Separating the Normal from the Natural

I’m getting ready to head out on a 7-day silent meditation retreat, and I’ve been feeling a little weird about it.

So I really appreciated coming across Paul Graham’s essay, The Acceleration of Addictiveness, which in large part explains why I’m doing this. A computer programmer and founder of the startup funder Y Combinator, Graham — who’s also a wonderful essayist — explains that while technology has brought us many great things, it’s also made our world much more addictive.

For example: “Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can’t compete with Facebook.”

The result is that we’re constantly being drawn toward things that technology has allowed some big company to profit from by capturing our attention. The consequences range from obesity to ADHD to home-grown terrorism.

As individuals, it means we each have to pay that much more attention to where we’re putting our attention, and to whether it’s what we really want to be focusing on. This is what meditation is all about.

Graham calls it the difference between what’s “normal” and what’s “natural”. It may be “normal” to binge-watch your favorite series on Netflix, but sitting on a couch for hours on end (and likely adding some junk food and alcohol to the mix) is hardly what our bodies were made for. After a while, it doesn’t feel very good.

On the other hand, refraining from “normal” things like television and processed food and electronics, even briefly, can make you seem pretty weird. Already, “someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US,” Graham writes, predicting technology will only accelerate the trend. “You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.”

I take some comfort from that. Living the life you choose requires turning away from lots of things the modern world is trying to convince you you should do, mostly because someone’s making a huge profit off it. Thinking and living independently is hardly “normal” these days, but it does tend to feel a whole lot better and more “natural”.

I’ll have to remind myself of that when I’m sitting in silent meditation next week and inevitably start wondering what the hell I’m doing there.

The Neuroscience of Change: More Cause for Compassion

neuroscience
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to make lasting change, you may find comfort in knowing that one reason is human biology. Neurobiology, in particular. That’s not cause for despair: because with sustained effort and support, our brains are actually something we can change.

Ever since participating in a retreat on the neurobiology of yoga and Buddhism back in May, I’ve been fascinated by how our brains have developed over millennia to help us survive, but in many ways, particularly in the modern world, also cause us to suffer. And I’ve found it strangely soothing to know that we’re all in the same boat here: another reason to extend compassion to ourselves, as well as to others, even when we – or they – do things we really don’t like. It’s also a good reason to seek support for changes you want to make – whether from a coach, friend, teacher or mentor – because it’s really hard to make lasting change on your own.

The brain is a complicated organ, of course, and there’s lots to be learned about it. Interested readers may want to check out Rick Hanson’s excellent book, Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, which provides a great explanation and lots of brain-changing exercises. I’m also relying here on what I learned from Jim Hopper about this at his recent Kripalu retreat, and in his chapter in the book Mindfulness-Oriented Interventions for Trauma: Integrating Contemplative Practices (The Guilford Press).

The Cliffs Notes version of this material goes something like this: we’re hard-wired to flee from danger and pain and to seek pleasure and safety. So when the part of the human brain called the amygdala — often called the “reptilian brain,” because it’s the oldest part of the human brain, in an evolutionary sense — senses a threat, it creates a response of fear or aversion – what we commonly call a “fight or flight” response. Whereas in the wild “fight” might have meant trying to kill a predator or competitor, in modern life, we “fight” often by getting angry or judgmental – a way of trying to regain control. The flight response, meanwhile, kicks in our seeking circuitry: now we’re seeking an escape from the fear or other unpleasant feeling. That may lead us to suppress the feeling, or to mask it by indulging in some immediately pleasurable activity to escape it – for example, eating, drinking, or sex.

Although we tend to lament these “bad habits,” these instincts were actually useful when we lived in the wild as hunter gatherers, where we had to escape predators and be on the constant prowl for food (and sex) for the species to survive. But these now-ingrained habits unfortunately don’t work so well in modern life, where we’re largely cushioned from life-threatening predators, and food and other basic pleasures are, for many of us, often too easily obtainable. That leads to indulgence, feelings of guilt or other kinds of pain, and more suffering.

On top of that, again with the aim of species survival, we’re hard-wired to pay far more attention to things that frighten us or cause us pain than to things that feel good. This is the brain’s “negativity bias.” As Hanson explains in his book, that helped us survive ages ago, when one encounter with a predator would mean the end of us, so we had to be hyper-alert to threats and lived in frequent fear. In comparison, there were multiple opportunities to find food and mates, so if we paid less attention to those simple pleasures when we encountered them and just sought them out when we really needed them, we could still survive just fine.

But you can see how this all becomes a recipe for suffering today. For one thing, it means we tend to exaggerate our fears. Since change usually involves some fear of the unknown, it means we have a built-in bias against change, even if that change would be good for us. We also have a tendency to overlook or underestimate the opportunities for lasting, more meaningful pleasures – things like love, peace, playfulness and joy (what Hopper calls “true goods”) — because we’re distracted by fear. Plus, because we’re raised among similarly hard-wired humans, we’ve incorporated the fears of everyone around us, too, who likewise have an exaggerated sense of fear when it comes to change, and a tendency to underestimate deeper satisfaction. (Not surprisingly, marketers have learned to take full advantage of this — hence the relentless advertising of junk food, luxury goods, pharmaceuticals and fabulous vacation “escapes”.)

The result of these ancient and culturally reinforced tendencies is that it often feels easier to stay stuck – to avoid the fear of making a change, and respond to current dissatisfaction by seeking short-term easily-available immediate pleasures (which often lead to more suffering), rather than seeking longer-lasting deeper satisfaction, which may involve more effort and taking risks.

This all sounds pretty depressing. But take heart: neuroscientists have found we can actually alter how this circuitry functions. It just takes awareness, practice, and support.

That means paying attention to how our brain functions on autopilot (and how it affects the body) and trying to create more space between the thoughts and the impulsive (and often destructive) behavior that tends to follow them. It means practicing different ways of thinking, through contemplative practices like meditation, which can actually strengthen the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that allows us to reason and regulate fear and other responses — or visioning exercises that can help counteract the paralyzing impact of fear by motivating a desired change. (Hanson includes in his book a series of guided meditations designed to enhance certain parts of the brain, such as those responsible for positive emotions like love and empathy, and for skills like mindfulness and concentration.) And it means finding support from like-minded people who can help keep us on track – a trusted friend; a local meditation, yoga or support group; a skilled coach; or ideally, some combination of these.

Changing your brain — and changing your life — is possible.  But it’s very hard to do alone.

Skip the New Year’s Resolution

karma ethics.tree buddhist-network comNew Year’s resolutions seem to me like a recipe for disaster. Another commitment you make to yourself that you inevitably end up breaking. I’m going to exercise every day, or lose weight, or cut out alcohol, or always be nice to my family, or whatever. Then you slip up, and bam – you feel like shit again. The resolution goes out the window.

But I like the idea of living deliberately – in fact, I think it’s crucial to a happy and fulfilled and meaningful life. Being conscious of our actions and making deliberate choices seem like basic building-blocks for that. So how to reconcile?

To me, setting an “intention” rather than making a “resolution” seems a bit more promising. An intention is something you want, plan and hope to do, but when you slip, as you inevitably will, you just dust yourself off and get back on the path you’ve chosen. I know, they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that seems to me more using the term “intention” as a cheap band-aid covering up a deep and massive delusion that you’re not dealing with. A true intention is something you set for yourself, because it’s something you truly and deeply want, and you use it as a compass to move forward. Sometimes you get lost and veer from the path, perhaps caught up by some shiny delusive object you encounter in the woods along the way. But the compass helps you eventually find your way back and steer your course again.

I think one key to living by “intention” without getting discouraged when we screw up is just acknowledging that we’re human, and change is difficult. I’ve been reading a terrific book by Stephen Cope, a yoga teacher and psychotherapist who writes about the intersection of Western psychology and the Eastern philosophy of yoga. (I also participated in a weekend workshop with him at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires after Christmas.) In The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living, Cope explains this phenomenon as being part of what yogis call karma.

This isn’t the sort of oversimplified notion of karma we tend to hear about as determining your life because of something you did in your prior life as a dog or the idea that people are suffering through a vicious war or in some horrible refugee camp as just desert for something bad they did in their past lives. This is a much more subtle and, to me, convincing notion of karma that’s also backed up by Western psychology and contemporary neuroscience. It’s simply the idea that our actions and reactions to circumstances create patterns in our minds, and the longer those patterns continue, the more deeply they become embedded in our unconscious and the harder they are to change.

A child might react to abuse by withdrawing, for example, and withdrawal from other people at the first sight of conflict might become her unconscious pattern. For someone else addiction results – alcohol, drugs, food, whatever. We all do things to avoid pain, and those things become part of the patterns that shape our lives. So when as adults on New Year’s Eve we decide we’re all of a sudden going to stop doing that thing, good luck – karma or brain patterning or whatever you want to call it is going to make it very difficult.

The yogic approach to changing this, according to Cope – which is very much like the Buddhist approach, which grew out of yoga philosophy – is simply to begin to focus our attention on the chain of events that leads to the unwanted action. Without judging or condemning it, simply notice when the craving or withdrawing or whatever problematic action arises. What is happening at that moment? What is the underlying feeling you’re fleeing?

Continue to watch it. What happens next? Do you reach for a drink, a cookie, or walk out the door? Do you get angry and yell at someone, or pick up your phone and get absorbed in your Twitter or Facebook feed? Whatever it is, just start by observing it. We tend to be so judgmental of ourselves that we refuse even to witness this chain of events, because it causes us so much shame. But as Cope explains, “[w]hen we pare away judgment, something remarkable happens. We’re free, for the first time, to observe how the pattern really works.”

So the key is to approach this all with compassion. Recognize it’s not “you” that’s doing this, in the sense of some fixed sense of yourself as a bad person. It’s just a part of your patterning, and we all have patterns that make us suffer. Only by letting go of the judgment and being willing to look at those patterns can we truly see them, and then take steps to interrupt them.

I’m not saying this is easy. Last night I was feeling sick, and tired, recovering from some sort of a bug I’d caught after not getting enough sleep on New Year’s eve, which I was still angry at myself about.   When I feel shitty, my impulse is usually toward sugar. Preferably chocolate. While I usually try not to keep that stuff around, lots of it ended up in our house over the holidays, and it was calling to me. Fortunately, I was reading Cope’s book, and after a couple of chocolate kisses I reminded myself to slow down and just feel what I was feeling. Tired. Pain in my stomach. Feelings of regret and disappointment at having let myself get to this state, after having set all sorts of intentions to live more deliberately and be healthier. I let those feelings wash over me, and reminded myself to be compassionate about it all. I felt the urge to run away from them slowly dissipate. The need for chocolate melted away. I realized that what I really needed was to sleep. I went to bed soon after.

Obviously some habits are more difficult than this one, but the process is basically the same. (For a highly simplified and overdramatized but compelling version of how exposing unconscious habits helps them unravel, watch Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Marnie, which I watched for the first time the other night.) Whether it’s Western psychology or yoga or Buddhism or any other contemplative tradition, the idea is the same: become aware of the internal chain of events that leads to the action you’re taking that you want to stop. Observe it without judgment.

Eventually, let yourself have the feelings that are arising, without reacting to them. Maybe at first you can ward off the reaction for just a few minutes. Over time, as you continue to make conscious and interrupt the chain of events, they have less power over you. The urge to act begins to dissipate. And you’re able to interrupt the chain earlier and earlier in the process.   The practices of yoga and meditation (and probably some Western practices of prayer as well) are designed to get us to slow down and focus enough that we can become aware of what’s happening internally, so we can make deliberate choices about how we want to act.

All of this helps explain why I don’t like the idea of New Year’s “resolutions.” A “resolution” is “a firm decision to do or not do something” and “the action of solving a problem,” and as we’ve seen, such deeply ingrained problems can rarely be “solved” simply by deciding to take any one action.

An “intention,” on the other hand, is “an aim or a plan,” or “a design.” It’s more like setting a path toward reaching an eventual destination. An intention allows you to be human – to stray from the path on occasion, as you’re inevitably lured by shiny objects that catch your eye along the way. But if it’s a true intention that’s important to you, and perhaps you create reminders for yourself of that, at least some outline or markings of the path remain. You’re still laying that path along the way, but the intention acts as a compass that aims you toward your ultimate goal.

I like that.

Tweaked Out On Twitter

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After a couple of days of Twitter frenzy last week, I came down from my high and felt a bit sick – not unlike the aftermath of a sugar binge or a hangover. What had I just done with my time? And now where was all the virtual “love” I had been feeling? If I hadn’t tweeted – and been re-tweeted – in the last 24 hours, I wondered, did I even exist anymore?

This all happened just as I was winding down my last week of work before taking time off for the holidays. At first, I panicked. What would I do? Who would I be if I stopped checking my office e-mail, stopped Tweeting, and just started living my own life?

There’s been a lot written about internet and social media addiction, but usually it’s about how people use it to communicate with (or show off to) friends or share trivial details about their lives. But social media is also a venue for expression of political views, a tool for social justice advocacy campaigns, and way of disseminating hard news and other information we think of as “important.” But even that kind of use can become obsessive and ultimately deflating. Twenty-four hours of tweeting the details of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on CIA torture last week, for example, didn’t leave me feeling like I’d accomplished a whole lot more than if I’d been posting cute pictures of my dog. Sure, I got a bunch of re-tweets while the torture story was hot in the news, but honestly, does that kind of 140-character engagement make any difference?

At the time, it seemed crucial – fueled by the possibility of retweets and “favorites” and ever more followers. But for what purpose? When I finally was too disgusted and exhausted by details of the torture report to continue my tweeting binge, all the attention I’d received – the internet “love” as they call it – stopped just as quickly. Not that I stopped obsessively checking, at least for a while. Because subconsciously there was this burning question: who am I – and what am I worth – if thousands of “followers” out there in the Twitterverse have no idea at this moment what I’m thinking?

Neuroscientists have tracked how the brain is affected by social media, and found that getting positive feedback – “likes” on Facebook, retweets or “favorites” on Twitter, for example, — appears to stimulate the same sort of reward centers we get from sex, food or receiving money. The more people use social media, the stronger that reaction. And therein lies the potential for addiction.

I got out of journalism five years ago in part for this very reason. I was writing for an online magazine that demanded not only in-depth articles but constant blogging and tweeting. The more clicks you could show for it, the better. The pace was so relentless, though, and the attention to the content so short-lived, that I felt like I was riding a roller-coaster. On a good day, I got lots of clicks and re-tweets and even got invited on the Rachel Maddow show — the highlight of my online journalism career. But on a bad day, no one seemed to care about the thing I was furiously reporting and writing about – and I undoubtedly thought was terribly important. I would end up frustrated, spent and demoralized. As with any roller-coaster, I came to realize, there was no final destination, just this endless ride of highs and lows, leading, it seemed, absolutely nowhere.

So I got out, determined to do something more meaningful. Although at times I’ve had the opportunity to do more sustained work on particular subjects of human rights advocacy, much of the work I do now feels eerily familiar: as advocates we basically repeat ourselves over and over, on social media, blogs and elsewhere, trying to spread our message as widely as possible, obsessing over the exact tone and wording of the message, and sometimes about who should best deliver it. But in this polarized political atmosphere where people’s opinions seem so entrenched, do we really change anyone’s mind? Does all that effort amount to anything?

I don’t mean to denigrate the advocates who do this work, many of whom I admire for their dedication to this Sisyphean task. And in the end, I believe it is important for all sorts of social justice advocates to be out there pushing their cause, even if immediate results are hard to see. There’s a strong argument to be made that over time, we see slow but real progress.

But my recent experience tweeting the torture report reminded me why it’s so important to also do things that involve more meaningful and sustained connections and relationships. It’s why I love coaching.

There’s a big difference in the kind of connections we make with people when we speak honestly, one-on-one, and truly listen. There’s a level of attention we can pay to one another when we really focus on doing that, that’s rare not only in social media, but in much of our daily lives. (How often are you talking to someone while they’re checking their e-mail, text or Twitter feed?) Coaching – or any real communication — is not about reaching the widest audience or winning the most accolades, but about really connecting with another human being. The value of that can’t be quantified.

Social scientists studying happiness have repeatedly shown that true personal connection is critical to our mental and physical health. Research shows people who have strong relationships with other people are happier, healthier and live longer.  These are the kinds of relationships in which people feel able to talk openly and be understood, give and receive support, share activities, experiences and positive emotions. And those are things that are found mostly in direct personal communication, not in an online public forum.

That doesn’t mean we should give up using social media. But we do need to be aware of when it becomes a substitute for real communication and connection – for spending time with, and talking to, actual living people.

I’m sure I’ll keep tweeting and writing about the things I want to change in the world (and post the occasional picture of my dog) with some small hope that I’m participating in a larger movement that will eventually do some good. I’m actually happy and proud to be a part of that larger effort. But I need to be careful to keep it in perspective, too. The roller coaster may be fun for a short ride, but what goes up will always come back down again. And always grasping for the next quick high is no way to live a meaningful life.