Wellbeing

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.

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.

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.

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?

Can you blame war survivors for wanting strawberries in winter?

Why don’t we like blue tomatoes? Are potato-crisps still enjoyable when they sound like jelly? Why do we eat when we’re not hungry? How did the food you’re eating get on your plate?

Just some of the questions that come up as Marije Vogelzang designs eating around her 8 point philosophy of Senses, Nature, Culture, Technique & Material, Science, Psychology, The Action of Food and Society.

I stumbled on this Dutch “eating designer” recently and have been relishing her work. Breathtakingly delicious. She believes that nature has already designed food perfectly, so she focuses her creativity around the verb of eating – harvesting, cooking, sharing and digesting food

The cure for hopelessness isn't hope

Have you ever consoled somebody with “don’t worry, everything will be alright” or “things will workout – don’t give up hope” and felt a sense of utter emptiness in your words, no matter how well intentioned they were? That you were trying to impose a fabricated, highy improbable fairy tale that nobody – not least the person in pain - was buying into?

We’ve all been there. Even looking back on our dark nights of the soul – was it really hope that kept us alive?

Hope is defined as ”the general feeling that some desire will be fulfilled; to intend with some possibility of fulfillment.”

Don’t get me wrong. In the battle between despair and hope, I will fight to death for the latter. They don’t call me an optimist for nothing.  Hope is beautiful, uplifting, inspiring and a mesmerising image of what could be.

However, inherent in the definition of hope is the notion of some nebulous, unpredictable future tense. And this is what makes is so fragile – prone to easily crumbling to the vagaries of our circumstances, thoughts, moods and emotions.

Did you give yourself an A today?

Or did you flunk out of life even before you got out of bed?

And what grade did you dole out to the people in your life – at work, at home, on the street?

Einstein famously said that it was nonsense to found a theory on observable facts alone, since in reality the very opposite happens: “It is theory which decides what we can observe.”

In other words, we take the world our senses offer us and give it meaning through the filter of whatever assumptions we have chosen to accept as true i.e. the theory behind our lives. As maverick Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander  wrote in his amazing book The Art of Possibility,“….its all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.”