Living in a distracted age

Philosopher Alain de Botton on the effects of the relentless barrage of information which our minds are subject to in today’s world and how we need to re-learn and practice the ability to switch off:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible…..The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

When your day is blue, or grey, look for red

The snow returned briefly yesterday, and today there is a bitter north wind.  When times are grey or cold, or if our mood is blue (as this week is purported to be) we need to consciously notice the moments of colour and warmth in our lives, explicitly savouring them a little longer. We have to let positive facts become positive experiences. Just as   Mary Oliver does when she pays attention to the red bird in this poem. What were  or are the moments of colour in your day today that you can be grateful for? Who or what brought warmth? Allow yourself  to feel good if you achieve something  however small,  if someone smiles or if you notice a good quality in yourself. As studies have shown, the more you take in the good in little details, the more your brain tilts towards the positive in an overall sense.

Still, for whatever reason —
perhaps because the winter is so long
and the sky so black-blue,

or perhaps because the heart narrows
as often as it opens —
I am glad

that red bird comes all winter,
firing up the landscape
as nothing else can do.

This week, reduce stress at work: 1: Do Less

Three posts on how to shift your relationship with work, stay more mindful, and reduce stress.  My father used to say that hard work never killed anyone, and he was right: some degree of being kept occupied by work is good for our creative energies. Furthermore,  work allows us make a contribution to the world. However, modern work is frequently driven by non- stop deadlines and busyness. This can spread into our whole day by the fact that we are in constant connection through emails 24/7,  notifying us of work to be done or forgotten. If we refuse to buy into this constant activity we are made to feel guilty or disloyal.

As Marc Lesser says: Our daily incessant busyness – too much to do and not enough time; the pressure to produce a to-do list and tick off items by each day’s end – seems to decide the direction and quality of our existence for us. But if we approach our days in a different way, we can consciously change this out-of-control pattern. It requires only the courage to do less.

He goes on to give three thoughts on how to begin doing less. They are our starting points for reflection on balance in work:

1. We do less by taking the time to rest mentally and physically in between or outside of our usual activities, perhaps instituting a regular practice of meditation, retreats, breaks, and reflection.

2. We do less by pausing in the midst of activities: mindfulness practice (such as coming in touch with our breath in between reading or sending emails) and walking meditation are two examples.

3. We do less by identifying and reducing unnecessary activities. In this case, “unnecessary” means those things that are not in alignment with what we want to accomplish.

Marc Lesser, Accomplishing More by Doing Less

Stille Nacht or finding inner peace at Christmas time

All around the world the popular Christmas song, Stille Nacht/Silent Night is sung on this day. The German word stille has some deeper connotations than what is conveyed by the English word “silent”. It has its roots in the verb “stillen”, meaning to suckle, to quieten a child and put to rest. The mother feeds and comforts the hungry child so that it becomes calm and content, able to close its eyes and sleep. For us too, the calm which we all desire inside our hearts is related to our awareness of being safe,  which allows us to become still inside.

As an adult, can we ever get back to this early awareness of calm? Maybe never fully, but there are some things we can do. It seems that this interior stillness is related to exterior quiet. It has been found that noise raises cortisol levels, the hormone related to stress and anxiety and that taking some quiet time lowers these levels. It has even been measured. Apparently 12 minutes of quiet will bring down cortisol levels in the brain and lay the foundation for calm. However, these days, this is not se easy to do. We are continually bombarded by noise: the TV, radio, iPods, mobile phones, and computers hardly stop for a second. We also live in an age of visual stimulation that leaves us craving louder and brighter, kinds of entertainment. These means that a lot of us are extremely uncomfortable with silence and have become so unfamiliar with it that even momentary periods of quiet are quickly filled with sound or anxiety.

And yet, we all long to silence the noisy chatter of our thoughts, the crying of our needs and emotions, and develop a place of quiet and calm within us. A place which is safe, away from the judgments, expectations and demands placed on us by our own critical mind or by others. At some times in our lives we find it relationships with others, or in the embrace of our family. However, what this day and all the wisdom traditions remind us, is that real, lasting peace is to be found within our hearts, a quiet space where nothing can harm us, untouched by all the stuff that others may wish to impose upon us.  If we do not find that stillness within, it is hard to find it in the outside circumstances of our lives. Only when we have found this inner place of peace can we have contact with others without anxiety. We can rest, and be still, without fear of being hurt.

How our fears keep us predicting wrongly

As yesterday’s post said, one way we cope with anxiety is that we live somewhat in the future, imagining a better time which is going to happen soon. The capacity of the brain for imagining and predicting the future is an important survival tool, which evolved over billions of years to enable us remember and avoid dangerous situations. The same capacity functions in our early years when it is vital that the child receives consistent and responsive caregiving from the parents. When this is lacking in some key ways, the child forms an picture of how unreliable and unsafe the world is and how much people can be trusted. This knowledge then becomes “encoded” in the brain as a paradigm of how to feel secure. In other words, the child makes a prediction of how relationships will have to be managed from its experience of how it is in its relationships with its parents.

This prediction becomes a working model which stays with us as we navigate our way through relationships in adult life. Thus, we tend to behave in relationships based on how we predict or imagine people will treat us, in line with our early experiences. The problem with this is that, while our early model may have worked in keeping us safe as a child, it can make us be overly distrustful and hyper-vigilant as adults. Something which was adaptive when young frequently becomes maladaptive in adulthood where it is not necessary to the same degree. In this way, the predictive capacity of the brain can become a liability. The stored fears and anxieties of childhood – which are unfortunately quite resistant to change –  can exert a huge influence in adulthood, leading to an avoidance of intimacy and resulting in the person feeling as emotionally isolated as they did in childhood. The brain can continually predict danger, and takes the model it has learnt to be the only way to behave. When it meets new situations,  or new people,  it makes predictions which give preference to fear-based scenarios,  rooted in the past. It then conspires to bring about the scenario it is most familiar with.  Sadly, as psychoanalyst Regina Pally reminds us, we learn from the past what to predict for the future and then live the future we expect. In this way – in a phenomenon which Freud termed the “repetition compulsion” – we frequently end up in the situation which our defenses were set up to avoid, recreating the same dynamics and destructive scenarios that we experienced as children, despite the brain believing that we are doing differently.

Speed

Each meditation session is a journey of discovery to understand the basic truth of who we are. In the beginning the most important lesson of meditation is seeing the speed of the mind.

But the meditation tradition says that mind doesn’t have to be this way: it just hasn’t been worked with.

Sakyong Mipham