When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

A recent article in the New York Times reports the findings of scientists at Harvard that people are happier when their minds do not wander from what they are doing.

Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.

This is the other side of the coin from the article, Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants.

If we are not able to stay in the here and now, we are naturally not able to enjoy it. And so we miss out on a lot. As John Lennon put it:

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mindfulness is the ability to remember what we are doing without forgetting. If you check, when you forget something, it is because you’ve remembered something else — these are called “distractions”, and the job of mindfulness is to overcome distractions.  Concentration is the ability to focus single-pointedly on what we are doing. These two qualities of mind enable  us to stay in the here and now, and enjoy it, as opposed to missing out on it. Meditation uses both mindfulness and concentration and improves them both very effectively.

Buddha said: “From concentration comes peace of mind.” If we are peaceful, we are happy. People who meditate regularly do so because it makes them happier.

Enjoying, interesting, valuable…

This scientific study shows that we concentrate well on things that we really enjoy. (It also works the other way around, we enjoy the things we concentrate on.) No surprises with sex, it is generally more pleasurable than anything else going on around us at the time, so we are easily able to stay focused on it. Billions of people enjoy TV shows and movies because they draw us in, engage us, please us, such that we resent the distractions (namely the ads). Sport, acting, playing an instrument, art… all these activities have the power to hold our attention if we enjoy doing them more than whatever else is going on.

We also concentrate easily on the things we find interesting or fascinating. A self-described computer geek told me recently that, at work, software problems can keep him absorbed while the hours fly by.

Also, if we perceive something to be valuable or important, we do not find it difficult to keep focused — for example, people in emergency rooms saving others’ lives. Wild horses will not tear them away.

How to meditate well

So to be a good meditator, we need to enjoy our object, find it interesting, and/or find it valuable. In particular, we need to find the object of meditation more enjoyable, interesting and valuable than all the other thoughts that are bound to arise, or those other thoughts will definitely steal our attention.

You know how if you’re engrossed in a conversation, even if you are in a room full of other people talking, although the sound of talking appears to your mind you do not notice it? Whereas if you’re a little bored by your talking companion, you start surreptitiously looking over their shoulder, eventually exclaiming, “Ah, excuse me, there is someone over there I need to talk to.” Its a bit like that.

Before teaching how to do any meditation, Buddha would commonly explain the benefits of doing it. Our breath, for example, may not be sufficiently gripping to hold our attention if we do not know ahead of time how peaceful, relaxed, clear-headed and contented we will become if we simply follow our breath. If we understand the value of what we are doing, we engage in it fully, and concentration comes far more easily.

So because we are more likely to be motivated to stay on our object and not follow distractions if we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it, at the beginning of any meditation it helps to spend a minute or two reminding ourselves.

(To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.)

From the bowels of the earth to a tour of the world

Yesterday on my way to do Xmas shopping I heard a heart-warming* National Public Radio report on the Chilean miners who were trapped for more than two months underground, believing they were on the verge of death. Instead of dying, however, they were spectacularly rescued, and are now being feted all over the world.

Yesterday they had just been to see a Man United match and have photos  taken with the footballers. They were excited. They’ve been invited to the Greek islands, to travel with the Bolivian president, to a Real Madrid match in Spain, to Disneyland, to Hollywood… They have received lifetime passes to their favorite Chilean soccer team and gifts from prominent well wishers all over the world… They appeared on CNN Heroes, saluted with a standing ovation.

Chilean miners on CNN Heroes

Some of them expressed their disbelief at what was happening, and some said it was very dream-like, hard to see it as real. They also said that being rescued was “the end of a nightmare”.

Sometimes it is obvious, isn’t it, that life is completely changeable?! Not to mention that we have no clue what’s going to happen next. Everything is always changing, never lasting even a second moment. Nothing is fixed, even when it appears to be. Sometimes the change is not obvious, for example in settled parts of our lives, so we can get lured into complacency, grasping things as solid, permanent, fixed, real… Other times it is hard to hold onto that thought as things are moving so fast or in such strange, unexpected directions, in which case people say “This is like a dream!” or, when things suddenly turn from riches to rags, “This is like a nightmare!”

“All phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. Nothing is as real as it appears. At times when we are confronted with this in dramatic ways, like the miners, we can get natural glimpses of the dream-like nature of phenomena, even without having received philosophical teachings on this.

Since I wrote this article, I have now written an article on how all phenomena are like dreams: Am I dreaming?\

*Postscript: “Heartwarming” was then ~ “We were like rock stars. People climbed trees to see us,” said one of them. This is now, August 2011, and their dream has turned from riches back to rags:

“One year after the cave-in, however, most have been returned to poverty, and some are even worse off than before the disaster. Several are struggling with the psychological and physical trauma of their ordeal, and all are struggling with the mixed blessings brought by instant – and unsought – fame.”

Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants

“Mindfulness is as good as antidepressants, study says”:

what to do about depression“Mindfulness therapy is gaining headway in many areas of psychology, and now there’s more evidence to back up its effectiveness. A new study published the Archives of General Psychiatry finds that depression patients in remission who underwent mindfulness therapy did as well as those who took an antidepressant, and better than those who took a placebo. That means that mindfulness therapy was as effective as antidepressants in protecting against a relapse of depression. Mindfulness generally refers to the concept of being present and in the moment, and comes from the Buddhist meditation tradition.”

When I first started meditating over 3 decades ago in Northern England, it was almost unheard of. So I found myself having to explain myself again and again…  “What on earth is “meditation”?! And the question behind the question, “Are you weird or something?” My preferred option: I avoided bringing the subject up. But in the intervening years there has been a rapidly growing number of studies showing its benefits as attested to by science and medicine, and so the answers are easy; I can just point people in that direction. “Yeah, it is a bit different, but it works and you can do it too.”

breathing meditation instructions
Click on picture for breathing meditation instructions

One reason meditation works is because it helps us control our mind such that we don’t have to think the thoughts we don’t want to think.

Mindfulness overcomes distractions — which are all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking if we have a distracted mind. And having to think negative and depressed thoughts all day is clearly no fun.

Being able to meditate on an object is a bit like parking your car home in the driveway after you’ve been on a way too long car journey and it has been hell, full of traffic, wrong turnings, road rage, bad weather, stress, accidents, exhaustion, boredom… Once you find your meditation object — whether it is simply the breath or something that transforms your mind from negative to positive — you can stop everything and relax into it. Really relax. Smile inside. Chill. You’re home.

Dealing with distractions may seem to be hard, especially at first; but that is only if we are more interested in the distractions than in the meditation object. Thoughts are a natural function of the mind and, until we are a very good meditator, will continue to arise in the background even when we are concentrating on one object. However, we don’t need to follow those thoughts, and especially we don’t need to fight with them (they always win. Once we’ve engaged them, they’ve already won.)

what to do about depressionWe just let our thoughts go, one traditional analogy being focusing on the clear blue sky without dwelling on the clouds. If we are more interested in absorbing into the spacious blue sky than busily following the scudding clouds, the clouds will not disturb our concentration, even if they appear.

Another analogy for our thoughts is water bubbles. They naturally dissolve back into the water from which they arose without our having to do anything, and thoughts naturally dissolve back into the clarity of the mind without our having to make them do it.

That same article remarks:

“One drawback with mindfulness is that it can be a struggle to find time for it, Segal said. You have to carve out 30 to 40 minutes per day to do the meditations on your own, according to this particular regimen. But it can become part of a plan to take care of yourself, he said.”

In fact, even ten minutes can make an astonishingly big difference. And the interesting thing is how much time we waste at the moment thinking thoughts we don’t want to think, which makes our time at work and at home unnecessarily stressful and unproductive. If we can think the thoughts we want to think all day long, we will find an incredible amount of space and time opening up in our lives, well worth the investment of time in meditation.

To begin a meditation practice, see this article: Meditation: simple, easy instructions for getting started.

See also How to meditate for other meditation articles.

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“Food is one part. Love is another part.”

I have just come across this inspiring example of equalizing self and others in action:

In the Kadampa Buddhist meditation called “equalizing self and others”, we deliberately cultivate a feeling of affection for others by remembering that they are no different to us. We may be unique but, in the ways that count, we are all exactly the same, like snowflakes.

Shantideva says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

First, I should apply myself in meditation
On the equality of self and others.
Because we are all equal in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering,
I should cherish all beings as I do myself.

Narayanan Krishnan puts it this way:

“Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me everybody the same.”

Because he has heartfelt genuine love arising from this experience of equalizing, he wishes to free others from their suffering:

“There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering.”

And because he has this compassion, he has spontaneously given up working just for himself and instead gives food and love joyfully to many people:

“What is the ultimate purpose of life? Its to give. Start giving! See the joy of giving.”

It could be us

Tributes are pouring in for Elizabeth Edwards, who died at 10.15am yesterday.

Fare Well Elizabeth Edwards

As one cancer survivor says:

“It breaks our hearts, because it could be us,” Schmid said. “She lived through everyone’s worst nightmare — the loss of a child, cancer, infidelity.”

She did. Imagine how hard it must be, for example, to face leaving your remaining children behind. Along with many others, I feel for her and her young family and pray for their happiness in all their lives.

Truth is, as Schmid’s statement implies, everyone who lives long enough has a sad story to tell. It is hard to get through a human life without facing nightmares of our own and of  course no one gets out of here alive. So the only thing we can control is how we deal with that, and Elizabeth Edwards dealt with it admirably by all accounts.

I’ll let President Obama sum it up:

“In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain,” Obama said in a statement. “… But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration.”

The other day I wrote on a Bodhisattva’s two main activities, compassion and rejoicing. Elizabeth Edwards today is giving me the opportunity to practice both — empathy from putting myself in her shoes as “it could be us”, and rejoicing in her giving the world another example of how to face difficulties without self-pity.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

I just had my flu shot. (I know, I know, some of you will disapprove, I do a bit myself). But it reminded me of Geshe Kelsang, my Teacher’s, explanation of transforming adversities into the spiritual path, where he uses the example of a needle.

So, in normal circumstances, I would not let a stranger anywhere near my arm with a needle, even a stranger with an official Walgreen’s badge. I would not let her inject me with some alien virus. I certainly would not say, once she had inflicted the pain: “Oh, thank you, you did great!”

But because I knew that the needle contained something I needed to ward off greater problems in the future (namely flu when I visit my long-neglected relatives in the UK over the holidays), I did let her jab my arm with a pointy thing.

Same with adversities. If we know something will do us good — make us stronger and/or immunize us from future suffering — we are far more likely to put up with it than if it is just some random useless suffering (whether inanimate or administered by others). According to Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

In other words, adversities can propel us along the spiritual path.  In which case, if we are in fact interested in being propelled along a spiritual path, we need not shy away from adversities, however scary they may first appear.

(I am well aware that a flu shot barely qualifies as suffering, btw, but the needle thing made me think… )