressants, such as Prozac, are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and work on the basis that depression is caused by low levels of the brain chemical serotonin and that it can be treated by correcting this imbalance.

Down: But it's not down to serotonin.
Down: But it’s not down to serotonin. Photo: iStock

For decades, we’ve been told that serotonin is the key culprit for mood disorders, but now a growing number of doctors are subscribing to a radical new theory of depression – that the problem, at least for some people, is in fact the result of inflammation in the body, caused by the body’s immune system reacting to an infection or stress.

This is one of the hottest areas in psychiatry right now, and it may bring welcome news to approximately half of depressed patients, who don’t respond to first line treatment with SSRIs.

The serotonin question

Increasingly, experts are questioning the concept that depression is a serotonin problem. In April last year, Dr David Healy, professor of psychiatry at Bangor University, published a paper in the British Medical Journal called “Serotonin and Depression: The Marketing of a Myth”, which concluded: “The lowered serotonin theory [of depression] took root in the public domain rather than in psychopharmacology – a piece of biobabble.”

Dr Kelly Brogan, a psychiatrist in New York, concurs: “In six decades, not a single study has proven that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. There has never been a human study that successfully links low serotonin levels and depression.”

Dr Brogan explores the theories of the causes of depression and the scientific evidence that lay behind them in her new book, A Mind of Your Own. She, and others, believe that depression can instead be the result of our immune system working in overdrive, causing inflammation that may manifest in the brain. “Depression is often an inflammatory condition, a manifestation of irregularities in the body that can start far away from the brain and are not associated with the simplistic model of so-called ‘chemical imbalances’,” she says.

Such an argument challenges traditional ideas of depression as a genetic illness, suggesting instead that our experiences and environments could play more of a role than we thought.

How the immune system can make us depressed

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response when we’re sick.

“The substances we produce in response to an infection such as a virus are called cytokines, and they signal the immune system to activate,” says Dr Valeria Mondelli, senior clinical lecturer in psychological medicine at King’s College London.

Dr Mondelli believes that high levels of inflammation can decrease the number of neurons in our brains and affect the way they communicate, leading to depression. “We’ve seen repeatedly that people with depression have higher levels of inflammation in their brains, and we think this could be a new theory of depression in competition to the chemical imbalance theory.”

One third of depressed patients have increased inflammation, she says, and they are the same people who don’t respond to SSRIs.

We’ve all experienced how having a cold or flu can affect mood – we become less sociable, more withdrawn and generally fed up. Perhaps this isn’t just feeling sorry for yourself because you’re run down, but inflammation acting on the brain, causing classic signs of depression.

More evidence for the theory comes from the fact that people with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) suffer from higher levels of depression than average.

In a study at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, doctors noticed that when patients with RA (caused when the immune system attacks the joints) were given precise anti-inflammatory drugs to calm down the immune system, their mood improved. Brain scans showed the volunteers weren’t just feeling happier because their pain had improved. “The brain pathways involved in mediating depression were favourably changed in people who were given immune interventions,” says Prof Iain McInnes, a consultant rheumatologist who ran the study.

The role of stress

It’s not just physical illnesses and infections that may trigger inflammation: cytokines are also activated in response to stress.

Dr Mondelli last year published a meta-analysis which found that people who had experienced traumatic effects in childhood had higher levels of brain inflammation in adulthood. “We found that having had severe stress during childhood predisposes you to mental health problems by increasing the levels of inflammation.”

She believes that people who experienced high levels of infection or trauma as children may develop compromised immune systems. As a result, they may be more susceptible to developing depression as adults after subsequent, repeated stress or infections in adulthood. “Childhood trauma and infections can prime the immune system, and that may then become a risk factor to developing depression in adulthood,” she explains. “If they then face another stressful event, they may be more likely to develop depression, because their immune system is already threatened.”

The new blood test that could change everything

The inflammation theory could have major implications for how we think about, and treat, depression. Although SSRI antidepressants do provide relief for many people with depression, a significant minority do not respond, and a string of studies have shown that this same group tend to have high levels of inflammation.

In July, researchers from King’s College London published a study in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in which depressed patients were given a blood test that focused on two biomarkers measuring inflammation in the body. Patients with high levels of inflammatory markers were the ones who didn’t respond to SSRIs.

Though more research and development of the blood test is needed, the team at King’s say it paves the way for more “personalised psychiatry”, where treatment is guided by such blood tests, rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach.

“Patients who have blood inflammation above a certain threshold could be directed towards earlier access to more assertive antidepressant strategies, including the addition of other antidepressants or anti-inflammatory drugs,” said Prof Carmine Pariente, a leading psychiatrist and senior author of the study.

It seems, then, that what was considered for centuries as a mental illness might originate – at least for some – in our physical bodies.

“Finally, we can say that depression is not always something that is only in your mind, it could be a problem in your body as well,” says Dr Mondelli.

“If people start to think about depression in this way, it could be less stigmatising because we would be seeing depression as a real physical illness, much like diabetes. It could, in time, also lead to a revolution in treatments.”

Natural anti-inflammatory treatments

Dr Kelly Brogan, author of A Mind of Your Own, recommends lifestyle changes with a natural anti-inflammatory effect that can help improve your mood.

  • Exercise “Depression can result from chronic ongoing stress and exercise acts like a biological insurance plan against the bodily effects of stress,” says Dr Brogan. Twenty minutes, three times a week or more, of anything that gets you sweaty is all that’s needed.
  • Diet Eliminate processed foods, especially sugar and refined carbohydrates, which may increase inflammation in the body. Eat plenty of natural foods, including fruits and vegetables, pastured animal products and eggs and wild fish.
  • Meditate Dr Brogan says meditation stimulates the expression of genes that are powerfully anti-inflammatory. Just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness, deep breathing or gratitude journaling can help to improve your mood.

By Anna Magee – editor of healthista.com

 

Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.

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For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’

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Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
Stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.

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So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.

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Cleaning Up The World from the Inside

img_0350“….Pollution!  Look at this rubbish!” he said vehemently, “Bloody vandals! Chucking their garbage about!…”

I had been wandering along a path, savoring the clear afternoon stillness of a popular national park near Melbourne, when this man and his family steamed up behind and overtook me. He was a large man with a face so swollen and red that his head looked like it was going to burst.  As I stepped aside to allow room to pass, his wife gave me an apologetic look as she and her two embarrassed children filed by, and they all disappeared around the bend up ahead.

As his angry tones slowly receded into the distance, and the silence of the bush reasserted itself, I wondered which pollution was worse – the small scraps of paper by the path, or this man’s obnoxious rage in the delicate ambience of this beautiful place.  And then it occurred to me that the two were actually both parts of the one.  This man’s rage was interconnected with the very pollution he was railing against.

I find it interesting that, for most of us, though all through our life we have been conditioned to keep ourselves physically clean, dressed neatly, with our houses neat and tidy, we have never been taught to keep a clean and tidy mind.  We have never been taught ‘best practice’ habits with the way we use and apply our mental and emotional functions – our thoughts, emotions and intentions.  We have simply been encouraged to cram ourselves full of information, endure our emotional shifts as best we can, and forget the rest by distracting ourselves.

Slowly, as we age, because we are always thinking about things, remembering, reacting, daydreaming, worrying, the mind learns that, except for sleeping, it is not allowed to stop.  So the mind becomes like a hand that never stops moving – even in rest, it still twitches and moves in our lap.  This build-up of unresolved thought patterns becomes more intense, causing hormonal effects in the body that become more uncomfortable as life goes on.  We ache more, worry more, get more anxious over more insignificant things, get tired or depressed more, and feel less – our minds and bodies slowly tie themselves in knots as the buildup of unresolved mental stuff increases.  The ‘grey’ emotional states begin to cover us up – depression, apathy, anxiety and boredom.

On the radio this morning I heard that depression is now considered by the medical fraternity to be one of the most serious health problems in Australia, and no doubt, it has similar status in the rest of the world as well

Our common reaction to our mental malaise is to find more things to help us forget our internally generated discomfort.  And because we have been conditioned to find solace and comfort through consumption, we fill our attention with eating and drinking, more comforts, work, hobbies and distractions, and entertainment – anything to forget how we feel.

All of these things that we use to forget create excess physical waste of some kind in the world, or they consume some resource faster than can be sustained.

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Environmental pollution is, in the larger part, the physical overflow of our own rapacious and excessive needs. From candy wraps, pizza and hamburger boxes, to our excessive use of fossil fuels and energy, we consume constantly and voraciously, in part, because we need to. Because we are needful, depressed, worried, angry or anxious, or merely awash with the mental detritus of our incredibly cluttered lives, we have a tendency to over-consume, and to forget the repercussions of our consumption.

While on a visit to America a while ago, I watched a current affairs program on local television one night in which they did a hidden camera trick on people who dropped litter, then interviewed them to find out why.  I was interested to see that most didn’t even notice that they had dropped the litter. They had not been aware of what they had done and, when shown the replay of their action, they were genuinely embarrassed. Many of them made the excuse, “…well, I was thinking about something else…”

We are often ‘thinking about something else’ – in fact, ‘thinking about something else’ seems to have become a dominant characteristic of the Western mind. We drive while thinking about something else – we eat, drink, speak, work, even make love while thinking about something else.

And because we are often thinking about something else, we are not aware of, or we forget the causal effects of what we do. We forget that the plastic bags we throw away often end up strangling our waterways, or that the impatience, anger, and rudeness that some of us vent so freely on others around us has a profoundly disturbing effect on the world around us.  We forget because we are often preoccupied with something else.

And what is this ‘something else’ we are thinking about?

Usually the thinking is trivial – pointless reiterations of some compulsive preoccupation – thoughts growing like bacteria. If we are worrying, it is a kind of mental loop of thoughts, replaying itself, and taking our attention, making us unaware of what is happening in the moment.

But though we expend a lot of energy on this compulsive thinking, we never work anything out or take action – the thoughts just exist because the mind cannot let go or stop creating new thoughts. In effect, the ‘something else’ we are often thinking about is a form of  mental smoke from fires that we cannot put out – pollution – mental pollution.

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 When I work as a meditation trainer, one of the most difficult challenges of my work is encouraging people to give themselves permission to stop for a while each day – to let go of their life for while – to just sit still, and be happy to just be still.

From the moment of birth, most of us, particularly in the West, have been encouraged to spend their waking hours exclusively in physical and mental activity – to always be doing something – thinking, learning, achieving, creating.  As a result, when it comes to periodic rest, or meditation, most people feel anxiety when they are not doing something.  The only way they can give themselves permission to stop is to be either exhausted or sick – and, as I remind them, by then it’s too late.  They should have stopped long before then.  Rest is something we do to conserve ourselves, and enhance our enjoyment of living – it is not a last resort.

We have been taught to think with great sophistication and speed about a great range of things, but we have never been taught how to stop.  We have never been taught how to relax efficiently, and let go. We have never been taught the mental skills that are required to give the mind some peace and quiet in which to clear itself – to do its own ‘house cleaning’.

In sleep and rest, and especially in meditation, this fundamental process of mental ‘house cleaning’ takes place. It happens naturally whenever the mind is released from the incessant focusing and making of thoughts that we associate with wakefulness.

Consider all those times when the mind is disengaged, and relaxed, like when you have lain back on the couch and closed your eyes for a few minutes, or been mesmerized by the sound of the waves on a beach – all the thoughts, feelings, and memories all flit past the awareness, like so many newly released butterflies flitting through a ray of light.  This is the mind downloading excessive and unfinished concerns – clearing itself.

As the mind clears itself, so too does the body.  Released from new mental commands, the body uses the space to download excess hormones through the kidneys.  When you open your eyes, you feel just a little clearer, and energized. The body is more relaxed and free of stress.  The more we can allow the mind and body to do this kind of clearing, the less we need to forget, or distract ourselves, because we feel better within ourselves

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So, some suggestions for lessening mental pollution:

Once a day, sit back in your chair, and give yourself permission to take a short cat-nap – even ten minutes is of great benefit.  A client of mine, a very successful Information Technology consultant, used to keep a comfortable chair in her office.  Whenever she had an urgent problem she had to solve, rather than try to think it out, she used to curl up in her comfortable chair, and take a short nap of between 20 minutes to an hour.  She usually found that the solution would usually appear quite quickly after she had rested in this manner.

Try to move at a slower pace throughout your day – never allow events to push you into panic.  Take one thing after another, giving each your full attention.  The mind gets confused if we try to do two things at once.  As my teacher, an 85 year old Thai monk used to say, ‘Don’t rush.  Just move faster, with more care, and more awareness’.

Even if you don’t want to learn how to meditate, there is a simple relaxation technique you can do which will help to clear the mind and body – try it before you begin your day, and again before you sleep at night:  Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back for about ten minutes, and purposefully keep directing your attention to the feelings in your body.

Bring your attention down into your body. Feel the sensations of being alive – let the body speak to you and tell you how it feels in its own language. And whenever you find yourself thinking, go back to the nearest sensation. Just be aware of how you feel. Contemplate in particular, the feelings in your face, neck, scalp, shoulders and around your eyes.

And where you feel tightness, see if you can let the tightness go – it’s a game – just contemplate the tight muscles in that area, no matter how small they are, and let them relax, loosen, let go.

And when you find yourself back in thinking, that’s okay, just find the nearest sensation, or feeling of tension, and encourage that part of your body to relax.

Try to get into the habit of periodically checking your body and your breathing throughout the day.  If you find tension anywhere, then let it loosen.

Allow yourself space throughout the day, in small sips, to look around you, and reconnect with how you feel – take a deep breath, stretch, let the rational streams of thinking go, relax your muscles,  feel the air and the wind on your face.

Ideally it is meditation, or one of the physical yoga’s that form the most effective modalities for creating real change in your internal ecology. They clear the buildup of excessive thinking and bring you back into touch with the needs of your body.

The more space you make in the mind, and the more you pay attention to how you feel, the more your life begins to breathe, and the less you need to make you happy. You become more patient, more able to feel empathy with others. Simple things begin to glow – a sunset, the smile on a child’s face. And if each of us clears  and takes care of our internal environment, I’m sure that our world will clear too.

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