The myth of Mindfulness

One of the biggest turning points in my meditation practice came via understanding a key emphasis in the Buddha’s teachings: that of training the mind, rather than following the heart.

Up until then, like so many others, I had been riding the meditation train for years with mixed success.

I read numerous books on the subject, attended Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction seminars, visualized a gazillion tracks of guided serenity & mantras, and sat through many hours of binaural beat frequencies with the goal of synchronizing my brain hemispheres into a more relaxed alpha range, and on a good day even a deep theta state.

Though I made some progress, and often felt calm or relaxed, I could never seem to sustain that feeling. I had complied with the spiritual notion of following my bliss, but mindfulness remained out of reach – a distant, illusory, mythical destination.

The instructions seemed simple enough: “stay in the present”, “be in the now”, just “simply be aware of what is arising in the moment”. I did all of those things, and did them well – yet it felt completely, inexorably hollow and empty.

Turns out I had it all wrong.

Got Impact?

VERB. TARGET POPULATION. OUTCOME.

With that simple four word mantra outlined in an amazing PopTech! talk (below) and a life mission dedicated to living it, Kevin Starr recently joined the ranks of my personal superheroes.

A physician turned managing director of the Mulago Foundation, Kevin has been driven by his passion to carry forward the superb legacy of his medical school mentor Rainer Arnhold. Arnhold, a pediatrician by training, and a humanitarian by choice, spent much of his life working hard to improve the lives of children mired in poverty.

The mission statement is simple, yet immensely powerful:

” Mulago looks for the best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest countries.”

What made Starr’s talk so – well, impactful (pun intended) – were his ideas around measuring the real impact that various social change ideas eventually have on any given problem. He reveals surprising follow-ups to the failures of highly touted and award winning projects such as LifeStraw and the $100 Laptop among others.

Compassion rising

2014 has been dubbed the "year of mindfulness", which means that the quality of compassion gets to share some airtime as well, thanks to a world in turmoil.

In a previous post, I discussed how compassion is not an emotion or mood, but a state of being that can be cultivated. Far from being a passive, nauseating, sickly-sweet demeanour, true compassion is synonymous with skillful action – action that is inspired from the largest and brutally honest perspective of reality.

The Buddha went so far as to say that the mind’s natural state is compassionate. A theory that has recently been confirmed by several psychologists and evolutionary scientists: our bodies and brains are wired to be good.

Studies have shown that compassionate people have stronger immune systems, higher energy levels and live longer, happier lives.

Despite the trance of “survival of the fittest” in our collective memory, it was Darwin himself among others who wrote extensively about the presence of compassion in primates, and how it contributed towards the survival of their communities and tribes.

If this is true i.e. if we are indeed wired to be good, then why is the world in the state that it is? And why are some of us able to show more compassion than others?

Cook. Savor. Then pass it on!

In case you missed it, we are in the midst of a food revolution.

Thanks to their tireless crusading, chef Jamie Oliver and journalist Michael Pollanamong others, are nudging food back to where it belongs: on our plates.

Slowly – and hopefully surely – the industrialized world is waking up to the aftermath of what Pollan describes as the “collapse of cooking”.

To wit:

  • Supermarkets lined with low-cost “edible food-like substances” i.e. artificial products designed to simulate real food that are high on dubious “nutrient” claims, but lacking in substance. e.g. 99% fat free yogurt that has more sugar per ounce than Coca Cola.
  • Agricultural policies that heavily subsidize corn and soy, the source of most junk food
  • food system that runs counter to human health needs promoting heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer
  • A complete disconnect between humans and the food they eat

And now for the good news: the reformation of food has begun!

Happiness is freely available - help yourself to it!

Quick: Are you happy?

No, its not a trick question.

What is interesting: the million different connotations of the word the question brings up. We each have our own definition and interpretation of what happiness means. 

Whether you’re close to or far away from your ideal, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist practice as a clever way to enjoy life a.k.a. one way to realize happiness, which is apparently freely available.

But before we discuss that, lets get a bit of clarity around the definition itself.

Green! Green! everywhere but no smaller footprint in sight?

Going “green” has become as nebulous an idea as “happiness”. 

Twenty first century living has made it fashionable to be “green”, but what does is it really mean?

Does driving a Prius or switching to energy efficient light bulbs make you an environmentalist? Or do you have to be a granola-eating-vegan protesting at an international climate change conference to be one? With so much information and mis-information out there, has all this “green” activity really made a difference to the environment?

As it turns out, not all green is created equal.

Pioneering environmental journalist and founder of WorldChanging.com, Alex Steffen  coined the term “bright green” and what follows is a summary of his brilliant explanation around the evolution of the environmental spectrum.

Compassion: it's not what you think

I’m crazy about the idea of compassion. Completely nuts.

However, prior to my love affair with it, I was just plain confused.

You see, I equated compassion with the warm fuzzy feeling in my body when I heard Mother Teresa-que stories of selfless action . Or the heartwrenching sensation in my chest as I watched innocent children turn into statistics of another senseless war.

Turns out those feelings were anything but!

Though compassion is used interchangably with “empathy” or “sympathy” or even “pity”, psychologist Paul Ekman clears the air in conversation with the Dalai Lama in his delightful book Emotional Awareness. He explains that when we see suffering, it can elicit one or more of the these responses:

1. Emotional Recognition: To know or recognize how another person is feeling.

2. Emotional Resonance: To actually feel what the other person is feeling.

Compassion, on the other hand, is simply the desire to relieve the suffering of another. It is not an emotion or mood, rather a state of being that can be cultivated. Once cultivated, it becomes an enduring feature of the person, as opposed to emotions that come and go.

 

What's your Ikigai?

The word “retire” is foreign to the Okinawan vocabulary.

Instead, the residents of this Japanese community hold their Ikigai - reason for getting up each morning - sacred. Whether its growing food or taking care of their children, this notion of a purposeful life seamlessly energizes their often centenarian lives.

Ikigai is one of the many common lifestyle factors identified by National Geographic writer and researcher Dan Buettner, in Blue Zones: areas of the world where folks reach the age of 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S. while living healthier lives, with a fraction of the rates of heart disease and cancer.

What if an ice-cream wrapper were a songbird?

Hands down, one of the most inspiring and influential duo in my life have been architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart.

Creaters of the Cradle to Cradle design philosophy, they blew me away with their vision of seeing a “world of abundance, not limits”. I am completely drawn to their maverick idea that “design is a signal of intention” and theirs is to shift the current endlessly destructive model to one that “loves all children, of all species, for all time”.

Rather than making humans feel guilty, the C2C concept celebrates human creativity, culture and productivity, integrating nature’s effective design principles with business and the environment.

Scoffing at the traditional “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra as just a “downcycling” spiral, C2C design focuses on making products such that they enter either the “technical” or “biological” nutrient cycle once their life is over.  This way they can be completely used in another avatar rather than ending up in landfills.

In other words, the goal is to eliminate waste completely and turn it into  food. This is “eco-effectiveness” as opposed to the herd mentality of “eco-efficiency”.

The fastest, largest and most complex movement in the world

Forget about everything you associate with a “movement” or an “-ism” you might know: well defined ideology, central aggregation of power, and (usually) male dominated leadership.

The movement I’m talking about is what author, environmentalist, entrepreneur and the best spokesperson Mother Nature ever hired Paul Hawken brilliantly describes as “humanity’s immune response” to our current ecological and social crises.

The scientist in me loves this analogy. The changemaker in me heaves a sigh of relief (just as Hawken predicts) – the sense of finally dropping the orphaned feeling of having to be out in the trenches with a tiny army; marching with the grand burden of saving the world on my shoulders.

I’m sure you have a basic idea of the human body’s immune system. The good guy antibodies recognizing, attacking and killing the bad guy antigens (viruses, bacteria etc) to keep you healthy.

Hawken replaces this simplistic caricature and reminds us of the jaw dropping reality.

“In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe…..

….So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it……You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are.

Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules?