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We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

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I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

White matter fiber architecture of the brain. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org

Have you already given up on a new year’s resolution? Do you think you could handle an 8-week plan to rebuild your brain?

Mediation and mindfulness training has been proven again and again to not only make people feel better but more recently shown to make actual changes in your brain.

An eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) shows some tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure.

Using MRI scans, they found “massive changes” in brain gray matter. The participants didn’t just “feel better” but  showed changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings. On of those changes is a thickening of the cerebral cortex. That is the area responsible for attention and emotional integration.

How long did they meditate? It’s not the 5 or 10 minute break you sometimes read about, but it’s also not hours or a weekend of meditation. An average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density.

That density is focused on the hippocampus which is associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also decreased gray matter density in the amygdala. That might sound like a bad thing, unless you know that the amygdala is the area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses.

The control group of non-meditators did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain, so the simple passage of time was not a factor.

The one story that gets repeated over and over in the past 50 years is that there is far more brain plasticity – the changeable (or “plastic”) ability of the brain to change -into adulthood than was previously believed. You can teach old dogs new tricks.

 

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau

path1

It felt a little odd to download Thoreau’s essay, Walking, to my tablet to read. I’m not sure how Henry David would feel about digital books. But I know he would still recognize walking all these years later.

It appeared in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He must have liked it because between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read the piece aloud ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”

On the essay’s first page, he writes:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau mixed this essay in his lectures with another on wildness (not to be confused with wilderness) and says that private property is killing our capacity for wildness.

I love to walk. I try to walk outdoors every day. I try to walk, when I can, in whatever pieces of wilderness are nearby.

Like others, I find walking is a creative stimulant. I prefer a natural area but even walking in a city or around my suburban neighborhood can change the way you perceive the world.

sidewalk

A modern-day look at this is Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit which looks at  walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning. Th book discusses some famous walkers  that I admire (Wordsworth, Gary Snyder) and argues for preserving the time and space in which to walk in our world that lacks both wildness and wilderness.

Solnit cherishes walking’s “relaxed gait, one that allows us to take in sights, sounds, and smells that we might otherwise pass by” and its opportunity for private thought.

I am also not alone in thinking of walking in a health-minded way and as a low-impact way of shedding a few pounds and stretching a few muscles.

Thoreau and Solnit both use walking to lead them to other subjects. Walking and philosophizing make good partners.

Fossil evidence shows that the ability to move upright on two legs is the characteristic that separated humans from the other beasts and has allowed us to dominate them. I would say that walking connects us to those early walkers, but as I recently wrote about the stars, that is probably not scientifically accurate.

“Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C. Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.”

I suspect that those early walkers were walking with a lot more survival in mind than my sauntering. “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. We make some tradeoffs in deciding between presence and productivity.

Being present in a walk can help you to see. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” says Marguerite Duras. Try On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyeswhich records walks around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Yes, walk like a dog walks, like a child walks, be as mindful as Sherlock Holmes, be as tuned in as Thoreau.

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that I have in my non-academic life. I have written here about several of my attempts at a daily practice. The most successful one may be the poetry practice I was able to do 365 times in 2014.

But, if you say “daily practice” I think many people think of something religious or spiritual. Hopefully, they don’t think of daily habits – such as getting a coffee at the local shop on the way to work.

When I was more serious about my meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When i stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about.  EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. ”

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

Of course, many people apply Buddhist teachings as a way to release tensions of the body, reduce stress and pain. Moving that into the lives of others makes the practice more powerful. Students in a monastic community profit from the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration and being surrounded by a harmonious community who wish to apply mindfulness into their daily lives. But can that community be made even wider.

I tried yoga twice, but it didn’t work for me. It does work for many others as a practice.

In a post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn, she talks about a concept of “body prayer” where she applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (Here’s a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

Meditation and yoga classes are offered in corporate centers, churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It may seem new and hip but it is a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice even if it is being blended with technology,  modern medical science and with other religious and philosophical perspectives.

I did send my daily poems out into the world. The idea that there was some audience for them was important motivation for continuing. I had responses to the poems via comments, emails and some live conversations with friends and a few people I met through the poems. That was small compared to the way some practices change lives. Something for all of us to consider.

lucid-dreaming-inception-totem

I had a lucid dream recently. As a longtime insomniac, chronicler of my dreams and seeker, I came across lucid dreaming back in my college days. This is the idea that some people, sometimes, will become conscious during a dream that they are dreaming and then be able to have some control of the dream.

You can find lots of examples of these experiences and people put themselves in place they want to go, do things they have always wanted to do (flying seems to be quite popular) and generally experience a feeling of euphoria and well-being.

It has happened to me a few times over the years, but always unbidden.

I have read a few books on lucid dreaming and the last one I picked up was Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, but there are also some websites that could get you started.

Let me note here that some people confuse or connect lucid dreaming with  an “out-of-body experience” or “OBE.”  This is when you are lying in bed, apparently awake, and feel a kind of heaviness and paralysis. Then you feel that you are leaving your physical body and traveling in what must feel like a second body, floating above the bed. This is also the experience described by people who have a “near-death experience” (NDE) which sounds interesting but is not something I want to try to induce.

I wouldn’t mind being an oneironauts but not all lucid dreamers do that kind of traveling.

Almost any source will tell you for do several things to prepare yourself for lucid dreaming.

Keeping a dream journal is usually step one. Like keeping a calorie journal when you are trying to lose weight, the important thing here is being mindful of what occurs.  The act of writing it down makes it a stronger memory. For me, the best thing about having multiple dream journals that go back a few decades is seeing patterns, themes and motifs. The only real “dream interpretation” comes from developing your own dictionary of your dream symbols, settings and characters (not general ones found in most books).

I keep a bound journal bedside and try to write dreams down as soon as I awaken from them. This happens only one or two times a week for me. On many mornings, a dream that is clear disappears in the seconds or minutes  it takes me to get to the book.

The “training” for lucid dreaming starts with trying to establish a habit of questioning whether you are awake or dreaming. Did you see the film Inception? There is a lot of this kind of training in that film.

One exercise that seems a bit foolish is to question whether or not you are awake now. Of course you are. Are you sure? Where’s the proof?

This reality check exercise might be best done in situations that are a bit less like reality – that walk in the woods, standing outside in total darkness, swimming under water, standing eyes closed outside during a storm or lying in bed before you fall asleep.

How can you confirm you are awake? The classic is to pinch yourself, but other suggestions include doing things that don’t seem to occur in dreams – turning a light on and off, looking at some text or numbers, then looking away and then looking back (according to researchers, in a dream, those letters or numbers would rearrange themselves).

In Inception, the protagonist uses a totem as his reality check. You choose an object that you know so well that if it is slighter different or it doesn’t obey the usual laws of physics, then you must be dreaming. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top that never stops. If it does, he must be in reality. [Footnote: I think that his totem might actually be his wedding ring which he never wears in reality, but always wears in the dreams because there he is still married. Final scene: no ring] You can try the methods used in the film. I’m sure that Christopher Nolan did his research, even though the film crosses over to the idea that we can share dreams and enter others’ dreams.

In my undergraduate days, there were no wikis on lucid dreaming with instructions.

Recording those dreams in the journal should turn up recurring circumstances or settings that you can then tune into more closely in your waking life, especially those that are real places that end up in  your dreams. That might be a specific place – your office or backyard – or a generalized place, like an elevator. When you are in these dream locations, do one of those aforementioned reality checks to confirm that you are not dreaming.

Another part of your prep is harder to adopt. It has to do with trying to determine the best time for you to have a lucid dream. You need to track your personal sleep schedule and then try to arrange your sleep pattern to help induce dreams and hopefully opportunities for lucid dreaming. I got a Fitbit as a  gift at Christmas and it tracks when I fall asleep, when I awaken and when I am restless. I can see the blocks of solid sleep and that seems to also relate to times when I wake up and recall a dream.

All dreams, including lucid ones, are strongly associated with REM sleep and REM sleep is more abundant just before your final awakening. Generally, you remember dreams when you just finished having them and wake up.  Unfortunately, when that occurs at 3 am, I am not very motivated to sit up and write a dream in the journal.

One site suggests that taking a nap a few hours after waking in the morning is a good time to have a lucid dream. Not very practical for most of us. That book I read recently says that the most reliable method for inducing a lucid dream is to “redistribute” your sleep.  This is also impractical. You would set your alarm to wake two hours earlier than normal. When you are awake, do some waking business. (I don’t think a shower is a good idea.) Then, after two hours, go back to sleep for at least two more hours. This delayed last stretch of sleep is supposed to be full of REM activity.

I will say that late-morning dreams are my longest and most intense. Or maybe they are the only ones I ever remember.

I tried this last summer for a few weekends, but no lucid dreams.

Then last week I had a dream and in it I realized that I was dreaming and that I was traveling back in time.  I knew it was the past and that I had traveled there by dreaming. It was a city. It seemed like London, or at least the London I know only from films. It was storybook and sepia toned. (Colors are important to note in your dream journal as they occur rather rarely.)  I wanted to walk up the steps to one of the flats on the street. I knew which one was the right one. I knocked at the door, but no one answered. I wanted them to answer, but I couldn’t control that in the dream.  I woke up.

I plan to go back to that place. I’m not sure how that will happen or when it will happen, but that’s my plan. Next time, someone will answer the door. I am very curious who it will be.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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