Meditation

Mindfulness meditation matches antidepressants for anxiety disorders:

The research recruited more than 200 participants with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder. Half were randomized to an eight-week course of the antidepressant escitalopram, while the other half completed an eight-week MBSR program.
The MBSR program comprised weekly guided mediation classes, daily 45-minute home exercises, and one day-long class halfway through the course. At the end of the eight-week trial each participant’s anxiety levels were assessed by a trained clinician who was unaware which intervention the patient had received.
Overall, both groups showed a decrease in anxiety measures of around 30% by the end of the eight-week intervention.

All Beings

may all beings be happy
may all beings be healthy + safe
may all beings have enough
may all beings be at peace

I remixed those four lines from different loving-kindness meditations and arrived at this script by saying combinations of the words over and over until they felt right. These four lines feel right to me.

What I find remarkable is how each line influences all other lines. When we have enough, we are at peace, we are happy and we feel safe, etc.

I started doing this a week ago and I think it is changing me.

I start with people I love… that’s easy. Then I use names of people who feel neutral. That’s harder. Then I use the names of people I really don’t like, even despise, and that becomes really difficult. But this meditation gets stuff done, I promise you. The walls soften just a little bit. The light changes. The point of view becomes a little more flexible.

None of this is news. People have done this kind of meditation for eons. Maybe you can make your own remix and share it in the comments?

Going Nowhere

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:

One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

and this quote, which I think nails it:

“Going nowhere, as Leonard would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

Found here.

Yes, yes, so many yeses.

Psychedelics + Meditation

There is a lot of exciting research into psychedelics happening right now. Depression, end of life care, PTSD are just a few areas where psychedelics may have a big positive impact.

Podcast link – Dan Harris with Michael Pollan: Psychedelics + Meditation

YouTube link – Roshi Joan Halifax, Michael Pollan, Dacher Keltner: The Power of Awe

Both the podcast and the video are excellent. Check them out.

In the summer of 1978 I lived near the beach on Phuket in Thailand. In those days the island had not been developed yet and there was only one hotel. I never looked at the hotel because I found something I liked better. For $1.50/night I stayed in a hut by the beach for several weeks. Several people I met told me to order a mushroom omelet at the little cafe on the beach. They smiled when they suggested this. One morning I decided to order this mystery omelet. The rest of that day I spent on a rock in the surf and in my hut, meditating. It didn’t occur to me that I had taken a drug because to me, after three years of daily meditation, it didn’t feel different.

Recently, neuroscience has confirmed a connection between meditation and psychedelics in that MRI brain scans taken of people meditating and of people taking psychedelics look very, very similar.

In fact I felt that the trip was simply an extension of my meditation practice. What I mean by that is that the experience was somewhat like riding an e-bike. I am still riding the bike and I am still pedaling, but the e-motor helps me get up to speed quicker and makes the climb a little easier. And it is true that many, many people turned to meditation after such a psychedelic experience. In fact, American Buddhism might not have happened without people who, after psychedelic experiences in the 60s and 70s, traveled to Asia to learn meditation and brought back what became Western Buddhism. Or take Dr. Alpert as an example, who became Baba Ram Dass. In any case, that day I laughed so much that my whole mouth was tired the next morning. Smiling so much can wear you out… :-)

Here is a selfie I took in my little hut on Phuket.

Here is a quote by Michael Pollan – from the above-linked video.

I mean the two biggest problems we face as a civilization I would say are the environmental crisis and tribalism. Both come from the objectifying of the other and therefore the willingness to exploit the other whether the other is people of a different faith, people of a different race, or nature, and so a solvent for this kind of thinking is exactly what the culture needs right now.

Three Steps Forward

My grandfather also called it the crab-walk: three steps forward, two steps back.

In Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha the ferryman says the river has taught him everything he knows. This is true for many things we study intensely and I could say the same about the guitar – it taught me everything. When I began to meditate, it didn’t feel very different from playing guitar. When I went on my first Sesshin I was asked how I was holding up to the many hours of meditation. My answer was, I am a musician and I am used to this.

It’s not a straight line up the mountain. As anyone knows who has driven in the mountains, whether in Austria or France or Colorado, the road rises and and then plateaus. It may even go down for a while before it rises again.

I think the mountain road mirrors how the aquisition and development of a skill works excatly.

If you watch Jon closely you will notice that the fingers on his right hand do much more than strike the string to produce a sound. Playing the correct note at the right time is important but it is only one step in becoming a truly great bass player. The great bass player will use a finger to produce the correct note, then this finger, or another one, gets ready to strike the next note. But if that next note is part of a different key the excellent bassist will use a finger to dampen the previous note so that it doesn’t deter from the new key.

I think this is a great example of how an ability plateaus. At first we are happy to simply play the right note at the right time. Eventually we realize that we can improve and that a note needs to not only be played in time but also should be stopped in time.

Learning

Sometime in 1989 the Native American artist Frank Howell, who commissioned the album that later became Nouveau Flamenco, said this to me:

When you stop to learn you begin to die.

It was very good advice and I thought about it quite often in the past thirty years. I would add that to learn could be replaced with to change or to adapt and the value of the advice would be undiminished.

Last year I joined Coursera, which is an online education platform featuring courses from many great universities, and other institutions, worldwide. The first course I took was about Modern Art, a course created by MoMA. It was enjoyable and I learned a lot. This year I took another course, presented by Princeton University, called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. The instructor was Robert Wright, somebody I was not familiar with. The course description does not do the content justice. I am interested in neuroscience, because I find it interesting how the view of the meditator, which is the view from the inside, is analyzed by the scientist, which is the view from the outside. The course covers more than the basic science that involves brain scans, it introduced me to Evolutionary Psychology (link to Wikipedia… not sure how useful that is), which turned out to be quite the exciting rabbit hole to dive into. I learned that Robert Wright wrote a book entitled The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Every Day Life, published in 1994, which was one of three books the Wachowski siblings gave Keanu Reeves to read to prepare for his role as Neo in the movie The Matrix. By now I am thoroughly fascinated. How did an author of a book on Evolutionary Psychology (Science, view from the outside) come to lecture about meditation and Buddhism (Meditation, view from the inside)?

I bought Robert Wright’s newest book, Why Buddhism is True – The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment and read it slowly over the last two months, savoring some of the pages and letting passages rest in my mind, like dough that needs to rest before baking… For me this book ranks up there with Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, which I read in the Nineties and which connected a lot of dots for me.

Meditation is a revolutionary act, indeed the most revolutionary act we are capable of, because it is, perhaps, the only method we have to reject our programming. When the house is on fire (Climate Change) you don’t argue whether the house was created by a God or by evolution, you try to extinguish the fire. Similarly I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether our DNA was created by a God or by Natural Selection, the fact is that this programming is killing us as a species. Like Neo in the Matrix we are captives who do what our programming tells us to do and our programming does not want us to be happy and peaceful…

Buy the book… I have seen the paperback for as little as six dollars and change, and I myself have (so far) bought six copies that I have given to friends. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.