meditation


I’ve been watching more TV than usual this year. The recent crop of comic book shows got me, starting with Agents of SHIELD, then Daredevil, then Jessica Jones, and finally The Flash (trying to lighten things up). I loved comic books as a kid, collected Daredevil, Iron Man, The Hulk, Defenders, and some X-titles. I hear people complain about all the big budget superhero stuff, but I love it–so much fun to watch, and they generally do justice to the comic books.

But these TV shows are dark! After one particularly dark Jessica Jones (S1E9), I stopped watching everything to rethink. I realized that watching dark TV shows is the opposite of meditating. With meditation I observe my internal reality, as objectively as possible, in a way that decreases anxiety. When I watch dark TV I’m taking in someone else’s fantasy in a way that increases anxiety. It’s fun, but sometimes so creepy or scary or gross that I’m conflicted about watching the next episode, and when I do I’m sincerely hoping it’s not as f***ed up as the last one.

I’d been wanting to meditate more anyways, but hadn’t been finding time, so I decided to start buying solo TV time with meditation time, 1 for 1. (My wife is not into dark or comic books.) I counted up and I’d watched 27 hours (!) of TV since the first of the year, and meditated 8. So, 19 hours of meditating before any more TV. That was on February 20th.

It’s working out great so far. I’m carving out way more time to meditate, both in small chunks between clients or case notes, and in larger chunks in the mornings and evenings. And I’ve had no problem abstaining from solo TV watching, possibly because of having less time to carve out for it. I have not watched a single minute of solo TV since February 16, even as episodes of Agents of SHIELD began to pile up in iTunes.

I sat down to finish this post today, May 7, recounted, and found I’m up to 27 hours and 34 minutes of meditation so far in 2016. Ten more minutes and I can watch an episode of SHIELD…

One last point, for meditators only: I’d almost always meditated with a timer: set it for 30 or 45 minutes or whatever and sit until it went off. This seemed important because I didn’t want my stopping point determined by my inner state. I didn’t want to stop because I got too uncomfortable, for example, or to stay at it until I’d achieved a certain level of comfort. I was a bit nervous the shift to using a stopwatch would be bad for my meditation. So far, though, it hasn’t been a problem at all. I can meditate and stop meditating without mind games, and just feel glad I took the time.

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In 2011, Roger Walsh published a review of the research into ways we can improve our mental health and resiliency by changing how we live. He found eight that had both solid research behind them and strong effects. As therapeutic interventions go, these lifestyle changes tend to be enjoyable, inexpensive, and carry only positive side effects such as increased physical health, self-efficacy, and longevity. Despite that, mental health professionals do not emphasize lifestyle changes. This could be due to a spin on the instrument fallacy: Clients bring in a nail and all therapists can think of to use is their hammer. Walsh suggests this failing is because therapists have unhealthy lifestyles themselves.

  1. Exercise: 30 minutes or more of exercise has therapeutic and preventative emotional and cognitive effects.
  2. Nutrition & Diet: Fish, vegetables and fruit in the diet have both enhancing and protective psychological effects.
  3. Time in Nature offers cognitive and emotional benefits and stress relief.
  4. Good relationships: Being connected in rich relationships comes with cognitive benefits, happiness, and resiliency. In fact, the quality of a therapeutic relationship may account for a large part of the benefit of therapy.
  5. Recreation & Enjoyable Activities (AKA fun): Helps with stress, mood, and well-being.
  6. Relaxation & Stress Management: Mindfulness practices and muscle relaxation techniques can have strong and lasting positive effects on mood management.
  7. Religious & Spiritual Involvement is associated with good mental health, maybe especially with faiths centered on love and forgiveness.
  8. Contribution & Service: Giving time and energy to others boosts happiness, as long as it isn’t out of a sense of obligation.

I’ve just begun reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. I bought the book while I was in grad school, knowing it would be years before I could get to it, but so excited by the title! Consciousness and how it relates to the body and emotions is one of my favorite topics of inquiry. Plus, Damasio is a scientist with a (rare) good reputation as a writer.

In the introduction he describes six facts that a good theory of consciousness will have to take into account. Here are my paraphrases:

1) There will be an “anatomy of consciousness”: Elements of consciousness appear to be associated with activity in certain parts of the brain.

This may be scary to those who believe that consciousness is magical, or that its magic would be somehow diminished if it relied on the brain’s circuitry. I too used to be uneasy about that idea. After diving into brain studies a bit, though, I feel both excited and humbled by it. It’s just neat that our brains apparently produce all the subtleties of our experience. Also, it’s a good reminder that our experiences of feeling, thinking, knowing, and of awareness itself is created by our brains, and is not a direct line on reality.

2) Consciousness is more than wakefulness or attentiveness. Humans can be awake and attentive without being conscious.

Damasio describes patients who are clearly awake and attentive, but not conscious, and promises to devote two chapters to the significance of this phenomenon.

3) You cannot have consciousness without emotion.

I am excited about this point because I’ve thought it both crucial and little recognized since reading The Mind’s I many years ago. It had an essay which convinced me that real artificial intelligence would not be possible without emotion. Without emotion all you have is processing power. And in human intelligence at least, emotion brings in the body. Emotions are not just mental phenomenon. I can’t wait to see how Damasio deals with this.

4) There is a distinction between “core consciousness,” producing a sense of moment-to-moment “core self,” and “extended consciousness,” producing a story-making “autobiographical self.”

This distinction could bring clarity to the debates about consciousness in infants and non-human animals. Core consciousness may be the kind that everyone has, and extended consciousness the kind that we develop as our experience becomes more and more intertwined with language and concepts.

Core consciousness sounds to me like the experience that meditators work to remain in. We live most of our lives in the useful but problematic realm of extended consciousness, judging experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, safe or unsafe, and other ways they relate to the story we have of ourselves. Once we are living this way it is difficult to escape. Meditators find that maintaining awareness of core consciousness can be a welcome rest from all that. This practice may help the autobiographical self have an easier time as well.

5) Consciousness cannot be wholly described by other mental activities. Things like language and memory are necessary but not sufficient for full consciousness.

You can’t leave consciousness out of the discussion. It is more than its parts. I like this because I think a lot of scientists are squeamish of even using the word “consciousness.” It makes you sound like a hippy. Prepare to hear a lot of scientists trying to talk about consciousness without sounding like a hippy.

6) Consciousness also cannot be described wholly by describing how the brain creates our experiences out of sensory and mental data.

I read some famous scientist saying that if he were to be at the beginning of his career, he would be looking into creation of qualia, the “particles” of experience, that this was the next holy grail of psychology. That’s a good one, for sure, but I think an explanation of consciousness is a better holy grail than an explanation of qualia.

Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

I turned 39 at 8:50 this morning. I’m on the cusp of middle age! As usual, I used my flights to and from Not Back to School Camp to brainstorm about my 40th year. Camp is a great end-of-year celebration and source of inspiration. I’m going to do a lot this year–finish my Master’s degree and see clients for at least 400 hours, for example–but I’ve decided not to put that stuff on my list. I want to concentrate on how I do it. I just watched the outgoing cohort finish up my program and they seemed really stressed out. I want to do it without overwhelming myself, in good health. I want to enjoy it. So I came up with one intention that sums it all up:

This year, I intend to take exquisitely good care of myself.

To me, that means that I think about myself like I do my best friends, with affection and optimism, with care. I am not a slave to being productive.

When I touch myself, I do so gently, with attention, not mechanically or absent-mindedly. Like I would someone I love.

I don’t eat crap.

I meditate 30 minutes every day.

I exercise 45 minutes every day.

I do my physiotherapy daily and get health care whenever I need it.

I get good attention, from friends, co-counselors, or a therapist, when I need it.

I take a day off every week.

I say yes to social invitations.

I sleep a bare minimum of 8 hours a night. That means giving myself an hour to chill out with nothing electric and no reading before bed, and an hour to lie in bed before I need to be asleep, so I don’t get worried about falling asleep quickly enough.

I keep my living space looking nice.

I have some ritual (yet to be designed) which helps me stop thinking about my clients when I leave the clinic.

I’ve also put a lot of thought into how I will prioritize my commitments. They will probably often conflict with each other and I’d like to be able to make choices about what to do and what to leave out with minimal stress. That part will be a work in progress for a while

This video makes me want to get an EEG machine. It’s of Ken Wilber narrating footage of himself moving through a few different meditative states while hooked up to an EEG machine. (EEG machines show you a picture of the electrical activity from your brain from electrodes on your scalp.) He says what each state feels like, too. Pretty neat.

(Minor correction: He makes it sound like dreaming sleep is mostly associated with theta waves, which is not quite true. Dreaming sleep does have some theta activity, but it’s mostly beta or “beta-like” waves. Theta is strongly associated with stage 1 sleep, that 5 or 10 minute transition between waking and sleep. It’s a minor point, but I so rarely find corrections to make in his work, I thought I’d take this chance.)

On Friday I had my first Wellness & Spirituality Throughout the Life Cycle class in my couples and family therapy program. We had an open discussion of the meaning of spirituality that got pretty tense. I admit that I was pretty confused about what was making things tense–I was not in the clearest of minds, as I’d just taken comps the day before. It did get me thinking about Ken Wilber’s essay in Integral Spirituality about the four meanings of the word spirituality. In it, he says that there are at least four very common ways that people mean that word, and that if the specific meaning is not made clear it can lead to confusing and confused arguments. Here’s my paraphrase of his four common meanings:

1) Any human intelligence, skill, or ability taken to the highest level. Think Einstein’s intellect, Carl Rogers’ empathizing. In Kosmic Consciousness, Wilber mentions Michael Jordan playing basketball as an example of this meaning of spiritual.

2) Spirituality as its own kind of human intelligence, as in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Wilber cites Fowler’s stages  as just one example: Humans have a capacity for faith that can progress throughout their lives, from an “undifferentiated faith” at infancy through stages like “mythic-literal faith” and eventually, possibly, to “universalizing faith” as his furthest potential.

3) Spirituality as a state of consciousness, as in meditative states or other meaningful altered states. Also peak experiences.

4) Spirituality as a facet of personality or personality type. People who are very compassionate or loving, for example, might be described as spiritual.

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