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

 

Get Some Sleep!

head“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
                                                                           – John Steinbeck

James was a chef at a large hotel where he did breakfasts and lunches, and he hadn’t taken a holiday for three years. The skin on his face was dry and slack and the bruised bags under his eyes indicated a metabolism struggling with exhaustion. He complained of frequent headaches and lethargy. He told me he had to drink coffee constantly throughout the day just to keep his energy levels up so he could complete his shift.

“Part of the trouble is my hours,” he went on, “I get home about 3.30 in the afternoon, and I’m so stuffed I’ve just got to sleep. I try not to, but it’s overwhelming. So I sleep until about 7 PM and wake up feeling lagged as hell. So I have something to eat – but then, when I go back to bed I can’t sleep. So I toss and turn all night and get up at 4 in the morning feeling terrible again.”

He thought meditation would help his fatigue, but I had my doubts – he seemed too exhausted. Even so, we tried it out – but sure enough, within minutes, he was fast asleep. I let him sleep for about twenty minutes, then woke him up. He looked surprised when he opened his eyes and apologised, saying, “let’s try it again.”

I said, “James, it’s no good. You haven’t got a hope of learning to meditate in the state you’re in. You’re punch-drunk with fatigue. What you need is about two weeks holiday so you can get some good unbroken sleep.”

“Can’t.” he said flatly.” I’ve got a mortgage, kid’s at school, car payments…”

And so it goes. I told James if he didn’t get some quality sleep soon, his deteriorating health would force him to stop. He shrugged and said he’d think about it. I never saw him again.

James’s case is not exceptional. As time goes on I’m meeting more and more men and women just like him – people so tired they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel fully awake. At this time in the Western world, most of us are chronically under-slept. And as the studies and research into our sleep habits are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.

Sleep is essential – without enough of it, we fall apart – quite literally, we mentally and physically disintegrate. If prevented from sleeping, a laboratory rat will die after about two weeks – and what they die of is a total breakdown of their immune defences, leaving them susceptible to to infections, cancer cells, and bacteria and other infections. And when we’re deprived of sleep, that’s what happens to us as well.

Sleep is the ultimate healer of so many things – mental as well as physical. During sleep our mind and body rejuvenate and recharge with essential hormones that regulate our immune system, brain functions and organs.

For instance, there is a hormone called Leptin, which tells the body when we’ve eaten enough. As we sleep, Leptin levels are replenished in the body. But without sleep, Leptin levels drop. And when Leptin levels drop, our body craves carbohydrates, even when we don’t need any more food. The result is we develop a habit of craving ‘comfort foods’ that, when combined with the sluggish metabolism of an exhausted body, inevitably leads to obesity.

And so it is with many other small and subtle body adjustments that take place in the workshop of sleep, which regulate and sustain our body.

One of the biggest problems we have with sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we’re working harder for longer hours than ever before – so we’re taking our leisure later and later. Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,” says Wehr.[Brink, Susan, Sleepless Society, US News & World Report, October 16, 2000, p.64]”

It’s interesting that lack of sleep has come to be seen as a kind of badge of honour among the more hairy chested among us – a signature of prowess. They’ve been named “the short-sleeping elite” – a club that famously features Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, as well as many top executives and leaders, each of whom swears they don’t need sleep. And some may well have that kind of constitution – but most are probably just good at masking the effects of slow coming exhaustion. Because though these people may appear to function adequately, the physical and mental attrition of sleep deprivation is cumulative and slow-building, and depending on their levels of stamina, will eventually compromise their health.

It’s estimated that the average urban human needs around 7-9 hours of solid sleep every night. And for every hour of sleep we miss, we need to make it up later – a ’sleep debt’ to be paid at some time in the future. So if we only sleep for 6 hours a night throughout a five day week, to keep our mind and body clear and healthy, we need to make up that lost 10 hours on the weekend, on top of the 16 hours we would sleep over those two days.

If we are under-slept, we instinctively reach for nervous energy to push through. Nervous energy is a resource our body usually only keeps for emergencies. For this reason, the hormones of adrenalin and noradrenaline that cause it are commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones. We produce this nervous energy by using various substances – coffee, tea, sugar foods, cigarettes, and the many energy drinks that have large amounts of guarana on them – another form of caffeine.

Though these things certainly boost our energy levels, it’s the wrong kind of energy if used over a long period of time. Nervous energy is a frenetic kind of energy more suited to violent action than the consistent concentration and calm attention we need to deal with our daily life.

Trouble is, when we’re under-slept and fatigued, this kind of nervous energy is very seductive – it lifts our mood and makes us feel more confident. Plus, with so many culturally sanctioned ways of accessing this kind of energy, it’s easy to lapse into the habit of a quick coffee to get us going – a Red Bull to compensate for the sleepless night before.
The more we resort to this kind of energy, like any drug, the more we need it, and gradually it usurps our perception of normality – that is, the frenetic energy of adrenalin becomes a substitute for the normal, calmer metabolic energy we should be using.

For a few years, we can get away with it – the physical costs are slow to accumulate so we don’t notice the way we’re ruining ourselves until we become ill. First indications that we’re not handling it are, we find ourselves getting more colds and more susceptible to the ‘bugs that are going around’. Our body begins to ache, and our moods become more changeable.

And if we ignore these signals and keep on using nervous energy to push through, we eventually develop ‘adrenalin toxicity’ which manifest is all kinds of different ways, the most notable being:

  • Digestive problems, ulcers, irritable bowel, diarrhoea or constipation, occurring because adrenalin has diverted blood away from the internal organs, causing them to become sluggish.
  • Aching muscles caused by a build-up of lactic acid (residue of unused sugars –unused energy) in the muscle fibres.
  • Irritability, anxiety and depression.
  • Inability to sleep because the body and mind have been overstimulated and are still processing excess adrenalin.
  • General fatigue caused by inability to sleep, or inefficient sleep.
  • Inability to concentrate with any deep understanding. (While adrenalin certainly mobilizes aspects of the brain that make quick decisions, it dampens the deeper, more analytical aspects. And when adrenalin stimulation has gone on too long, profound mental exhaustion sets in. At that point even the most basic functions shut down and the mind tends to either wander or go unconscious. Hence the famous indication of battle fatigue in soldiers who had been in extended action, the ‘thousand yard stare’ where the subject would gaze at an unseen distance, not thinking, or feeling, or able to engage – in a semi catatonia of exhaustion. The stage after this is nervous breakdown, where the mental and perceptual processes break down and profound mental confusion occurs.)
  • Apathy, a lack of interest in love, or giving – a strong feeling of emptiness.
  • Sexual dysfunction. (Though in the short term, the sex function is stimulated by adrenalin, if the wear and tear continues for a continued time, eventually the sex drive will shut down.)

And there are many more problems  – but you get the idea.

To meditate, we need the calm alertness of metabolic energy – not the jittery hyper activity of nervous energy. Nervous energy creates restlessness and an aching body.

If you’re building a meditation practice, it’s important to be well slept, at the very least, and control your use of stimulants. Though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s difficult to develop the skills it entails if your mind and body crave sleep every time you practice.

So if you ever find yourself becoming drowsy when you begin meditating, perhaps take a nap and try again later.

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LINKS

 

Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

NEUROSCIENCE NEWS DECEMBER 7, 2016

Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.  Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.

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ABOUT THIS MEMORY RESEARCH ARTICLE

Other Northwestern authors include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Dr. Stephan Schuele and Dr. Joshua Rosenow.

Funding: The study was supported by grants R00DC012803, R21DC012014 and R01DC013243 from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to NorthwesternU.
Original Research: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016


 

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

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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