Tag Archives: mind

Carry your mindfulness with you: digital aids to practice

Photo: a relaxed hand rests on a knee during meditation
Meditation does not always have take place cross-legged in a quiet place.

I am a guy who has woven technology and mindfulness practices together in my life for the past decade. The Web and podcasts have opened the door to scores of dharma talks and guided meditations from some of the greatest teachers in the world: Tara Brach happens to be my favorite. I’ve been intrigued by the prospects of shrinking mindfulness to my smartphone and have added a few apps, but have never been completely satisfied. Carolyn Gregoire has pulled together a nice collections of phone apps and web services to augment your personal practice or take it in a new direction, and some of them look ready to take apps beyond promise and novelty.

These Digital Meditation Tools Can Be Your Gateway To A Calmer, More Effective Life.
Meditation, an ancient practice of calming the mind, would seem to be incompatible with modern technology, with its emphasis on speed and connectivity. But as more and more Americans have embraced meditation as an antidote to hyper-connected lives, the world of technology has joined the movement. The result is a growing field of meditation tools — from apps and podcasts to timers and online classes — and a growing acknowledgment that, paradoxically, technology can help us to turn inward, still our minds, and shut out the many distractions around us.

Most of these services are free or carry a modest charge. It will be interesting to see how these services develop and change because we just at the start-up phase of adapting an ancient discipline to modern means.

Gregoire adds a story about social trends leading towards interest in mindfulness: Why 2014 Will Be The Year Of Mindful Living.

From vulnerability to authenticity through wholehearted living

I’ve run into a person who has changed my outlook on life, but I’ve never met her personally. Her book has deeply influenced how I view life.

Brené Brown is a psychologist/researcher who wrote the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden: 2010) and also has an sprawling website and her blog Ordinary Courage. She first came to my attention when I saw her TEDxHouston talk, which was recently picked by Huffington Post as one of the top 18 TED videos of 2011:

Her 20 minute talk hit some deep personal scars and led me to her site and then the book. While reading the book, I was undergoing all the problems with my peripheral neuropathy, and there was an amazing interplay between my myofascial release therapy and the central concepts of Brown’s book. On the masseuse’s table, I had to strip down to my boxers and bare myself to the therapist, communicate my pain and numbness, convey how one type of stroke was making me feel, and trust that he would be able address some of the constrictions of my tissues. I had to expose my physical vulnerability to be able to start healing.

Shame and numbness

On another level, I discovered from my reading of Brown’s book that I felt deep currents of shame and, indeed, shame may actually have been one of the strongest motivating forces in my life. Shame is a “fear of disconnection” that people might find out what I am really like. Shame is such a blunt instrument that I couldn’t use it all the time, but once it’s out, it’s hard to lock it away. One way of dealing with this sense of shame is to block it out by numbing it. Brown says you cannot numb just one emotion (in my case, shame), you end up blocking the whole emotional spectrum.

Although doctors might argue otherwise, my numbness was both emotional and physical, and the deaths of my parents and the disruption that those events brought to my life this year had worsened my peripheral neuropathy to the point that it was threatening my well-being. I was grasping so hard to to my personal facade that I was choking off parts of my body and soul. Taking pain medication was just another way of blocking out parts of my body, when I needed to get back in touch with them.

Brown’s book, which has the subtitle of “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” does a great job of breaking down her approach to dealing with life and accepting the vulnerability of being imperfect, and then lays out 10 guideposts that can help anyone follow her map.

Brown has a manifesto that I keep posted near my desk and stashed in my shoulder bag, and it’s available as a colorful postcard. I am going to cite it in full because it conveys her message better than I can:

Authenticity is a daily practice.

Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving — even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the job is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searchng struggles is how we invite grace, joy and gratitude into our lives.

From troubled couples to problem kids, mindful awareness to the rescue

Washington Post It Isn’t About the Trash Can explores some of the growing uses of mindfulness by psychologists:

In mental health terms, mindfulness is the awareness that emerges from focusing on the present and the ability to perceive — but not judge — your own emotions with detachment; it enables you to choose helpful responses to difficult situations rather than reacting out of habit. While Western thought separates religion and science, Buddhists see mindfulness as both a spiritual and psychological force.

Also check out the test for innate mindfulness. None of this stuff is earth-shattering news for anyone who has been practicing. It’s the mainstreaming of non-Western knowledge.

Need a reason to exercise? Read this book

Cover of the book SparkIf you ever need an intellectual motivation to get you off your butt and into an active program of exercise, read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey (Little Brown and Company, New York, 2008). I found it an informative read, which gave compelling arguments why you should engage in systematic physical exercise. He mined thousands of scientific research papers to underpin his work in objective findings. He synthesizes the information into 303 pages, but wrapped it in an engaging narrative around it so that you don’t fall asleep due to dry scientific writing. He also drew on his own case studies with patients and a few amazing experiments in applying physical exercise to learning environments.
Ratey’s subheading to the title is “Supercharge your mental circuits to beat stress, shapen your thinking, list your mood, boost your memory, and much more.” Sounds as if he’s peddling some kind of miracle drug, but it’s just plain, ol’ sweat, muscles and grunts.

“The prescription … varies from varies from person to person, but the research consistently shows that the more fit you are, the more resilient your brain becomes and the better it functions both cognitively and psychologically.” (p. 247)

To cut to the chase, his formula calls for 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise, usually running or equivalent intensity exercise, six times a week. On two days, he recommends five short sprints (30 seconds max) injected into a normal session (the max intervals seem to trigger the body’s optimization). Strength-training helps maintain or build muscle and bone mass, which can be affected by the aging process. Ratey also suggests that yoga, tai chi, martial arts or other similar activities be added to improve balance and flexibility, as well as body awareness and concentration. Obviously, it takes time, discipline and effort to work up to the condition of being able to sustain aerobic exercise for such long periods, but you will be rewarded.

Exercise has an impact on the brain’s neuroplasticity, creating new neurons as the building blocks. Ratey covered stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, addiction, hormonal change (menopause in women) and aging in separate chapters. Far and away the best thing you can do for your brain power, mental health and physical well-being is an active daily exercise regime.

Ratey gets down to the complex, inter-related chemical processes and components that create and balance the neurotransmitters that fire up the brain within the human body. Ratey’s conclusions are not new. There has been a steady drumbeat of stories in newspapers, magazines and on the web about how physical exercise can radically improve mental performance, ward off illnesses and aging and overcome mental disorders, like depression. He emphasized that it’s necessary to engage in physical exercise every day, both to make it a consistent habit and to make the body respond appropriately.

Ratey is a researcher and neuro-psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who earned a reputation working on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More information is available on his website and his blog, which links to news stories and features about his new book.

Falling to pieces

While I was away in Colombia, my travel reading was Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness (Broadway Books, 1999) by Mark Epstein. I had read his book Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective and was impressed with his approach to giving insight into life’s threads, knots and tangles. He is a New York City-based therapist and is one of the teachers at the New York Insight Meditation Center.

I managed to get through the whole book (181 pages) by the end of my meeting thanks to Epstein’s effortless writing style and the compelling content. He illustrates his central theme drawing on his own personal path of discovery and on his patients’ case histories. A saving grace of the book is that Epstein does not bite off too much by trying to be an authoritative text on Buddhism, meditation, patient-centered therapy or any other big concept. He is not selling a particular theory or political line. Instead, he argues that we need to relax into the flow of life, rather than lock into an attempt to control our experience or accumulate pieces of self-improvement until we have attained perfection.

Since I finished reading the book about four weeks ago, I’m trying to reconstruct what I found most rewarding in the book — without re-reading the book again. I am going to do some scratch writing off-line before posting it here.

The pop version of "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain"

I finished reading Sharon Begley’s book, but I could have put off buying the book all together because Washington Post put out a story GET SMART(ER): You’re No Genius? Don’t Worry. You Can Still Beef Up Your Brain With a Little Effort. It is a breezing feature article that skims off the cream of neuroscience, types of intelligence, nutrition, health science, meditation and curiosity (and lots of name-dropping of scholars and researchers at big name universities) to let you know that you can improve your mental powers:

The idea that there are multiple intelligences — that people can be intelligent visually, musically, mathematically, athletically, interpersonally and intrapersonally — was introduced by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. (He later added naturalistic intelligence.) Still, whatever the type of intelligence, most people judge brainpower on practical factors, including how much you know, how well you can access what you know and what you do with it.

The mindful way

Perhaps just as important as the Begley book is the recent publication of The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (The Guilford Press, 2007) by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It gives a detailed process of how to implement a meditation practice — and find happiness at the same time. Or in more Buddhist terms, relieve human suffering. The book comes with an audio CD with guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a much more practical book, compared to Begley’s: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges thorugh paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Although it may not seem like it, but that is a mouthful of mindfulness. You don’t need a psychological study — you just have to sit and focus.


My interest in the Begley book is really part of an ongoing inquiry into the area of mind games &emdash; or rather the challenge of pushing mental ability to its human potential (self-realization), or healing from debilitating condition (depression, for instance), or warding off the effects of aging (I am 58 years old).

The Dana Foundation, a first-rate place for scientific information on the brain, recently posted Experts, Dalai Lama Discuss Meditation for Depression about a conference at Emory University in Atlanta last week. This conference was a continuation of the dialogue between the Dalai Lama and scientists that Begley wrote about. There was a similar conference, Center for Healthy Minds, organized with Georgetown University here in Washington in 2007.

What has struck me is that I’ve been moving in this direction for more four years, well before I started reading about these trends in neuroscience, mental health and wellness. I was on the right track. Probably, this meme had not gelled so cogently into an explicit message or I was picking up strands of the news and associated them in my mind. After all, this kind of research has been going on for more than 20 years. But is even more mind boggling is that I can sit on my mat and experience this same practice in a very personal way.

Follow-up on the Begley Mind-Brain book

I finished reading the Sharon Begley book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine Books, 2007). Actually, I finished it more than 10 days ago, but have not had a chance to write about it. Now, it’s hard to remember what I wanted to do. I probably should have been writing as I was reading. Actually, I was traveling during some of that time so I could not post to my blog. Lots of excuses, lots of things keeping me busy, lots of yoga and meditation that take first priority.

In brief, the book firmed up my own sense of hope about where we are headed in the brain sciences. The leap of knowledge and understanding over the past two decades has been huge. And we are only beginning to reformulate theories of the mind and its workings. Freud as the great navigator of the ego and id has been left behind. Even the chemistry of Prozac and Valium seem to be the psychological equivalent of alchemy.

The narrative ran out of gas in the last three chapters. Begley depended on psychological studies and interviews of researchers for the meat of her content. That formula can be dry reading once it is repeated over 250 pages. Even the literary ruse of making the Dalai Lama the focal point of the narrative can squeeze out only so much drama. Begley probably could have spared us some of the dry details and gone straight to the conclusions of each study.

Other takes

I was struck by the large number of podcasts that are available on the book. Blog Critics (March). National Public Radio (NPR) has two programs: Diane Rehm Program via Odeo and Talk of the Nation. Dr. Ginger Campbell Brain Science Podcast, Psychjourney Podcasts and Healing the Mind. I have not had a chance to listen to all of them.

Psychotherapy Networker The Wonders of Neuroplasticity, Discover: Rewiring the Brain, and Dana Foundation.

For additional background, here’s Sharon Begley’s personal website and the Richard Davidson’s personal page at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

A message of hope

What am I reading now? Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley (Ballantine Books, 2007). Although this title might sound like one of those self-improvement guides that offers to trim the thighs or make you a cool million in a weekend, it is actually a really deep piece of scientific writing. Begley, whom I used to know decades ago when she worked for Newsweek, is the science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She has tapped into a fascinating story of pioneering research by neuroscientists and psychologists about what we understand as the human brain. But she also joins this narrative with the strange marriage with Buddhism as personified by the Dalai Lama. The nerds meet the holy man.

The sanctuary of this union is a place called the Mind and Life Institute, which actually holds the copyright on the book — so Begley is part of a larger enterprise. It’s also curious why the scientists who need to draw the Dalai Lama into the discussion. But I haven’t really gotten that far in the book.

This whole groundswell of enthusiasm for Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation is sweeping into the business of tending to the mind. If Freud once laid down the law for understanding the contradictions of the human mind, now it’s a spiritual practice without a supreme being. I’ve mentioned before that I like the idea that Buddha developed a sophisticated set of psychological protocols for relieving with human suffering.

What got me started into the book is that the transformation of human spirit can be manifested by remolding mental habits, but also actually alterations of physical manifestations, like spawning neurons and a thriving hippocampus. As someone who has felt the undertow of depression and literally sensed the physical change that it brought on me, the idea that I can take action to heal myself is an uplifting lesson at this stage of my life.