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Showing posts from November, 2013

pay attention

What does it mean to really pay attention to another, as opposed to simply being in the same space at the same time? Does it merely involve waiting patiently for our turn to talk, ruminating over what to say, while another speaks? Does giving attention to another mean hearing just enough of their words that we understand the content?

There is a quality of loving presence that is far greater than the ability to simply repeat back what has been said to us. It's a form of being truly available to another. Senses are awake, the chattering mind quiets, and we hear far more than words and observe more than the obvious, easy to narrate events. Attending to another means being fully receptive, wherein the subtleties of another's emotional state are read: we are hearing their tone of voice, observing their facial expressions and body language, feeling empathetically—via the miracle of our mirror neurons—their inner experience and perhaps even reflecting it back through our own looks of…

once upon a time

We all like to believe that our memories are accurate, that the inner films and images of our past that bubble up into our awareness are true, and the stories we tell of ourselves are accurate. But what if our autobiographies are actually constructions, that each time we recite our life’s events—to someone else, or in our thoughts—we rewrite each remembrance, forever changing the contents? What if our memories have always been, in essence, fabrications built of the expectations and moods present in each retelling.

Just as it appears that the sun revolves around the earth, it generally seems to those uninformed that the sounds and images of memory are essentially neurally written into the memory centers of the brain after a significant event, and that our recollections are activations of the original cognitions. If a past event seems crisp and clear, in this belief, its because the original encodings have remained essentially unaltered.

Yet despite how real our past appears, significa…

ending the war with other people

There's an old saying that if we want to understand why its so difficult to change other people, we need only pause and reflect on how difficult it is to change our own habits and tendencies. Easier said than done: the mind tends to note cause and effect effortlessly when it applies to other people—why can't Sue stop hooking up with Sam? he's such bad news! etc—but we're slow to acknowledge karma—which actions lead to good or bad long term results—when it applies to our own thoughts and behaviors. So we wind up stuck in routines, confused and frustrated by friends and loved ones who dial pain or ignore our requests.

Learning to acknowledge and let go of our irritation with annoying behaviors of friends, work colleagues, family members, roommates et al is an essential part of our spiritual practice. Irritability and judgment turns us into the proverbial tree that cannot bend with the wind; we no longer let life—with all its inevitable first arrows of suffering, such as f…
Research by psychologist Benjamin Converse at the University of Virginia finds that human beings tend believe in a kind of karma, namely our western skew on the spiritual axiom that good deeds result being treated well by fate; we believe we can influence uncontrollable outcomes by performing good deeds, with the often underlying expectation that the universe will pay us back in kind. Confronted with bad news, we may think "If I can get through this, I'll be a better person from hereon."

Karma is thus a kind of reciprocity: I'll buy this round, you'll buy the next, however the deal is made with the universe itself, rather than specific individuals. It's an attempt to steer life towards expected and advantageous directions. We hope our acts of kindness to pave the way for journeys through life that are safe and not too challenging; we hope our kind words inoculate us from pain and discomfort; alas, life doesn't comply with these demands.

Yet, as the Buddha…

orange juice from the hardware store

A recent revelation of developmental neuroscience is the understanding that the brain was designed, by evolution, to be an organ shaped and programmed by the environment it is situated in. The brain is in essence a social organ, with a central role played by human interactions. While the development of language allows us to connect with each other via language, via the conscious operations of the left hemisphere, we first communicate to others in a non-symbolic manner, through body language, facial expressions, glances, tones of voices, under the control of the right hemisphere. In successful encounters our emotions are signals that sync us up, establishing security, emotion regulation and social communication. When we are attuned to another, or "emotionally locked in" with or "mirrored" by others, we can temper states of excitation and move slowly into vulnerable situations that might previously trigger dissociative episodes.

Skillful caretakers provide this mirr…

The Narrator & The Silent Observer

What creates the mind's inner chatter? For lack of a better term, "The Narrator" is created by the language loop of the brain's left hemisphere (a circuit of fibers that connect Broca's and Wernicke's areas of the frontal cortex to the temporal cortex). Developmental psychologists like Lev Vygotsky suggested that the formation of inner talk in childhood begins as a self-regulating tool, a way to internalize the instructive voices of our caretakers for occasions when we are alone in the world, or caught in circumstances we cannot interact verbally to seek guidance. The calmer and gentler were the voices of our parents and guardians, along with those we admire and mimic, the calmer and gentler The Narrator we will hear in the mind, and vice versa. At its most useful, the Narrator can offer a calming presence amidst the threatening chaos of life, when events seem stacked against us.

Without The Narrator we would quite feasibly be overwhelmed by random experienc…