Remembrance of things to come: the predictive nature of the mind and contemplative practices

Two contemplative neuroscientists consider meditation in light of a leading theory about brain function

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Imagine this scene: it is a cold winter night and you are sitting in your favorite armchair reading an engrossing novel, a warm cup of tea by your side. Suddenly, a sharp noise rips through the silence. Now, freeze the frame here and let’s do a little phenomenology—what goes through your mind at that precise moment? If you are like most people, a potent and singular thought will have instantly and inescapably overtaken your mental space: “What was that?!” In no time, this question will also be followed by a few hypotheses about the cause of the noise (e.g., an intruder, or a branch falling on the roof), which in turn will prod you into a specific action aimed at determining which one of your guesses is true. Read More

A Question of Focus

Meditators often feel that their practice aids concentration. But do these subjective reports pan out in daily life?

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focusActivities throughout our days require undisturbed minutes (even hours) of concentration. Obvious examples can include boring tasks in the workplace or when navigating traffic, where critical focus is necessary for success and safety. But perhaps not surprisingly, people can have a hard time keeping their attention on important activities for even short lengths of time.

In the laboratory, researchers have studied our poor ability to sustain attention by examining how performance declines when someone has to maintain focus and perform a repetitive task for a long time. In wisdom traditions like Buddhism, such limits on our attention span have long been acknowledged, and at the same time, these traditions recognize that our ability to direct and maintain concentration is an important part of mental and spiritual well-being. For example, only when we can sustain our attention can we recognize and regulate our thoughts or emotions. For this reason, many contemplative traditions promote mental training through meditation practice as a means of improving our capacity to stay focused.

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Longing After Loss

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Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Far too

Falling in love can enliven us. Feeling seen and held can ground us; it can put us at ease. Love can also grant us a sense of safety and security. Falling out of love, on the other hand, can unravel us.

Losing love can trigger a cycle of craving and attachment that not only exacerbates our suffering but also can last a long time. As a feeling that once seemed like it would last forever starts to fade, we can become so addicted to the feeling of having been in love that we are willing to try anything to maintain that feeling—by “fixing” our former bond, changing ourselves, or persuading our partner to change. We might even be willing to endure difficult, or even unhealthy, situations in order make that love last. In the face of loss, our minds become fixated on finding something— anything—to fill that void left by love’s absence. Because loss on this level can make us feel we are not worthy of being loved at all, we also become guarded and therefore unwilling to be vulnerable once more. We can risk the hardening of our hearts.

When faced with such loss, great spiritual teachers often warn against this very thing: building fortresses to guard our hearts. These teachers ask us not to abandon love because it is a profound experience necessary for compassion. Rather, they encourage us to recognize more stable and fundamental sources of love within ourselves instead of some external source. Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls this “essence love.” Read More

The Pharmacy of Desire

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An American success story: A college graduate gets a good job and marries. The couple drives a beautiful car, a consolation for their terrible commute. Work pays well but requires callous decisions. Expensive vacations and a lovely home recompense for the sacrifice not only of time, but also of ideals. Contentment, however, remains elusive; an underlying anger burns. The additional cocktail flames the anger into vindicating rage. Marriage lapses into emptiness; children become strangers; affairs end unpleasantly.

This is a pattern of addiction, but addiction to what? Each candidate seems as much a symptom as a cause: wealth, possessions, pleasure, rage, alcohol.

According to Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” In the Christian tradition, the soul is eros: a desire for luminous and uncreated Good. What marks this desire are interior peace (apatheia) and unconditional love (agape). The deeper into divine union one sinks, the more one is able to feel love, compassion, and joy. Read More

The Anxiety of Happiness

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His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever.
It is the future that creates his present.

All is an interminable chain of longing.
—Robert Frost

I’ve long thought that in this section of his poem, “Escapist–Never,” Robert Frost captures a lot of what contemplative traditions describe as craving, a source of great suffering. Craving is distinguished from motivating force, intentionality, and determination; in craving there is an element of fixation on what we don’t have, to the detriment of appreciating and being grateful for what we do have. There is an endlessness to that pursuit, a going on and on in thinking about the next potential source of joy while a sense of sufficiency or satisfaction right now eludes us.

Look at where we are looking for happiness: at what is not yet here.

In the poem, there are also hints at the ways in which we can mistake temporary pleasure for the deepest happiness available to us. Read More

Meditation: It’s Not What You Think

Think you can’t meditate? Mind & Life’s resident neuroscientist explores some popular misconceptions surrounding meditation, and reasons to keep trying.

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DSC_0132_crop2When I explain to someone that I’m involved in research on meditation, it’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Oh, meditation—I tried that. I couldn’t do it.”

This response brings up a mix of emotions in me that is equal parts sadness and frustration, with a heaping dose of motivation on top.

Sadness because people have experienced meditation in a negative light and come to associate it with a sense of failure. Frustration because that association often stems from pervasive cultural misunderstandings about what meditation is (and how it should feel when you practice). And motivation: to change this misperception, so those who are interested can experience the benefits that accompany a meditation practice.

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Arming Introspection

Does meditation make a more ethical soldier, or a more dangerous one?

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When Buddhist-based contemplative practices burgeoned in popularity in the United States and Europe during the 1950s and 60s, their central tenets were often disregarded in universities as New Age frivolity. Departments of religion and philosophy made some allowances for their study, but the same open-mindedness rarely occurred in “respectable” laboratories of psychology, cognitive science, or neuroscience.

Since then, a major shift has occurred, and the question is no longer about the scientific value of contemplative studies but instead on how they should be implemented. Should public schools be teaching meditation? Should prisons? Corporations? Why or why not? What are the major differences, if any, between learning how to meditate in a Zen center versus being taught mindfulness by a human resources manager? And what about the military? Read More