Tuesday, March 6, 2018
My favourite comedian Groucho Marx was a lifelong insomniac. He tried most things to help him sleep, but apparently to little avail. ‘I can sleep anywhere but in bed,’ he once exclaimed.
According to a 2015 study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, mindfulness meditation is one of the most powerful tools for improving your sleep ... and the quality of your sleep.
In the study, 49 adults, all of whom reported having sleep troubles prior to being enrolled in the study, were split into two groups. One group was instructed to complete a mindfulness meditation program while the other simply attended sleep education classes which mostly focused on instructing the participants on various ways to improve their sleep habits. Each group participated in their respective programs for six weeks. By the end, the results showed that those who were meditating experienced less insomnia, fatigue, and depression compared to those who weren't practising mindfulness meditation.
The results confirm a 2008 study which demonstrated that wellbeing and mindfulness are positively associated with sleep quality and with a morning circadian preference. Results from a sample of 305 undergraduates revealed positive associations among measures of emotional, psychological, and social well-being, mindfulness, sleep quality and morningness (that is, the characteristic of being most active and alert during the morning).
As I see it, there are two elements of mindfulness that are helpful in dealing with insomnia—choiceless awareness and non-resistance. You can’t sleep? Don’t resist it. Stop fighting against it, for whatever we resist persists. Simply be aware—non-selectively aware—of whatever passes through your mind. Watch it. Observe it. Don’t fight against it. Give those mental movies no power, by being only barely attentive to their content. Let it pass … for it will. And let it go. Try this—and you will be amazed at the difference it makes.
Black D S, O’Reilly G A, Olmstead R, Breen E C, and Irwin M R. ‘Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial.’ JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):494-501. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081
Howell A J, Digdon N L, Buro K, and Sheptycki A R. ‘Relations among mindfulness, well-being, and sleep.’ (2008) Personality and Individual Differences, 2008;45(8):773-777. doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.005
Friday, February 2, 2018
The great American comedian and writer Groucho Marx, pictured, could be serious at times. In his 1959 autobiography Groucho and Me the thrice-married star had this to say about what he referred to as ‘true love’:
I believe … that real love only appears when the early fires of passion have cooled off and the embers just lie there smoldering. This is true love. This relationship has only a bowing acquaintance with sex. Its component parts are patience, forgiveness, mutual understanding and a high tolerance for each other’s faults.
A meta-analysis published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension provides empirical evidence that the current literature on mindfulness and relationship satisfaction indicates that more mindful individuals have more satisfying, connected relationships.
The meta-analysis looked at the results of 12 studies, including two mindfulness intervention studies. Overall, mindfulness was shown to enhance relationship connectedness and satisfaction. The authors stated (at pp 96-97):
… [M]indful practices are typically taught as an individual practice. There are, however, mindful practices that have an explicit focus on others, such as loving kindness meditations or aikido communication practices, which focus on caring for others. In addition, mindfulness practice is about noticing many dimensions of the self, including feelings and thoughts related to relationships and interactions.
The results of this meta-analysis further validate the recent efforts to include mindfulness training in relationship education. The authors of the meta-analysis state that future basic and applied research to inform enhanced models of best practices for community education focused on promoting relational health is encouraged.
Study: McGill J, Adler-Baeder F, and Rodriguez P. ‘Mindfully in Love: A Meta-Analysis of the Association Between Mindfulness and Relationship Satisfaction.’ Journal of Human Sciences and Extension. 2016;4(1):89-101. ISSN: 2325-5226 (Print).
Acknowledgment. Groucho and Me, by Groucho Marx. Originally published: New York: Bernard Geis Associates, 1959. Copyright © 1959 by Groucho Marx. Copyright renewed © 1987 in the name of Arthur Marx as son. All rights reserved.
Monday, January 1, 2018
Dr Alison Gray (pictured), chair of the spirituality special interest group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and a liaison psychiatry consultant working in Hereford and at the Beacon Clinic, Malvern, has recently said that those who engage in more ‘inward-focused’ types of spirituality – and that includes mindfulness meditation – ‘can become self-involved’.
‘In as much as religion is about binding people together, spirituality can become inward looking and selfish,’ Dr Gray said. ‘In no way does that happen to everyone … But there's a potential for it to become inward-looking and basically self-centred.’ To counter this, Dr Gray recommends that people practice mindfulness and other forms of spirituality in groups rather than alone.
Well, what do I think of that? Dr Gray is right. Damn right. Religion, at its best (note: I said, ‘at its best’), binds people together. After all, the word religion has an affinity with the Latin verb religare, which means to bind, bind back, bind up, and bind fast together. Spirituality is more personal, informal and unorganized in nature. Of course, not all religion is good. Indeed, it can be quite toxic and harmful at times, but at its best it binds people together and binds them to a power-other-than-themselves, that is, to what has been referred to as the largeness of life. We all need to get our minds off ourselves. Unfortunately, far too much spirituality makes us more self-centred, self-focused and self-absorbed. New Age spirituality tends to do that. It’s all about me, me, me. My inner growth, my health, my goals, and so on. Too many of our attempts at divesting ourselves of our little selves only heighten our obsession with self—and that is not good!
True mindfulness makes us increasingly aware of a power and presence greater than, and other than, our little, tiny, puny selves. The regular practice of mindfulness increases our awareness of the flow of life of which we are but a small part. There is the inner content of our mindfulness but let’s not neglect the outer content as well, that is, all that is going on around us and outside of us.
The truly mindful person grows in love, compassion and tolerance for their fellow human beings, indeed, for all life in all its myriad forms and comes to know that he or she is one with all life.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
The Biblical story of The Wise Men is an interesting one. It’s a story very rich in symbolism and meaning.
There are some who would question whether any man can truly be said to be wise. I have an interest-based opinion on that matter, so I will express no view, except to say that although the Biblical account of the story refers to the persons as ‘men’, there may well have been at least one woman among them. But does it really matter? No.
The Bible does not say there were three of them. That is simply an assumption, in light of the three gifts presented to the Christ child—namely, gold, frankincense and myrrh. I will have more to say about those gifts shortly, but even if there were three wise (wo)men, one of them may well have presented two gifts with one of the others presenting the third gift. Who knows? It doesn’t matter.
We are not told the names of the wise persons, although church tradition tells us that their names supposedly were Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. Although at least one church tradition says that the wise persons were kings (Melchior being a king of Persia, Balthasar a king of Arabia, and Gaspar a king of India), the Biblical narrative does not say so. They may have been rulers of Arabian states but it’s more likely that they were magi, wizards or astrologers and, so it is said, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Suffice to say that these people were on a journey—a journey in search of truth and wisdom. They were following a star—and no ordinary star at that.
So, we have the image of wise men following a star, attending upon the birth of someone famous, and presenting gifts to the baby. This, my friends, is the stuff of myth and legend, but that does not mean that the story is not true. Myths are not not true. Myths have their own level of truth and meaning, and this story is no different in that regard. The births of other famous persons—real or imagined—were hailed by wise men or aged saints who presented gifts to the newly born. I am thinking of the Buddha, Krishna, Rama and Mithra, for starters.
The star was, of course, the Star in the East. Esoterically, a star symbolizes some spiritual truth, at first dimly perceived. The East is where God is. The source of all life, truth, power and love. The Star in the East is the morning star, the first gleam or dawning of truth. For some, for example, scientists, the star is the light of reason. We need such people in our world, now more than ever. There should be no place for superstition. For others, the star represents hope and aspirations. They are important as well. Others consult the stars for guidance in their lives. I see no evidence or good reasons for doing that, but that is just my view.
The wise persons were in search of something greater than themselves. Relying perhaps on a combination of intuition, insight, reason, knowledge and wisdom – the last two things are not one and the same – they knew that a great event was taking place in Judea. Furthermore, they were prepared to follow their star wherever it led them. Are you prepared to do likewise?
And what of those gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh? Gold symbolizes that the Christ child was a king; on a deeper level, gold represents the light of truth as well as the gift of wisdom. Frankincense denotes Christ’s divinity; on a deeper level, it symbolizes the sweet fragrance of sympathy, empathy, compassion, self-giving, understanding and healing. Myrrh is one of the spices used for burial and thus is a kind of prophecy of Christ’s death; more esoterically, myrrh symbolizes the love that sustains and heals.
Some have interpreted the three gifts a little differently. For example, some commentators see the gifts as representing our three-fold human nature, with gold denoting our material (i.e. physical) nature, frankincense our emotional nature (i.e. our hopes, wishes and aspirations), and myrrh our mental nature (i.e. mind or intellect). However the gifts are interpreted, the really important thing is this—it is incumbent upon us to give of ourselves to others. We find ourselves to the extent to which we give ourselves away, in self-giving to others and to a cause or power greater than ourselves. Millions of people have found that to be true in their lives.
And what of the Christ child? Literal-minded Christians see that child as synonymous with Jesus—and he alone. However, I see the Christ child as denoting more than just Jesus. A ‘child’, in sacred language and literature, represents a spiritual idea or truth as well as indwelling power, potentiality and inner light. The Christ child, of course, is no ordinary child but represents our inner potential, our real self—what the Apostle Paul refers to as the ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col 1:27). The Christ child represents the person, as yet unborn, that you are nevertheless capable of becoming and being. When the Christ child is born in us, we awaken to our real self.
The birth of the Christ child takes place, not in the crowded inn of materialism and worldly values and opinions, but in a humble, receptive and childlike manger. There is so much meaning in that alone.
Once the wise persons had attended the birth of the Christ child, they returned to their country ‘by another way’. When a person has experienced a truly life-changing experience, in which they discover their real self, they are never the same again. He or she is permanently changed—for the better.
In summary, here are five important ‘lessons’ from the story. First, the wise (wo)men were wise because they were following a star, wherever it may have led them. Secondly, there is no limit to the number of people—men and women—who are capable of becoming and being wise. (In my view, that’s partly why the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were of them.) Thirdly, those who are wise bring forth gifts—parts of their own human nature offered in sacrifice and love to a cause or power greater than themselves. Fourthly, wise men and women are on a journey—a journey of self-discovery. Fifthly, once a person finds the ‘Christ child’, they always embark upon another way of living—a new and better way of living characterised by sacrificial self-giving, love, compassion and service to others.
May you have the spirit of Christmas which is peace, the gladness of Christmas which is hope, and the heart of Christmas which is love.
WILL YOU LET THE CHRIST CHILD BE BORN IN YOU?
THE PAGAN ROOTS AND ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Recent research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that mindfulness meditation is an effective antidote to the phenomenon of the worry of waiting, whether waiting for exam results, medical test results or whatever.
The research involved 150 California law students who had taken the bar exam and who were awaiting their results. There was a period of some four months between the exam and the date on which the results were posted online. The students completed a series of questionnaires in that four-month waiting period. During that waiting period the students were asked to participate in a 15-minute audio-guided meditation session at least once a week.
It was found that the practice of mindfulness meditation helped to postpone the phenomenon of ‘bracing’, which we do when we prepare ourselves for the worst. You may well ask, ‘What’s wrong with bracing? Surely, it’s a good thing to hope for the best while preparing yourself for the worst.’ I’m not so sure of that. If bracing sets in too early in the waiting period, most of us will start to worry … and worry … and worry.
Now, here's something especially interesting. The study shows that even 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation once a week, which was the average amount of meditation practised by the participants, was found to be enough to ease the stress of waiting.
We all worry, some of us more than others. The English word ‘worry’ comes from the and Old High German word wurgen, both meaning ‘
The regular practice of mindfulness, as well as mindfulness meditation, helps one to accept, and not resist or fight against, our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and, as J Krishnamurti [pictured right] used to say, ‘On the acknowledgement [that is, acceptance] of what is, there is the cessation of all conflict.’ Got that? All conflict—whether physical, mental or emotional.
I used to think that whenever a negative thought—say, a thought of anticipated or feared failure—entered the mind that it was necessary to substitute for that negative thought a positive thought. That works for some people but it is not necessary to do it. Simply observe the negative thought. Give it no power. Don’t resist it. Just watch it arise and vanish, for it will not last long. Bracing yourself for the worst is generally advocated by Stoics—and it definitely has its place. When? Later. Don’t brace yourself too early, lest worry set in.
Sweeny K and Howell J L. ‘Bracing Later and Coping Better: Benefits of Mindfulness During a Stressful Waiting Period.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2017; 43 (10): 1399 DOI: 10.1177/0146167217713490
Saturday, November 18, 2017
One of my perennial themes is the elusiveness of the self, and the notion that self cannot change self.
Now, we use the word ‘self’ in two different senses. First, we use the word to describe the ‘person’ each one of us is---the ‘real you,’ so to speak---and that is a most legitimate use of the word. However, we also use the word to refer to what we mistakenly perceive to be our real identity. Let me explain.
We perceive life through our senses and by means of our conscious mind. Over time, beginning from the very moment of our birth, sensory perceptions harden into images of various kinds formed out of aggregates of thought and feeling. In time, the illusion of a separate 'observing self' emerges, but the truth is that our sense of mental continuity and identity are simply the result of habit, memory and conditioning. Hundreds of thousands of separate, ever-changing and ever-so-transient mental occurrences—in the form of our various likes, dislikes, views, opinions, prejudices, biases, attachments and aversions, all of them mental images—harden into a fairly persistent mental construct of sorts.
This mental construct is, however, nothing more than a confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’ or ‘selves’) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way that appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own. The result is the ‘observing self', but it is little more than a bundle of remembered images from and out of which further thought and new images—yes, more of them—arise.
In an earlier post I wrote about one of my favourite authors and philosophers Albert Camus, pictured. On a recent trip to France – well, on the long plane flight from Australia to France and, two or three weeks later, back again – I re-read two books of Camus, namely, La Peste (English: The Plague) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (English: The Myth of Sisyphus). Now, there were a couple of passages in Le Mythe de Sisyphe on the elusiveness of the self that I must have overlooked when I last read the book. I will quote from the English translation by Justin O’Brien:
Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. …
Camus makes the point that we can only perceive life through our senses and by means of our conscious mind. We are in direct and immediate contact with both external reality and internal reality, but what about the so-called ‘self’? As Camus says, the moment we try to ‘seize’ this self, or ‘define’ or ‘summarize’ it, it evaporates. Who is the self that is to seize, define or summarize the other self? Are they not one and the same? They are indeed. The Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti often made that point. What's more, the idea in our mind that there is some ‘thinker’ or ‘thinking self’ within the mind is fallacious. There is no thinker apart from the thoughts. There is only a person in whom thinking is taking place.
Yes, there is only thinking, and it is the thinking that creates the mental construct of a self and of a notional, but not actual, thinker. The latter is, well, illusory in the sense that it has no separate, independent, and permanent existence apart from our thoughts or the person each one of us is. Yes, the thoughts, or rather the thinking, come first, not the so-called thinker. It is the process of thinking that creates the idea of there being a thinker. Actually, the thinker (that is, the ‘thinking self’ in our mind) and the thinking are a ‘joint phenomenon,’ as Krishnamurti used to say. They are one and the same. Krishnamurti wrote, 'When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing?' Camus understood this. In his Carnets, 1942-1951 (Notebooks, 1942-1951), Camus wrote that he was ‘happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched’. Well, why resist it? We are indeed both halves of this joint phenomenon.
Now, back to Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Camus writes:
… I can sketch one by one all the aspects [the self] is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. …
I agree with There is the self that knows, the self that judges, the self that gets angry easily, the self that takes offence, the self that cares, and so on. These are, as Camus points out, all ‘aspects’ the self is able to assume. But what do all these selves add up to? The answer—nothing. We cling to the self as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, that we really are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness. However, when we get right down to it, these selves are simply a manifestation of cognition by which, in conjunction with the senses, we apprehend the phenomenal world.
Camus then goes on to say:
… Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates’ ‘Know thyself’ has as much value as the ‘Be virtuous’ of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance. They are sterile exercises on great subjects. They are legitimate only in precisely so far as they are approximate.
Camus says that we will forever be a stranger to ourself. I beg to differ. Each one of us is a person—a person among persons. In that regard, I am greatly indebted to the writings and ideas of the British philosopher P F Strawson who, in his famous 1958 article ‘Persons,’ articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it.
Yes, each one of us is a person among persons. We are much more than those little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom comes when we get real, that is, when we start to live as---a person among persons.
You need not be a stranger to yourself. You can get to know the person that you are. It isn’t easy. It takes time. A lot of time—a whole lifetime, in fact. So, how can we get to know ourselves, that is, the person that each one of us is? By self-observation—that is, observation without the observer. You see, there is an 'observer' when we operate from our conditioned mind, that is, from the self that judges, the self that likes this, the self that dislikes that. Where there is an observer, there is a distorting lens which experiences, processes and interprets---and distorts---all that happens in our lives through an amalgam of thoughts, feelings, images, memories, beliefs, opinions, prejudices and biases---all of which is the past and for the most part conditioning. I love these words from P D Ouspensky (In Search of the Miraculous), who is quoting his teacher George Gurdjieff:
Self-observation brings man to the realization of the necessity for self-change. And in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes in his inner processes, He begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening. By observing himself he throws, as it were, a ray of light onto his inner processes which have hitherto worked in complete darkness. And under the influence of this light the processes themselves begin to change.
By all means, observe your anger. Observe what you instinctively like or dislike, or judge or condemn. Watch your various selves in action. Learn from them. But never identify with them. They are NOT the person that, in truth, you are.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Mindfulness is playing an ever-increasing role in sports training and success in sports of all kinds.
Mindfulness and meditation have been identified as key contributors to the Richmond Tigers’ ability to find emotional balance this past season and win the AFL grand final.
On a related matter, for those who are athletes or coaches, I thoroughly recommend the recently published seminal text Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches by Drs Keith A Kaufman, Carol R Glass and Timothy R Pineau and published by the American Psychological Association. I am honoured to be mentioned and quoted in the book as one of the few who has written on the subject of mindfulness and acting.
What, you may ask, is the relevance of acting to sport? Well, in recent years sports psychologists have been turning their attention to the various mental strategies used by actors and developing ways in which those strategies can be used by those who play sport.