From the monthly archives: "June 2020"

mindfulnessMindfulness has become a fashionable term over the last few years, for good reason: as an ancient practice cultivated to allow practitioners to come to know themselves, mindfulness has been shown scientifically to reduce mental and physical effects of stress. Stress can be both beneficial and detrimental, depending on how one perceives it, but since most people tend to experience stress negatively, it can lead to a number of physical conditions which ultimately break down the body. In fact, stress related disorders are estimated to be responsible for 75-90 percent of all doctor’s visits, causing such problems as headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, problems sleeping, and even sexual problems. Having a tool, then, to minimize stress and its effects on the mind and body is invaluable.

Mindfulness is the deliberate attention to Self – a moment by moment awareness of what is going on around and within oneself. It is attentively observing experience as it unfolds without evaluating or judging it and also accepting what is and what isn’t, in the moment, in present time. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the here and now in full attention. I like to call it conscious consciousness – one is consciously aware of one’s consciousness when in mindfulness. Easier said than done for the uninitiated, but reaching this state is definitely cultivatable.

To understand mindfulness one really needs to understand mindlessness. Mindlessness is not a derogatory term as it is used here – it does not mean stupid, ignorant, or thoughtless. What it refers to is the state of being on auto-pilot. The human brain has evolved for a certain amount of efficiency. Like other autonomic processes, we do not have to think about our moment to moment brain activity. To understand this, it is best to first make note of processes in our body that need no conscious awareness: breathing, digestion, nutrient assimilation, waste production and elimination, cellular respiration, and the list goes on and on. Like these processes, many brain functions require no active input on our part. In fact, our brain produces thousands of thoughts per day. It is difficult to know how many, but one really comes to understand the constancy of our thought stream when trying to quiet the mind in meditation. Thoughts are like molecules produced continuously in a cell – they happen whether we want them to or not.

complexityMore importantly, they happen without our taking notice. We do not have to think about our every action. We do not have to initiate every move, only the decision, and sometimes not even that. By freeing our mind of these routine actions, we are able to concentrate more on complex actions and behaviors, we are able to think about abstract ideas, and we are able to self-reflect (as far as we know, the only species that does this). Complex thinking has led to the creation of musical masterpieces, mathematical theories, and technological innovations. It has inspired timeless art, revolutionary science and allowed us to ask and ponder the great philosophical questions of life, those that give our lives meaning. Without an automation of our primary thought system, it is questionable whether we’d have ever accomplished anything more than our most basic survival. Automation of thought is the first and foremost system used by the brain on a regular basis. More than ninety percent of our day is made up of habitual actions. According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist, ninety-eight percent of our mental processes are of the automatic, effortless, and unconscious kind, even though we tend to believe we are making rational decisions throughout the day. Most people are thus walking through life effortlessly unaware, allowing their automatic thoughts to flow in and out of consciousness, and create a stream of time which ultimately frames their experiences. I like to call this unconscious consciousness – consciously awake, just not aware.

This influx of automatic thoughts is barely noticed, except from time to time when a thought so pleasurable or disturbing enters the awareness causing desire or fear, and even many of these come and go with little notice. For the average person, unrestrained thought flow can lead, or what some have called mind-chatter, can lead to anxiety, depression, mental overload, fatigue and even more severe mental illness. Unrestrained thought flow can thus become a source of stress. Add to that all the other things we must act on in any given day, and it is no surprise that the bulk of doctor’s visits are stress related.

focusWhile many people turn to drugs and alcohol in a futile attempt to quiet the mind-chatter, these mind-alterers actually make matters worse over time. Anything which pulls the mind into attention is the only way to diminish mind-chatter. That’s why sports and exercise have been popular since antiquity. By focusing on a physical activity, the mind is forced into what Kahneman calls system 2 thinking, or that which is done with our conscious mind – conscious consciousness – effortful, intentional, and controlled. Making art and music are also amazing mind-chatter reducers. So is doing math problems, or thinking about anything in detail, that is strategizing or following a systematic protocol. Anything which forces the mind to focus reduces mind chatter (one reason smart phones have become so addictive). However, even these activities, when done repeatedly can become automatic. Without a doubt, we strive to make many such activities so, as mastery makes what was once effortful a habituation. As a result, once we master an activity, it does have the potentiality to become an automatic process.

For all these reasons, practicing mindfulness regularly through meditation is an ideal activity. Working the mind into focused attention, about nothing in particular, is like lifting weights for the body. It is a mental exercise that enhances all other activities by the sheer strength of sharpening the awareness. This, over time, allows the mind to focus its attention during routine day-to-day activities, in other words, to attain and maintain conscious consciousness. The more we achieve states of mindfulness, the better we are minimizing stress: mind-chatter reduces, awareness improves, creativity is enhanced, and communication and personal connection deepen as a result of a meditation practice. Not only does this have positive ramifications for our mental health but for our physical health as well. Health challenges caused by stress – like pain, addictions, chronic infections, and sexual dysfunctions – can be reduced and even remedied by taking up a regular meditation practice. Something as simple as a daily commitment to intentional awareness has the power to improve health and create wellness.

Mindfulness is a state of mind not easily accessed without some intentional effort. Working earnestly at focusing one’s awareness trains one’s mind to enter a state of conscious consciousness more regularly and with less effort. Once it is ingrained into the habituation system, all activities are illuminated by increased awareness. While it, too, will become a more automated process, it will paradoxically lead to spontaneity as we become more conscious of every moment, bringing new meaning to our experiences. Ultimately, awareness assures our growth and development, which leads to richer experiences, in a cycle of expansion and change, keeping things novel and interesting. You can continue to walk through life on unconscious auto-pilot or put in the effort to become more aware, and thus more appreciative and attentive to the details which make your life rich.

atomThere are two primary ways to look at the world: the first is through the lens of materialism. Materialists believe that the universe is purely physical; a tangible reality that can be observed only through the physical senses or tools which are interpreted by the human intellect. A materialist would say that we can observe physical phenomena, measure them, create equations and models to represent these phenomena, and make predictions based on those equations and models. A materialist would argue that we can come to understand the entire universe, over time, by understanding the physical processes underlying it, in the same way we might understand the workings of a machine. If there is something we currently do not understand, it is simply because we do not yet understand the physics behind it. Many current theories fall under this category: The standard model of particle physics, dark energy, quantum gravity, and even consciousness itself.

Materialists are generally secularists in that they do not contemplate or even consider spiritual matters. To the materialist, the universe is made up of physical matter (particles and waves), which is the only substance we can actually measure, and thus it is the sole substance of reality. As such, physical substance is the only thing worth discussing or contemplating – all else is folly. Materialism could be summed up with the line, “Brownian motion, chance collisions and probability are what make up the nature of reality.”

Ancient GreeksMaterialism is the predominating world-view among governments, military, science, medicine, academics and media in the western world today. We see it in every aspect of life – relying on physical evidence by which to base decisions and protocol. It is neither right nor wrong: simply the way agencies set policy, conduct operations, set standards, and provide education. It has not always been this way; throughout history humans have oscillated between approaching the world from a materialist perspective (Ancient Greeks and Romans) to approaching it from a spiritualist one (Middle Ages Europe), and some have even attempted to balance the two (Enlightenment). Today, however, the major institutions of the western world are materialist in viewpoint.

Spiritualists, on the other hand, believe that a supernatural force exists which is beyond physical. While most spiritualists would agree that we are, on some level, experiencing a physical universe, there is something more, a metaphysical reality that goes beyond material substance. The substance in which a spiritualist believes may vary, as some may believe in a dual realm of material and spirit, while others believe there is a third, or primary, substance from which all other substances emerge.  Some even believe that the physical realm exists only in one’s mind; that the true nature of reality is in this primary substance. Some examples of spiritualist philosophies include Advaita Vedanta, Daoism, and monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

lightSpiritualists believe that we can transcend the body-mind of the physical world and tap into that something else which exists. This can achieved through meditation and other esoteric practices, rituals and trances, and mind-altering medicinals. Whichever method is used to achieve transcendence, the goal is always to attune to the greater reality. Spiritualists believe that means of gaining knowledge are not limited to physical, or scientific, observation, but also to reason (Enlightenment) and revelation (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In fact, many other methods are believed to be sources of knowledge, but most importantly, spiritualists do not place a boundary around the physical world and its phenomena.

Spiritualists do not have to subscribe to a particular religion, as some people are spiritual, yet maintain no religious practice. While the modern western world views the world primarily through materialism, most people walking the planet are spiritualists (84% according to the Pew Research Center).  The line which can sum up spiritualism is, “Personality – the subjective perception – is the solid foundation and unifying principle of our existence.”

Neither materialism nor spiritualism is right or wrong – in fact, it does not appear to be a provable matter. They are simply foundations by which one views the world. Many people never even think about their foundation of reality in detail. They simply accept their beliefs without question, sometimes not even knowing how they came upon those beliefs. But for people who have a solid understanding of their philosophical views with regard to the nature of reality, it is easier to understand the decisions they make in life. Other age-old philosophical questions, such as free will are easier to contemplate when one determines how one leans with regard to the substance of the universe. Is the world purely physical, with particles and waves simply bound by physical laws? Or is there something else, regardless of what one calls it, a metaphysical force, which underlies all reality, and which can be tapped into for knowledge, guidance, presence and hope? Think about these questions to learn more about yourself and add a deeper level of meaning to your reflections. Either way, to come to know yourself is the greatest endeavor regardless of how you view the nature of reality. But by solidifying your views, you will come to know yourself more profoundly: what makes you tick, why you make certain decisions, and even where you might be going. Most importantly, your views will underlie the meaning by which you will ultimately evaluate your life: an endeavor worth every bit of energy.

America BurningAs we emerge from the fires of last week’s riots here in the U.S., Europe finds itself in the throes of unrest. With three months of moderately-strict lockdown due to Covid-19, many had reached the limits of their self-containment. George Floyd’s death was the spark that ignited an inferno which would consume American cities all across the country. Like a wildfire it spread, making its way across the Atlantic to Northwestern Europe. And in the ashes of its destruction, good people have been devastated – emotionally, financially, and legally. Some have lost their lives, leaving behind grieving loved ones, and forcing every citizen to reflect on the full implications of their beliefs, their expectations, and their future.

Not one person has been left unaffected by the combined Covid-19 pandemic and weeks of civil unrest. Businesses remained closed, despite quarantine restrictions being lifted in the strictest U.S. states. And 36 million Americans have been left jobless as a result of Covid-19. Analysts have been uncertain as to how the country will recover following the coronavirus lock downs, but many believe that unless something is done to help homeowners and renters, defaults will be abundant as people scramble to put their lives back in order.

I have no uncertainty that we have stepped into a new world in 2020. What that world will shape into is anybody’s guess, but to think it will ever return to life as we’ve known it would be foolish. Of course, some elements will remain the same – technology will reign supreme, social media will be the place to gather news, information, and entertainment, and political polarization will lead to even greater divides between people. But what, if anything, might we look forward to: what ups-and-downs can we expect along the path of reconstruction? The most honest answer is it will depend on our focus.

TechObviously, different people want different things. Every person can have a version of the future they envision to some degree. I will explain this idea more fully in a bit. But right now exists opportunity to shape your world in the way you want it. Yes you can shape society too, but do not fall victim to the belief that you can do it against the will of others. To create lasting social change, the hearts and mind of the people must be won over. Let me encourage you to think of any lasting social change, and investigate how it was accomplished. Yes violence has happened in moments of societal change, but the violence itself was not the catalyst to the lasting change, it was the inspired movement of hearts and minds which led to the transformation. Gandhi won the hearts and minds of the people. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the hearts and minds of people. Even the American Revolutionaries won the hearts and minds of the people. Without aligning these energy centers to your vision, you will be unlikely to cause lasting change. One need only consider the long chain of military occupiers in Vietnam and the drawn out fighting there to understand what I mean about failing to win hearts and minds. If your vision is big, however, and it includes the most people, you will have a greater probability of creating lasting change. I cannot stress this factor enough: hearts and minds.

MLK Hearts and MindsWhen forging a path in this new world, it would be wise to focus on your highest values. Those things that act as drivers for your decisions – things you are inspired by daily – are what you should focus on and centralize in your vision. For some people it is family, for others it is service, and for even others it is the beauty of the world (artists, poets, musicians, mathematicians, etc.). There is certainly no right or wrong in this regard, other than the importance you give it to your mission. Simply put: A mission is a plan with a purpose. The purpose is the why you do what you do, while the mission is the vision.

A powerful vision is one that has a strong purpose behind it, allows the most people fulfillment of their values, and has a coherent, specific plan to make it happen. If one’s purpose is linked strongly to one’s values, one will be more likely to see it through. Many people inject other’s values into their endeavors, but they do not have the drive to ultimately carry things out. We are driven by our true values, and no matter how good another’s values sound, if you do not truly share them, you will peter out and lose drive. A vision which allows for the greatest numbers of people to fulfill their own values will be the most powerful and longest lasting. Civil rights is one of those visions: by ensuring that all people have a right to pursue and fulfill their values, in health, wealth and freedom, failure becomes impossible. Obstacles will arise, as in any endeavor, but ultimately, people will be inspired and driven to support freedom and justice for all. Finally, a vision is only as good as its implementation. You can envision all day long, but if you do nothing to make it happen, it will remain a daydream.  Constructing a specific plan which can be communicated coherently, so that others may become inspired by your vision, is the surest way to accomplishing your goals. You will forge your way in the new world most successfully by following the principles above. Purpose, vision, and fulfillment for the most people are the ingredients for a lasting legacy.

BalanceFinally, and most importantly, is to strive for balance – in your personal endeavors, as well as for the collective or greater good. Understand that regardless of your vision, you will face obstacles in that endeavor. Obstacles are not vision-killers; they are feedback mechanisms that are in place to guide you. Your vision will be shaped and refined by the obstacles you face…and overcome. To do so you may need to alter your plan a bit. You may need to learn more, or you may need to change beliefs or perspectives. I love to read biographies on the greats of humanity to get a sense of their obstacles, their solutions, and their evolution. You will have yours in your unique way. When attempting to elicit change that is resisted by others, try to find a middle ground. Believe it or not, it is possible to exist in coinciding realities with others – that is, many people can live in worlds of their making together, even when it seems that their worlds are diametrically opposed. Find the common ground. How do you get what you love while others get what they love? That may be the very challenge for you to figure out, but what a powerful vision that is. “All you need is love” is not some hokey song lyric, but a profound truth of all human beings: How do I get what I love while you get what you love…? Living in the extreme polarities of any human issue is volatile – it brings the most stress, the least cooperation, and the baddest blood to the table. Finding the center point and striving for a win-win is the greatest achievement one can have, with the highest possibility of longevity. Game theory, a mathematical study, shows unequivocally that people do better when working together.

The chaos of 2020 has been disruptive for most people to say the least. For many it appears, for now, devastating. But in chaos there is always a hidden order, one that allows for a reconfiguration of your life at the micro-level, but the entire world in the macro. There appears to be great opportunity at this time for enormous change, so take the time and invest the energy to create the world that you want to live in. It will not come easy – so do not take this as the walk-away message. Whatever you would love to see and experience in this new world will take great effort, but it will be worth it. If you can observe the principles I have outlined here, you stand the greatest chance of lasting success. People will follow your inspired message if they can see what is in it for them. What this means for most people is how it will allow them to fulfill their own mission, according to their life’s purpose, which, of course, is intertwined with their highest values. People are only fulfilled – that is, filled-up full – when they are allowed to pursue their dreams, in their way, at their pace. If your vision for the new world allows others to do this, it will be embraced by all.

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