Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

The-Present-Heart-Rodale-book-Art-682x1024Polly Young-Eisendrath has a new book out, her fourteenth. This is a book like no other that I’ve ever read. It is a memoir and it recounts events that I lived through as dharma friends of Polly and the love of her life, Ed Epstein.

The Present Heart is a statement on the nature of love. It defines love, perhaps in a way that you’ve never seen before–or even considered. Along with this definition it provides a story of how she came to this understanding of love. This story is compelling, heart wrenching, and transparent.

It took courage for Polly to live through the events she recounts and perhaps even more courage to tell this story to the reading public. Because I know Polly and Ed, it is hard for me to view these revelations objectively. I’ve heard most of the stories, yet to read about them is, at times, shocking, soothing, and inspiring.

Ed developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He started to show signs of demise while in his fifties and his decline was rapid and tragic. Polly reveals the challenges of taking care of Ed, managing this disastrous situation, and taking care of herself all the while remaining open and committed to love.

Given her experience of losing Ed as her mutual loving partner (his cognitive deficits prohibit mutuality but still allow affection), she has an experiential perspective on what is true love. She also talks with experts on love, loss, and relationship and includes their perspectives. As well, as a long term practitioner of Buddhist traditions she weaves in these perspectives, including the role for mindfulness.

While love may include passion, cherishment, and devotion, true love is not reached by these. True love requires mutual knowledge and interest of the other. Like mindfulness, the interest and knowledge accrue from a non-judgmental attention to the present moment or as her title suggests, the present heart. Love must be particular. Being in love is not a recipe for unremitting harmony. True love requires vulnerability (again mutual) and being vulnerable makes us, well, vulnerable to hurt, disappointment, and misunderstanding.

The Present Heart is a confession as well as a manifesto on love. Polly’s behavior chafed against the expectations of some people close in her circle of friends. Again, it took courage for her to make the choices she mades and she provides her rationale for these in the book. These reasons are not offered as apologia but rather contextualized in the circumstances of her life. She chooses to be self-preserving yet fully devoted to Ed. This takes guts.

As a witness to these events, reading the Present Heart makes me more appreciative of Polly’s compassion. It also breaks my heart again to read the details of Ed’s demise. As Polly explains in loving detail, Ed was an exceptionally warm human being. A big bear of a man who loved to hug, Ed embraces Buddhanature and did so more and more as he lost his cognitive capacities and along with them the capacity to experience anxiety and self-doubt. Dementia released Ed in this way as it imprisoned him in many others.

I recommend The Present Heart to anyone interested in exploring the true nature of love, who is challenged in a care-taking situation, or wants to read an memoir about two exceptional human beings. Polly’s view of love challenges the cultural myth of idealized love. The violins, fireworks, and sense of union must give way to a real conversation, based in vulnerability, where each person is committed to knowing the other in their particularity. This commitment cannot take place without a concurrent commitment to knowing oneself and using the relationship as the fulcrum to that self-knowledge. Mindfulness practice can facilitate this intimacy but does not guarantee it. The Present Heart is raw, bold, and compelling like jumping in a cold body of water. It braces and wakes you up to the present moment.

Mindfulness and Climate Action

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

Boddhisattvas-flickr-Anna-TOne Earth Sangha presents Mindfulness and Climate Action, a series of online conversations. These are free and start today and will continue through October into November.

I am especially excited that Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield will be presenting today. I hope you can catch it.

You can register here >>

This series is especially timely as I am now teaching a mindfulness course for the new Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA program (SEMBA) at the University of Vermont. We are just about to look at what mindfulness as to offer the issue of climate change, empathy towards the planet, and other related topics.

A Chilling View Inside the Quiet Room: Electric Shocks Preferred to Sitting Still

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

NA003978A study recently published in Science provides a window into the restless soul of Americans and a compelling case of why we need mindfulness.

University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues conducted a series of experiments where subjects spent time alone in an unadorned room. We are not talking about a lot of time here: 6-15 minutes. Participants preferred to listen to music or interact with their smart phones rather than sit alone with their thoughts. Some even preferred to self-administer noxious electric shocks rather than just sit with themselves in silence.

In one part of the study, they were stripped of their smart phones, books, and writing implements. They were instructed to “entertain” themselves thinking but were not encouraged to meditate. They just had to stay in their seat and not fall asleep. Sounds easy, right?

The study confirms what anyone who has ever attempted to meditate knows–the mind wanders. 89% of the participants had mind wandering even though nothing was competing for their attention. More than half the participants reported that it was hard to concentrate and about half did not find the experience enjoyable.

One test of the study had the students try the experiment at home but nearly a third cheated by engaging with external stimulation. These home particiaptns enjoyed the experience even less, so the lab was not to blame for the lack of enjoyment.

Another experiment compared sitting quietly with engaging with listening to music, reading, or doing non-social activities on a phone. The externally focused people enjoyed it more, found it easier to concentrate, and their minds wandered less.

These findings were not limited to college students and were replicated in a community sample ranging up to age 77.

These findings seem to prove the point of  seventeenth century philosopher Pascal who said,“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

It seems apparent that sitting alone with one’s thoughts is unpleasant because people do not know what to do with their minds. They don’t know how to operate the equipment.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study’s 15-minute “thinking” period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Wilson and his team note that men tend to seek “sensations” more than women, which may explain why 67 percent of men self-administered shocks to the 25 percent of women who did.

We don’t know how to operate our most sophisticated piece of equipment. 86 billion neurons that cannot direct themselves to the simple fact of being alive for fifteen minutes or less.

Mindfulness is the cure for this stark restlessness. Whenever you are stuck in a situation that does not provide any gagdetized external stimulation, you have the experience of being alive to attend to. Of course there is always external stimulation. Just look with your eyes, listen with your ears, and feel with your body.

The authors conclude:

Research has shown that minds are difficult to control, however, and it may be particularly hard to steer our thoughts in pleasant directions and keep them there. This may be why many people seek to gain better control of their thoughts with meditation and other techniques, with clear benefits. Without such training, people prefer doing to thinking, even if what they are doing is so unpleasant that they would normally pay to avoid it. The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself.

Tutor your mind by practicing meditation!

Drive by Shooting: Mindfulness on NPR

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak
istockphoto

istockphoto

It’s not surprising when a feature on mindfulness appears in a major media outlet. Mindfulness is popular. This time it is a sub-four minute interview on NPR. Tamara Keith spoke with Sharon Salzberg, one of the co-founders of the Insight Meditation Society and recent author of Real Happiness at Work (a book I read, enjoyed and found useful). You can listen to the interview here.

While I applaud the exposure, I felt that the interview commodified mindfulness. Mindfulness is for stress relief. They felt a need to add beach sounds to the beginning of some meditation instructions. Really? Can’t we just sit with a little silence? Do we have to resort to cliche? Even the image used to adorn the story, reproduced here, perpetuates myths about mindfulness. Why can’t this gentlemen be working and mindful?

In her unassuming way, Salzberg said some profound things, bit of wisdom that could change your life in radical fashion. She describes mindfulness as getting beyond our biases for experience. That is, jettisoning rules, pre-conceived ideas, and so forth. This is nothing short of freedom. The usual way of perceiving, by implication, is bondage.

We are very attached to our rules. We each carry around a rule book, filled with implicit and explicit rules. It’s a code of conduct for ourselves and others. It contains a litany of hopes, and is dedicated to comfort, convenience, and consistency. Freedom lives beyond these rules.

The Xinxinming is an ancient Chinese poem written by Sengcan. The first few lines in this translation from Richard B. Clarke (presented in Mu Soeng’s, Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen) boldly asserts:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

Sharon Salzberg alludes to the same sentiment. When you stop pushing and pulling against your experience, you can open to what is with clarity and peace. Heaven and earth are together. Persist in holding to opinions and buttressing your sense of self worth with these opinions than you are afflicted with what Sengcan calls “the disease of the mind.”

We don’t become tasteless, colorless, and inert when we give up these preferences. Instead, we become unencumbered. With all the space created by ending the ceaseless parade of likes and dislikes we can breathe, rest, and get perspective on life.

 

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