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synaptic dharma

Your brain determines your mind, and your mind determines your brain; they are interactive, mutually causal; as your brain changes, so does your mind, and vice versa. While its tempting to think of our unexpressed thoughts as without substance or lasting significance, that's far from the case.

If you find yourself pondering certain thoughts repeatedly, the neural brain circuits that correspond to these thoughts will become increasingly sensitive, the synaptic structures will bond with greater stability and will become more active: You are neurally carving the thought circuits into your frontal lobe. Visualize a skier repeating the same route down a slope: the result will be a trail. The more the skier uses the trail, the deeper the trail becomes, and eventually the route will become so ingrained the skier will find it difficult to discard. Also, its easier to ski in trails then carve out new ones. It's the same process for your thoughts; the more you think a fearful, worst-cas…

Maintaining Stable Feelings of Self-Worth Despite Internal and External Criticism

We are pack animals. Our evolution as a species has deeply ingrained in each of us an understanding that survival rests dependent on belonging to a group, from which we receive protection when sick or emotionally vulnerable; when we have safe and reliable support, we are aided in regulating and processing our difficult emotions, such as fear, sadness, frustration, loneliness. Feeling disconnected, on the other hand, creates distress; emotional states cannot be properly understood or processed without the help of others—this is why the Buddha noted that wise friends are the foundation and entirety of the spiritual path. Indeed, connection lies at the very core of the human psyche, the structure of the human brain: how do I maintain a secure relationships with others? While the brain's left hemisphere creates ideas and language, the right hemisphere maintains emotional systems based on how securely connected we feel to others. These emotional systems are in effect maps of our relati…

Spiritual Bypass

The Buddha taught that the greatest source of suffering in life arises from our attempts to avoid inevitable discomforts; essentially, we crave immunity from discomfort and an escape route from difficult emotions. Yet we humans all work from the same universal, basic emotional palette: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, disgust, contempt, surprise.

Now, many of us are trained, in the formative years of childhood, that some of these inevitable emotional states aren’t safe to express, such as sadness and anger; they must be avoided at all costs. (As infants we run to our caretakers during emotional events, seeking regulation and security; whatever emotions make our caretakers uncomfortable, we’ll struggle with as well). While many of our emotions will be tolerated, others will be rejected or shamed; this experience of disrupted connection creates what can be a lifelong tendency to suppress and repress core human energies, rather than learning to face and tolerate all of our core emotional …

Mindfulness and Transcendence of the Small Self

The goal of spiritual practice can be seen as
1) relieving stress and emotional agitation wherever possible and
2) alleviating our attachment to the small, trapped, limited sense of self.

The latter is achieved by learning to break down and separate our inner experience into discreet, separate entities. When the mind adheres to the limited sense of self, it believes that our identity consists entirely of our inner events: body sensations, emotions and thoughts. Unfortunately, our inner experience, all those images, words, emotional sensations, etc become interwoven and tangled. Enchanted by confusion and drama, the mind becomes imprisoned, as awareness shrinks and identifies —tammayata in the Buddha’s languages—generally with thoughts. We begin to believe our thoughts comprise our “self,” while external sensations (sights, sounds, etc) are deemed to be “other.”

Of course, the problem with firmly believing our thoughts to be 'me' or my 'self’ and outer experiences as 'no…

fear

There are times in life when intrusive, fear based thoughts latch hold of us, filling the mind with swarming, buzzing thoughts, distracting us during interactions with others, muting the sensory richness of each moment—the sounds, body sensations, aromas, feelings and on. Such dire visitors—generally based on past resentments or speculative fears—can easily bait and hook us, threatening us with annihilation, repeating constantly; given how constant the messages can be, releasing such thoughts can feel like ignoring ‘the world is going to end’ new flashes on CNN or city sirens announcing impending hurricanes. The mind can really play tricks that make it all to easy to abandon the present, which is, of course, the only place of true safety and utility.

When we find the mind latching onto these narratives, images or moods, and we can’t reassure, reason with or let go, sometimes the only solution is to give up the battle and actually write down what our fears are trying to tell us. If we’v…

Imagination And Creativity as Spiritual Practice

It’s worth noting how few of childhoods’ freewheeling exercises—the entertainments that were once synonymous with youthful delight—journey through to adult life. To a great degree, we’ve moved, en masse, toward consuming entertainment via television, video games and social media rather than creating our entertainment: drawing, making pottery, dancing, singing, and other inventive endeavors. Those same kindergartners who sing, draw, dance, and engage in all kinds of play, will, in only a few years’ time, be streaming their content via iPad screens, which requires less imagination and effort. 
Consider the mind’s two dominant cognitive networks: the first is the default mode network (DMN), a mental state wherein we can visualize possibilities or solve problems, but where we often wind up speculating about unknowable future outcomes or ruminating about interpersonal conflicts. DMN is largely activated by subregions associated with inductive reasoning centers of the brain (the dorsal and m…

A Carnival in Your Palm: Stress and Isolation in the Age of Social Media

It’s a beautiful, early June afternoon on what’s known as Bushwick Inlet Park, a meadow with soccer fields and a set of benches overlooking the East River. As do all north Brooklyn waterfronts, the park provides an unobstructed of Manhattan’s dramatic skyline, and this afternoon offers a particularly enjoyable scene. In addition to near perfect weather, water planes are making swooping arcs over the river and landing like geese at the water plane terminal across from us, on the Manhattan side. Just behind us, groups of young children chase soccer balls and try to score goals, oblivious to the teacher who blows a whistle for their attention. It’s all so complete and perfect, yet few people are actually taking in the scene. Despite the view, the sounds, and the rich sensations, my present neighbors are glued to the tiny screens on their smartphones, soaking in the messages, news items, posts and status alerts, hooked into a netherworld of .jpg images and headlines demanding attention. Lost in cyber…

spiritual isolation (transcript of a talk given January 2011)

Everything the Buddha taught boiled down to, in his words, ‘Suffering and the end of suffering.’  He wanted people to understand what suffering is, what causes it, and to provide tools necessary to limit all the needless stress we’re adding to life. After all, we wind up with enough challenges with a human birth, receiving what the Buddha called that the first noble truth: we're going to grow old, experience sickness and and death, we’ll know loss, separation, disappointment, sorrow, lamentation, despair.  All these things happen to everyone;  in life shit hits the fan. The Buddha also referred to such experiences as the first arrows.  
But the goal is, when we are suffering, not to increase our misery by adding more emotional pain and mental agitation to the mix.  For example, using the old example of when we stub our toe: there is the pain, but also the stuff that we add on top of it: we may focus excessively on the pain without being aware of other parts of the body that aren’t …