You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Tao’ category.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.

Advertisements

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This has always been one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poems. It goes well with questioning the nature of reality, the nature of the self, the passage of time in that reality, of life. We structure all these in our perceptions from our own nature. We have a beginning and an end (at least in this plane of existence) and a structure that we feel we perceive accurately based on our existence in our reality. But even our concept of time in everyday life -for example linear time or sequential time or synchronous time – comes to us from our culture and beliefs.

amelia-island-march-2011-049Some philosophies see no beginning or end of time, no boundary to the universe. Infinity is a difficult thing for our minds to conceptualize and comprehend. A few weeks ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” discussed “Is Our Universe a Stimulation?” Perhaps we are all just part of a computer program similar to “The Matrix,” except it is just a machine with a programmer somewhere writing the code. We would have no way of proving of disproving the assumption. There could even be an infinity of universes or multi-verses. Whenever any decision is made, a timeline is created. That would theoretically make time travel a possibility since new timelines would create the logical possibility for paradoxes. I love reading counterfactual history. The speculation is always intriguing. What if Churchill had died when hit by a car in New York City in 1931? In some timelines, he would have.

An interview with Donald Hoffman called “The Case Against Reality” is a very interesting read. He uses physics to argue that the world is not hereas we see it. You can read it here or here. Even the concept of universal mind and the oneness of eastern philosophy is possible in his model.

I will end with these words from Alan Watts in his “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking“: – “The world that we see is a creation of eidetic imagery. We select the human concerns as the significant areas. In a way, this is our answer to the cosmic Rorschach test. So, in that manner we have performed maya, the world illusion. But maya also means “art,” and it also means “magic.” Therefore, the magical evocation of the world of things from the formless world – which means from the world of pure Tao that simply wiggles – that is the real creation of the world.”

zhuangzi

Zhuangzi

 

Many years ago, I was facilitating a group for folks who had been referred by the courts for drunk driving and had been evaluated as having a problem with alcohol. I came down to the group room early one afternoon, and one of the guys had gotten there early, too, and we just sat at the table and talked for a while before anyone else arrived. He was concerned that his son, who was about 12 years old, did not respect him as he had respected his dad. I asked him to tell me about his relationship with his son. They went fishing together, they talked, and his son could confide in him, and he could correct his son with words. What he did not do was hit his son. I asked him how did he see respect. “When I did something wrong, daddy didn’t talk, he just flailed us.” It became clear fairly quickly that what he had with his son sounded like a healthy loving relationship that included respect , but he saw respect as lacking. The relationship did not have fear in it. His son was not afraid to talk to him. As an adult, the man I was talking with was still afraid to confide in his father. He still felt fear of his father, and thought that was respect.

So what is respect? In a culture of western religion, we are taught we have a loving God, but that we should also fear that God. Politicians preach that for other countries to respect us, they must fear us. That same belief comes to permeate relationships among those in the community to those in the family and to friends.  In personal relationships, some come to believe that if they are not feared they are not respected.

How well does that work? A child cannot be honest with a parent. Western religions have the concept of original sin and being redeemed by being forgiven by the loving but feared God. Over the millennia, some believers, from various religious traditions, have chosen to kill those they deem nonbelievers in order to save them and to serve their God and spread their belief. Some mix their chosen economic system and put it into their religion, regardless of how incompatible they may be, and again hate and try to destroy those nonbelievers and  forcibly spread what they believe is truth. Nations, and individuals, may lie to each other, try to intimidate each other, and try to be at least one up on all others. Being on top means being the most feared in the hierarchy. Fear doesn’t plant the seeds of honesty very well. Fear kills honesty. For all the television and movie action stories that rely on fear and torture to get the truth, the reality is that those methods don’t work very well, and are often counterproductive. Meeting anger and hatred with anger and hatred just intensifies and increases and spreads the anger and hatred and fear. You reap what you sow in an endless feedback loop.

More and more, neuroscience focuses on the attachment style we acquire as infants and that style affects every relationship we have in life including relationships with addictive behaviors. Here is Allan Schore talking briefly about the effects of abuse and neglect on attachment.

Chinese philosophy doesn’t have the concept of original sin nor an eternal afterlife nor the need for the supernatural to save you from sin and eternal damnation. It is based in nature. The philosophers, who lived during the Warring States period, tried to teach a way that would help people treat each other decently, and the way of each philosopher was directed by their view of whether people are inherently good or evil or born with the capability for both with the outcome based on how they were raised. Confucius taught the need for ritual to be able to act and react in the right way with “de” or virtue. Mencius had us develop our “moral sprouts.” Laozi taught the need to get back to our original nature, which he felt was inherently good. Mozi taught the need to measure the utility of everything and direct behaviors based on outcomes. He also said that maybe it was better that people believe in ghosts and spirits for then they would behave better. Modern psychology does find that people tend to behave more ethically when they feel they are being watched. A poster of a drawing of eyes on the wall in a break room can increase the contributions to the honor collection for coffee. Mozi, however, never indicated that he believed in such beings.

Zhuangzi taught that no matter what path you take, you focus on the path and do your best. There are many ways to strive to get to the top of the mountain. Virtually every philosophy/religion has some version of the golden rule or categorical imperative – treat others as you would like to be treated. Love one another as you love yourself. The only life long relationship you have is with yourself, and the relationship you have with yourself affects your relationship with and attachment to others. Which gains more respect – treating yourself and others with honesty, a desire for understanding, empathy, compassion, and loving kindness, or in ways that invoke fear? How would you like to be treated? And how do you treat yourself and others?

Santa Fe 2009 298Many of the people I work with in both taijiquan and counseling have chronic pain. According to the National Health Interview Survey done by the CDC , about 25 million Americans suffer daily pain and about 54 million Americans have chronic pain. In working with pain, I use a combination of movement and mindfulness. Taijiquan and qigong can work wonders for pain relief. Each is a gentle way to get moving again and a way to attain balance in all parts of life.

There are several books I suggest to folks. First are the works of Toni Bernhard. You can read more about her at http://tonibernhard.com/. She addresses pain management from a Buddhist perspective. She has written several books on the topic and about her own coping with chronic pain. Another book is “The Pain Antidote: The Proven Program to Help You Stop Suffering from Chronic Pain, Avoid Addiction to Painkillers and Reclaim Your Life”, by Mel Pohl, MD and Katherine Ketcham. You can find out more about it at http://www.thepainantidotebook.com/index.html. Pohl helps people get off opiates and develop alternate and more effective ways of coping with pain.

Taiji and qigong work with pain by changing your relationship with gravity, changing the way you breathe, and calming your mind and body. A principle of taiji is that you only expend the energy and engage the muscles for whatever it is you are doing at that moment. Everything else is relaxed but ready. Your joints are never locked. Your spine is upright and your head rests in balance on your shoulders. If you had a plumb bob attached to the center of the top of your head and it ran down the center of your body, that plumb bob would always touch the floor somewhere between your feet as you move. Standing at rest, it would be equidistant between your ankles. Your shoulders are relaxed – neither tucked forward nor pulled back. When you change your relationship with gravity and are balanced, there is less pain because you are not tilted forward or back putting a lot of work on your neck, shoulders, and back. You also carry your body differently according to mood. Being in balance and harmony with gravity can also balance your mood.

Breathing to your diaphragm also reduces stress which can reduce pain. There is an emotional component to pain. Calming the emotions can help reduce the pain. Abdominal breathing slows the heartbeat, reduces blood pressure and blood sugar, lowers stress hormones in the blood, changes the blood flow in the body, improves digestion, and even changes your vision. You are going from fight-flee-freeze-faint mode to rest and digest mode. This is a guide to finding balance in a standing meditation.

.

You can read more about the principles of taijiquan and qigong here.

You can also change your relationship with pain by changing the emotional relationship with it. Rather than fighting it, have a conversation with it. What is it trying to tell you? How does it feel? Is it hot, cold, throbbing, a dull ache? Notice it, be with it. Change your self talk with pain to change that relationship, too. Pain is not a bad thing, it is there to tell us something is wrong. Sometimes the harder we try to make it go away, the harder it works to be heard. Changing self talk can help with that as well. You change your relationship with pain.

 

Another option is humor. In 1979, Norman Cousins wrote a book called, “Anatomy of an Illness As Perceived by the Patient – Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.” I came across it back when it was published in 1979. My dad was in an intensive care unit for most of two years during that time. Cousins found that a component of his healing was humor and included things like watching Candid Camera and Marx Brothers movies. Laughter changes the hormones in your body and can bring on pain relief. Even just a smile can begin to bring calm and start to lessen pain. When people have found that support groups sometimes unhelpfully come down to contests of who hurts the most, humor can erupt to help with coping, especially in the form of Monty Python. Just the thought of the Yorkshire men can bring on a smile.

 

 

 

2015 May 16 to 23 Bar Harbor 052

Root to the earth and rise to the sky like a tall straight tree.

It is difficult to feel centered sometimes. We are scattered by all sorts of distractions – perseverating thoughts, loud noises, flickering lights, and most often these days from electronic devices like phones and tablets. There seem to be multiple things at any given moment getting us scattered mentally and emotionally, and also physically. Pay attention to your body when you are feeling scattered. Are you grounded and relaxed and in harmony with gravity? Or are you tense, stiff, tilted forward or to one side with gravity pulling you down.

 

Our bodies and minds are one and when you are scattered in one, the other is out of balance as well. In taijiquan and qigong, your center is your lower dantien. That is the energy center about three finger widths below your belly button and three finger widths inside your body. Essentially, it is your center of gravity, and we move around and breathe from that center. I sometimes say in taijiquan class that life is a struggle in finding balance with gravity. It is always there. Astronaut Scott Kelly was two inches taller after spending about a year in space. Gravity compressed his body back that two inches after his return to earth. When you are out of balance with gravity, your body pays a price. Your neck, your lower back, and your spine all struggle to keep you upright. The outcome is increased pain and an increased risk of falling.

When you are out of balance, you also do not breathe as efficiently. Beginning about age 6 or 7, our breathing tends to start moving from our belly towards our upper chest. This style of breathing is less efficient. We get less oxygen, we have to work harder to breathe and tend to breathe more quickly. This “upper chest” breathing engages your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight/flee/freeze/faint system. Your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and breathing rate all rise. You get tunnel vision. Your blood moves from your internal organs and brain out to your arms and legs to get you ready for action. Your ability to think and improvise goes away and you automatically “go with what you know.” Your adrenalin and cortisol levels rise and form a feedback loop between your adrenal glands and your brain that causes the levels to continue to rise. Take a moment and put one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Now breathe like you normally breathe. Which hand moves? Are you breathing from your abdomen or your upper chest?

You can practice getting your center – finding your balance and breathing efficiently. You will move better. You will feel better. You will function more from the parasympathetic nervous system’s rest and digest way of being. You might even be more likely to use the other response to a threat – tend and befriend – when you are balanced.

This is an exercise we do at the beginning of classes to find balance with the earth and harmony with gravity.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116Recently a friend mentioned how different he felt while on prednisone, and as a Buddhist it helped bring home the tenuousness of the concept of self. Alan Watts wrote extensively about the concept of self in Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, with one example here.

I get to listen to about 10 or 15 minutes of Radio Lab on NPR during my Wednesday commute and recently there was a piece on the element lithium. Lithium is used as a psychotropic, but they also mentioned that towns which have an incredibly small amount of lithium naturally occurring in their water supplies also have lower suicide rates than towns with even smaller amounts. It reminded me that when lead was removed from gasoline and paint, crime rates went down. Transcranial magnetic stimulation not only helps with relieving depression, but in at least one study, people changed a decision after the stimulation. They didn’t realize the stimulation had occurred and had a rational explanation as to why they changed their minds, and the explanation went along with our concept of self and free will. So much of what we do and who we are occurs below our conscious level.

One theory in neuroscience I have come across is that the construct of “other” evolved first followed by the construct of “self.” These came about so that we could communicate and get along in this world. Music also evolved for our social and emotional well being, and it can have a very big impact on emotion. Think about the use of music in the soundtracks of movies, television and radio and how that affects your experience of the story. Athletes use music to change their performance. You can even use a soundtrack in your mind to change your mood and to change your self-talk. In Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Daniel Shapiro tells how at his workshops he uses a soundtrack of drums to increase the sense of tribe for workshop participants who have to negotiate bringing their separate tribes into one tribe or else the world will end. The world almost always ends in the exercise. I wonder if that would change without the beat of the tribal drums during the cohesion of the tribes.

Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to the self – the “dual nature of identity.” He refers to our sense of self as the “fixed-identity problem.” Identity is not static, and includes our beliefs, rituals, allegiances, values, and emotionally meaningful experiences. We have various mindsets of the self. There is the fundamentalist who sees identity as fixed and governed by forces outside our control. There is the constructivist who sees identity as an “ever-evolving social construction.”   There is the anattist who sees us as having no permanent identity and transcending “the material world of attachment, experiencing identity as shifting waves within the ocean of life.” Lastly, there is the quantumist who sees identity as “a combination of nature and nurture” with identity both fixed and fluid and there are many possible selves. And we may change that perspective over time. They are not fixed either. With these different perspectives, how do we get along with each other? We change our relationships in that space between us. You can learn more by listening to Shapiro here.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the attic in the home where I grew up. I found the speech I gave at my high school graduation. The last line was “we are all in this together.” All these years later, I still believe that. Shapiro’s work gives us good guidance on how to get along with each other in this world, and some different perspective on just what the “self” is.

On Friday, we had snow, then sleet, then some rain and then into Saturday it became sleet and then back to snow that lasted almost into Sunday morning. The weather forecasters had been tracking this storm for a while. It looked touch and go as to what we would get and how much and when it would start here in eastern Virginia. A manager at one of the places I work sent out one of the best cancelation emails I have ever received: “Due to the impending doom, classes are canceled tomorrow.” She is from upstate New York and has a sense of humor about snow south of the Mason-Dixon. And my work schedule put me at the particular work place just as it started to snow. She ended up canceling classes for the afternoon as well. The snow stuck to the roads pretty quickly.

Today, Sunday, is chilly and beautiful. The wind has calmed and the sky is achingly blue. When I looked up early this morning, I thought “I haven’t seen a sky that color since I was last in New Mexico.” I went out after breakfast to start shoveling the driveway. We have a fairly long and curved driveway. It is uphill all the way to the street and trees line both sides. I have to shovel the whole thing side to side so that we can get traction up the hill to get out, and so that we don’t accidentally slide into a tree or slip into the side of the house trying to traverse its aggregate length on the way back down. I decided last year that I would know when it was time to move when I get too old to shovel it.

I have a system for shoveling. I start at the top and work in angles and use gravity to help. It is the simple kind of geometry I liked back in late elementary and early high school. I still wear the galoshes I got around 6th grade complete with loafers from that time inside. My coat is a nylon jacket I got in 9th grade all those decades ago. They feel like old friends that are there for me every winter. And I wore thermal and wicking shirts I used in winter while I trained for marathons some years ago. Marathons take over your life. I just run for fun these days. It is a nice meditation time. I think I wrote most of my dissertation while running.

I walked up to the road. The only tracks in the snow were birds and squirrels and rabbits. I wondered how the little fox who used to hang out some last summer is doing. Hope he or she is okay. The first thing I noticed as I started shoveling was that the alternation of the types of precipitation resulted in snow on top of a layer of ice. Ice does not shovel very well. Hidden in the snow were lots of branches and small limbs that had come down in the wind yesterday – little barriers that could stop a blade quickly. The combination of snow and ice took me back to the snows of ’66 back home. We missed a lot of school for snow days that year, and a snow fort I built in our front yard stayed there for weeks with its ice armor over the snow walls.

I like shoveling snow. It is a kind of meditation. There is the cold, the stark clarity of the landscape, the clean scent of frozen air. There is the serenity of the quiet. Just birds and squirrels were out except for three times when people and their dogs walked by. Today was interesting. How to push snow while standing on ice. I do a lot of balance work with taijiquan and qigong. I used those principles to stay upright. Relax, sink your energy (qi) down to your center and below. Root your feet to the earth. Let energy come up through your feet and legs, direct it with your waist – silk reel – express the energy with your arms and hands. Keep the posture up, breathe to the diaphragm, move from the lower dantien. Embrace tiger, return to mountain. Flow with Dao in harmony with nature. Hard to stay mindful all the time, though, and that is okay. Memories of past snows, thoughts of internal ongoing conversations and writing projects, the occasional blasts of songs by Adele in time to movement of the shovel. Sometimes the brain was as busy as the arms and legs. If I did start to slide, I would just flow with it and stay upright and in control. Just pretended I was in a pickup hockey game with Denis Leary.

The fitbit says I walked a little over three miles. I could probably go out and do the whole thing again now. The sun has softened up the ice. But it is getting late in the day. The temperature is falling. The sun and its yang power will be back tomorrow to take the yin cold of the ice and turn it to water. Let softness, yielding, and flexibility overcome the hard and rigid – practice wu wei in the aftermath of the storm.

Share This Blog

Facebook Twitter More...

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Site Archive

RSS Psychology News Feeds

Advertisements