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Mindful - June 2018

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mindful
CONTENTS
june
ON THE COVER
62
30
OPTIMISM
IN ACTION
The Right
Time to
Meditate
How to be
positive...and
still keep it real
18
62
42
Mindfulness
Made Simple
42
Can
Meditation
Change
Your Brain?
How to find
balance in small
moments
22
Is Your Inner
Critic Bad for
Your Health?
26
The Road(s) to
Happiness
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL HOLFELD. ILLUSTRATIONS BY FEDERICA BORDONI AND AARON PILAND.
The new science
of living well
“I don’t think mindfulness is optional
anymore. The world is moving too fast.”
Alison Canavan on why meditation has
been key in her recovery from alcoholism
and depression, p.36
On our cover: Alison Canavan, health
and wellness coach. Photograph by Daniel
Holfeld. Hair and makeup by Amy O’Connell.
Wardrobe by Roxanne Parker.
36
June 2018 mindful 1
32
CONTENTS
june
18
FEATURES
Mindful Living
36
Finding Beauty Inside
18
How To
42
The Magnificent, Wild,
Mysterious, Connected
and Interconnected Brain
A lot of mindfulness literature makes
the brain sound like a very simple
machine. Barry Boyce talks with two
leading neuroscientists about better
ways to think and talk about the brain
and the mind.
56
Have a Seat
Taking the time to discover the most
suitable cushion, bench, or chair for
your body will pay off in years of less
painful meditation sessions.
62
Look on the
Bright Side...?
Optimism can seem like a dead end,
or even a harmful delusion. But it’s
not about slapping a filter over bleak
reality; it’s about allowing yourself to
see life’s full range of colors.
20
Mindful Eating
Long, Lithe, and
Lovely
As the star of the
early summer season,
asparagus deserves its
moment in the spotlight.
22
Mindful MD
Prescribing
Awareness
We oten seek comfort in ignorance. But
by downplaying or
ignoring health issues,
we can inflict further
harm on ourselves and
others.
26
Inner Wisdom
4
Point of View
Don’t Be So Sure
Barry Boyce on the
importance of questioning everything we
think we know.
32
Brain Science
The Quest to Live
Forever
Some scientists are
working on making
the last stages of life a
little healthier, others
are trying to extend
life, and still others are
hoping to make death
obsolete.
The Happiness
Debate
Scientists are weighing
what it really means
to be happy—and
their findings aren’t so
straightforward.
30
FAQ
Am I Doing This
Right?
The latest installment
in our series of helpful
answers to common
meditator questions.
2 mindful June 2018
Departments
80
6
The Mindful Survey
10
Top of Mind
15
Mindful-Mindless
74
Bookmark This
80
MindSpace
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ASIA PIETRZYK, EDMON DE HARO, AND MISSY CHIMOVITZ
From the outside, former model
Alison Canavan’s life looked pictureperfect. But her glamorous exterior
masked a lifelong struggle with
depression.
One Mindful Act
Got a minute? That’s
enough time to generate meaningful action
every day of the week.
point of view
Don’t Be So Sure
Our must-read story this issue:
In our Get Real piece, “Look on
the Bright Side...?” therapist
Elaine Smookler explores how easily
cynicism takes over our minds,
despite the fact that optimism and
openness are the healthier way to go.
On page 62.
Science is a balancing act
between explaining and
exploring, between curiosity
satisfied and curiosity stoked.
In the past several decades, neuroscience—or at least jargon that is
loosely based on neuroscience—has
been used to explain what’s going on
with mindfulness and meditation or
why we need it. Sometimes explanations come in the form of graphic stories about how we get hijacked by the
ancient, “reptilian” part of our brain
and need the new, improved parts of
the brain to come to the rescue. And
these newer parts are associated with
mindfulness, which, like a superhero,
takes care of the villainous emotional
region of the brain that has once
again gotten us into trouble. (See our
discussion with two neuroscientists
about how to talk about the brain and
meditation on page 42.)
It’s a nice parable, and some grains
of truth probably reside there somewhere, but the idea of the reptilian
brain was dismissed long ago in mainstream neuroscience. It was simply a
hypothesis. And the idea that brain
regions have one job to do does not
accurately reflect how all the parts of
the brain work together in a complex
web of millions of interactions.
In trying to explain how mindfulness works, let’s not lose our sense
of wonder and stray into fixed ideas
and dogma. Mr. Weeks would not be
pleased. ●
VOLUME SIX, NUMBER 2, Mindful (ISSN 2169-5733, USPS 010-500) is published bimonthly for $29.95 per year USA, $39.95 Canada &
$49.95 (US) international, by The Foundation for a Mindful Society, 228 Park Ave S #91043, New York, NY 10003-1502 USA. Periodicals
postage paid at New York, NY, and additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Mindful, PO Box 469018, Escondido, CA
92046. Canada Post Publication Mail Agreement #42704514. CANADIAN POSTMASTER: Send undeliverable copies to Mindful, 1660 Hollis St,
Suite 205, Halifax, NS B3J 1V7 CANADA. Printed in U.S.A. © 2018 Foundation for a Mindful Society. All rights reserved.
4 mindful June 2018
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARVIN MOORE
Barry Boyce
Editor-in-Chief
barry@mindful.org
A thousand years ago, when I was
in grade 12, I had a physics teacher,
Mr. Weeks, who was legendary for the
powerful experiences that took place
in his classroom. Until Mr. Weeks’s
class, I found science tedious and boring, but he changed everything. His
class was focused not on the answers,
but on the questions. He injected awe
and wonder into our mutual explorations of how the world worked. I hope
we have all had a teacher like that.
When I disputed one of the core
tenets of physics, he didn’t respond
with the kind of implied put-down
I was used to: “How could a high
school student know better than the
great minds of the ages?” Instead, he
started out from the assumption that
I may be right, and engaged me in a
debate. The second law of thermodynamics did not fall that day, but I did
come to a better understanding by
being allowed to question it.
Science is always a balancing act
between explaining and exploring,
between curiosity satisfied and
curiosity stoked. When the most
popular explanation for something
becomes well established, it turns
into dogma, until someone comes
along to challenge it. Everybody
thought they knew how the universe
was put together until Galileo came
along and said, “I’m not so sure.” He
lost his life for that.
How we use science matters. Just
think of all the attempts to use “scientific” arguments to prove one gender
or race as superior to another. When
that happens, the spirit of inquiry and
exploration are long gone. Science just
becomes a convenient way to end the
conversation.
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the mindful survey
Like Body, Like Mind
Answers from our reader survey on the mind–body connection
What is your strongest sense
perception?
THE MOST ACUTE SENSE AMONG
respondents was hearing, with 34%.
Sight is the runner-up (28%), followed
by the mysterious sixth sense, at 17%.
Smell and touch were tied with 10%
each, and only 1% chose taste.
“The more present
and mindful I am, the
more synchronized
the body–mind
connection is.”
What is your favorite exercise
to do mindfully?
What is your favorite food
to eat mindfully?
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
When do you feel most centered?
•
•
•
•
•
•
• Dancing
• Cleaning
the house
• Barre classes
• Reiki
• Biking
Walking
Weight liting
Hiking
Kayaking
Mindful aikido
Karate
Body and mind: What’s their
relationship?
55%
IT DEPENDS
ON THE SITUATION
•
•
64%
DURING BODY DURING MENTAL
FOCUSED ACTIVITIES
THE MIND
MANAGES
THE BODY
•
•
FOCUSED ACTIVITIES
•
“Peanuts.”
“Baby carrots…or potato chips.”
“My first cup of coffee in the morning!”
“A Malteser.”
“Dessert.”
“If I have to eat something mindfully,
it needs to be chewy and/or sticky,
like dried fruit.”
“Biryani.”
“Salad—so many things grown from
the earth, picked by hand, and made
available to me with nutrients to fuel
my body.”
“Wine and cheese.”
“Anything crunchy and juicy
and fresh.”
“Chocolate!”
“Probably something smooth
like yogurt.”
“Sushi.”
Do physical cues (e.g., sitting up
straight, deep breathing) help you
to practice mindfulness?
17% 19%
Do you practice mindful eating?
43%
WHO CAN TELL WHICH
IS IN CHARGE?
THE BODY
CONTROLS
THE MIND
2%
6 mindful June 2018
23%
SAY THEY CULTIVATE THE HABIT OF
eating mindfully. 36% have tried it once
or twice. 16% eat mindfully only when
they’re not too hungry (we’ve all been
there!). 20% have never tried a mindful
eating practice. Finally, 5% make the
case that mindfulness shouldn’t relate
to pressures about so-called right and
wrong ways to eat.
70%
Yes
25%
Somewhat
5%
No
the mindful survey
Hugs are …
58% A genuine way to connect physically and emotionally. Hugs all around!
37% Nice, but only with good
friends or family members.
1% Reserved for family
reunions or under duress.
4% Awkward. I want my
personal space.
What emotion creates the strongest feeling in your body?
THE LEAST POWERFUL PHYSICAL RESPONSE COMES
from relief, with only 3%. Sadness and happiness also scored
low (7% and 8%), and love only a little higher at 11%. Unpleasant emotions had the highest scores: fear (18%), anger (19%),
and anxiety (34%).
In one word, how would you describe the
relationship between your mind and body?
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
“A journey.”
“Complicated.”
“Attuned.”
“Strengthening.”
“Progressing.”
“Overrated.”
“Compelling.”
“Struggling.”
“Integrated.”
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
“Tentative.”
“Give-and-take.”
“Inextricable.”
“Mysterious.”
“Scattered.”
“Balancing.”
“Compassionate.”
“Can’t do a word…
a love in progress.” ●
connect
To meet and learn from the best writers and teachers on
mindfulness today, sign up for our email newsletters at
mindful.org. To share your feedback, email us with your full
name, city, and state or province at mindful@mindful.org.
You can also visit facebook.com/mindfulorg or tweet us
@MindfulOnline. For subscription questions, email
subscriptions@mindful.org.
Comments chosen for publication may be edited for length and clarity.
All submissions and manuscripts become the property of The Foundation
for a Mindful Society.
8 mindful June 2018
Editor-in-Chief
Barry Boyce
Art Director
Jessica von Handorf
Deputy Editor
Claire Ciel Zimmerman
Associate Art Director
Spencer Creelman
Editor, Digital
Heather Hurlock
Deputy Editor, Digital
Stephany Tlalka
Editors-at-Large
Kaitlin Quistgaard
Hugh Delehanty
Contributing Editors
Kelle Walsh
Katherine Griffin
Teo Furtado
Barbara Graham
Editorial Assistants
Amber Tucker
General Manager
John Sheehy
Consumer Marketing Director
Daniel Scott
Circulation Planning Director
Catherine Flynn
Audience Development Manager
Leslie Duncan-Childs
Fulfillment Manager
Rebecca Pearson
Interim Business Development
& Partnerships Director
Bakes Mitchell
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THE FOUNDATION FOR A MINDFUL SOCIETY
Mindful is published by the Foundation for a Mindful Society.
The Foundation’s mission is to support mindfulness champions
to increase health, well-being, kindness, and compassion in society.
James Gimian, Executive Director
Board members: James Gimian, Michael Chender, Susan Kaiser Greenland,
Larry Horwitz, Andy Karr (acting chair), Jim Rosen, Dinabandhu Sarley
228 Park Avenue S #91043
New York, NY 10003-1502 USA
To make a donation to the foundation, please visit mindful.org/donate
Editorial & Central Business Office
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mindful@mindful.org
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Editorial Inquiries
If you are interested in contributing
to Mindful magazine, please go to
mindful.org/submission-guidelines
to learn how.
We wish to thank the 1440
Foundation for their enduring and
sustaining support, and the Hemera
Foundation for their visionary
partnership in our founding years.
Customer Service
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an insight meditation center
Learn more:
June 2018 mindful 9
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what’s new
Top of Mind
Things that spark our minds, touch our hearts, make us
smile—or roll our eyes. Keep up with the latest in mindfulness.
A case for social meditation
prefrontal cortex, which is linked to
attention control. Those who practiced
loving-kindness meditation and then
did a sharing and empathetic listening
exercise with a partner had increases
in the areas that process emotions and
bring them into conscious awareness.
The second study measured cortisol levels among all participants, and
found that those who meditated alone
felt calm, but their cortisol levels
didn’t change. In contrast, the people
who practiced compassion meditation
and shared with a partner experienced a 51% drop in cortisol.
Finding the intervention both
low-cost and efective, the researchers concluded that meditating with a
partner or group may hold promise
for minimizing chronic social stress.
Help your honey’s heart
You probably already suspect that
practicing mindfulness can help
you stay cool when your partner annoys
you. But in a recent study of married
couples and conflict, Florida State
University researchers turned up a surprising twist: The higher one spouse’s
level of mindfulness, the lower the other
10 mindful June 2018
partner’s cardiovascular reactivity (as
measured by spikes in blood pressure
and heart rate) when the inevitable
arguments ensue. In other words, the
more mindful you are, the less likely
your partner is to experience potentially
heart-harming physical changes during
an argument.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LEAH KELLY / PEXELS
Meditation is often practiced alone, but
two studies indicate that thinking of
or being in the presence of others may
confer diferent, and at times greater,
benefits. Researchers in Leipzig, Germany, conducted two studies with 300
volunteers over nine months. In the
first, an MRI showed that people who
meditated alone by focusing on the
breath or body had thickening of their
what’s new
Driving change in
Germany
Nature’s classroom
If herding a classroom of
elementary school students
outside—and then getting
them focused once back
inside—seems daunting to
some teachers, a new study
may change their minds on
getting the kids outdoors.
Researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana–
Champaign studied the
impact of outdoor learning on subsequent indoor
learning, and found large
benefit for using nature as a
classroom. After 40 minutes
of outdoor instruction, once
back inside, teachers were
able to teach almost twice as
long without having to redirect students’ attention.
“The findings here suggest that lessons in nature
allow students to simultaneously learn classroom curriculum while rejuvenating
their capacity for learning,”
the researchers said.
Already a pioneer of the
transition to solar and wind
energy, Germany is launching new measures to combat
the country’s severe air pollution. The plan, initializing
in five cities, introduces free
travel on subways and shortdistance trains, as well as
new low-emission zones
and car-sharing. These
innovations come with a
hefty price tag, however,
and critics point out that
similar endeavors in the US
and Europe have flopped.
EXTRAORDINARY
ACTS OF
KINDNESS
Eight parents in
Texas painted
empowering messages—like “Kindness changes
everything”—on
bathroom stalls at
their kids’ school.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADRIAN PELLETIER, RYAN MCGUIRE, WOKANDAPIX / PIXABAY
Are college kids headed for burnout?
There’s little question that
today’s college students are
extremely hard on themselves. Looking at 27 years
of data, researchers at the
University of Wales found
that compared to previous generations, college
students now have higher
academic expectations for
themselves, which dovetails
with higher rates of anxiety, among other neuroses.
American students are
more prone to self-oriented
perfectionism—putting
pressure on yourself to be
perfect—but students in
Canada, America, and the
United Kingdom all struggle with socially prescribed
perfectionism, or perceiving that others are judging
them more harshly and that
they must be “perfect” to
win approval.
As for why, researchers
point to Western cultural
shifts that are more individualistic, materialistic, and
socially antagonistic and
that today’s young people
face “more competitive environments, more unrealistic
expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents
than generations before.”
“These are worrying trends and suggest
that young people may be
increasingly more sensitive to perceived external
pressures and are finding it
more difficult than previous
generations to cope with
them,” they note.
Screening minors
An unexpected reason to
check screen use among
children: fighting inequality. According to the Kaiser
Family Foundation, daily
time looking at a screen
added up to 8 hours and 36
minutes for white children,
but 13 hours for Black and
Hispanic children. Racialized wealth disparity may be
part of the reason. Researchers suspect “too often the
message we send to lowincome and less-educated
parents is that screen time
will help their children,” but
the risks of too much screen
time aren’t shared. Lowincome neighborhoods may
also be seen as dangerous,
discouraging outdoor play.
A marine biologist was at first
frightened when a
humpback whale
kept bumping
into her. Then she
realized it was
heroically shielding her from a
nearby shark.
A young single dad
in Little Rock, AR,
never complained
about walking
11 miles to work
and back every
day. When his
coworkers found
out, however,
they pooled their
money and bought
him a car.
June 2018 mindful 11
Inner joy in NYC
From March through June
2017, the New York City
yoga and meditation studio
Three Jewels ran its first
wellness program for people living in homeless shelters. Hector Marcel, Three
Jewels’ president, summarized the main goal: “To
have participants experience genuine personal
wellness in a short time.”
The program (a collaboration between the studio’s nonprofit Outreach
Center, the Department
of Health & Hygiene, and
the Department of Homeless Services) curated and
provided free weekly yoga
and meditation classes
for all shelter clients age
4 and older. Shelter staf
members were also ofered
free health programs and
coaching, so they could
understand and benefit
from the same wellness
tools as the clients.
From man-caves to
men’s sheds
The earliest “men’s sheds”
emerged in Australia
around the mid-1990s.
Providing safe spaces
for older men to work on
projects, expand their
communities, and access
mental health resources,
the idea has caught on in 11
other countries since. The
US Men’s Sheds Association began and opened its
first three sheds in 2017.
With the motto that “Men
don’t talk face to face, they
talk shoulder to shoulder,”
the movement is a strong
step toward combating
toxic masculinity. Bring it
in, pal.
12 mindful June 2018
The keys to
mindfulness
One grande nap,
for here
Lots of
studies
on mindfulness
have examined
how people fare
when they learn
mindfulness in
groups taught by a
facilitator. Now the
growth of online
mindfulness
apps and courses
invites researchers to look at the
effects of mindfulness apart from
the influence of a
group or teacher.
In one such
study on stress
among students
and staff at the
University of Sussex, researchers
there compared a
two-week online
mindfulness
course with a
two-week online
classical music
program. At the
end of the study,
they found that
participants in
the mindfulness
option had significantly lower stress
levels. Looking
more closely,
they found that
the mindfulness
group showed
less worry, greater
mindfulness, and
more self-compassion than the
music-listeners—
suggesting that
these specific
elements may be
the key to mindfulness’s ability to
lessen stress.
A café can provide many
kinds of refreshment. A
nap café in Washington,
DC, ofers a new lease
on rest for the rushed.
Described as “a modern
meditation and power nap
studio,” guests can sink
onto a giant bean bag for a
20-minute nap, complete
with scented eye masks
and soothing music.
A sound therapy
People with tinnitus
live with a noise inside
their head that never goes
away. There’s no cure for the
condition, and it can lead to
depression, insomnia, and
anxiety. British researchers
conducting one of the first
randomized clinical trials of
mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for tinnitus found
that an eight-week program
not only reduced sufferers’
distress, but made the noise
itself less noticeable.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NOUT GONS / PEXELS, BARRY GOLDING, ILLUSTRATION BY VECTEEZY
what’s new
what’s new
Don’t get even—get mindful
It’s all too easy for a
flash of anger to trigger a vengeful action—but it
doesn’t have to be that way.
In a rather devilish experiment, Northeastern University
researchers had one group
of college students learn
mindfulness meditation, via
the Headspace app, over a
three-week period, while a
comparison group did puzzles
and word games. At the end,
each student described their
life goals to a person they
thought was a fellow study
participant—and then got
feedback that the listener
found their speeches “boring”
and “a complete waste.”
Here’s the devilish part:
the students were given
the opportunity to add hot
sauce to a “taste test” for the
listener who, they were told,
hated spicy food. While both
groups were angry, the meditators put only half as much
hot sauce into the portion.
Mindfulness meditation,
the researchers concluded,
lessens the likelihood of
people behaving badly when
provoked.
Work in the restaurant
industry tends to be precarious and stressful, and often
workers can’t access healthful ways to cope. In a 2015
survey of substance use and
dependence across industries, the highest-ranking
category was accommodations and food, where 19%
of employees reported using
illegal drugs within the
past month. To combat the
high rates of addiction and
overdose in these careers, a
smattering of organizations
are creating resources and
networks for climbing out
of the addiction pit. Ben’s
Friends organizes support
groups for attaining and
maintaining sobriety, while
Big Table hosts an elaborate dinner for food service
workers once a month,
which doubles as an opportunity to request help for a
coworker in crisis.
Research gathered from Greater Good Science Ctr. at UC Berkeley, Ctr. for
Healthy Minds at U of Wisconsin–Madison, Ctr. for Mindfulness at UMass
Medical School, and American Mindfulness Research Association.
14 mindful June 2018
PHOTOGRAPH BY LIFE-OF-PIX / PIXABAY
Healing from the kitchen
Mindful or Mindless?
Training
with breath
If you want a
better workout,
pay attention to
how you breathe.
Deep, slow
breaths allow us
to relax because
they activate
the parasympathetic nervous
system, which
may in turn
improve workout
performance,
research finds.
Nasal breathing
while jogging
can improve
your peripheral
vision and help to
maintain proper
technique and
form (resulting
in fewer injuries).
Breath work
may even help
your muscles to
recover faster
after stressing
them, as happens in weight
training.
Our take on who’s paying attention and who’s not
mindful
UK author Bridget Lawless
felt that relying on the
trope of abused or murdered women can downplay the real dangers that
women face. To address
this, she launched the
Staunch Book Prize (worth
about $2800 USD) to recognize literary thrillers that
avoid using violence
against women as a
plot device.
Companies like
Modern Meadow
and Bolt are pioneering fabrics that
are kinder to animals and
the environment. So far,
they’ve created a “bioleather” made from yeastbased collagen and a faux
silk spun from sugar.
A new facet to mindful
eating, or just introvert
heaven? Renowned Japanese ramen café Ichiran
has opened a location
in New York City, offering “flavor concentration
booths” where customers
eat solo, focusing only on
their bowl of noodles.
There’s now an app (of
course) for sharing the
final, anxious minutes
when your phone’s battery life dwindles and the
clock ticks toward disconnection. It’s a chatroom
called Die With Me that
allows you to bemoan this
dreaded experience with
others, once your battery
is at 5% or less.
Mood lit
Want to
boost your
mood? A University of Mississippi
study shows that
10 minutes of
either meditation or
walking—as well as
a meditation/walking combo—made
participants feel
better aterward.
They reported feeling more tranquil
and revitalized,
as well as less
exhausted. ●
On a flight
from Dubai to
Amsterdam, one gassy
passenger led to major
hassles: His uncontrolled
flatulence agitated some
passengers so much that
a fight broke out. The
aircrat had to make an
emergency landing to
remove the olfactorily
offended from the plane.
While visiting Yale for a
workshop, two dental students from the University
of Connecticut were in the
lab and took a selfie—with
a background of two severed heads. They’ll
never get ahead
that way. ●
mindless
Illustrations by Jessica Rae Gordon
June 2018 mindful 15
awakenin g t h e body
th e w a y o f s oma tic med ita tion
August 23 – October 31, 2018
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PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK WINDOM / STOCKSY UNITED
mindful
living
“There are worlds
within worlds in this
world of ours.”
GEORGE KROKOS
June 2018 mindful 17
LIVING
| how to
One Mindful Act
Got a minute? That’s enough time to generate
meaningful action every day of the week.
Sometimes opportunities to act with mindful
intention fall into your lap: the politeness jam at
the four-way intersection, when everyone wants
to let the other guy go first; the earnest admission from someone that moves you to respond
in kind. But, let’s face it, barring an emergency,
mostly our days and weeks churn by without
mindful awareness of any particular moment.
The funny thing is, any ol’ Wednesday is
packed with choice points to notice the present
and to engage. Once you start doing it, you’ll be
amazed by how many opportunities there are
to connect, to appreciate, and to experience—
everywhere, all the time.
The best part? It’s super easy to do. Just a
small, simple action can help you wake up and
plug in to the life pulsing all around you.
Here are a few ideas to get started.
Pause before responding
in a conversation
Think about someone
else’s pain and how you
might help
When you’re going through
a hard time, it can feel
all-consuming, and even
hurtful, that the rest of
the world is just skipping
along as always while your
reality has been turned
upside down. Yet when
things are going well, we
can be strangely oblivious
that someone else might be
experiencing the same kind
of difficulty we’ve known.
Is there someone in your
sphere right now who is
struggling? Consider what it
might be like for this person
to go home after work, cope
with the holidays, or face
some scary or challenging appointment. Is there
anything you can do to
help? Maybe it’s hands-on
support—an ofer to drive,
to shop, to babysit. Perhaps
it’s emotional—a note letting
them know you care, a small
bouquet from your garden,
a call to check in. Could
you also hold them in your
thoughts, silently wishing
for their well-being?
Being a mindful listener
means tuning in to the
other person instead of just
mentally prepping for your
own commentary. But it
can be difficult to do, especially if you’re not used to
it. Practice this awarenessbuilding technique in your
next conversations: Before
you respond to what
someone has said, pause
and check in with yourself.
Notice your body position,
your energy, any urges in
your mind. Take a breath.
Now, what might you add
to the conversation?
Stop and tune in to the
environment around you
The next time you’re out
walking your dog, taking your lunch break, or
checking the mail, just
for a minute, stop—and
listen. Ceasing physical
motion is often just enough
to momentarily slow the
ever-whirling mind-train,
allowing your environment
to come alive, like waves
rolling toward shore. Wind,
birdsong, city noises, construction, kids on a school
playground: Let the sounds
fill the sonic field of your
attention. Soon enough
your idle mind will come
back online. But for those
few delicious moments, you
get to be a spectator to the
whole shebang.
By Kelle Walsh • Illustrations by Asia Pietrzyk
DharmaCraf ts
Check in with someone
you haven’t spoken with
in a while
Walk or bike; don’t drive
Do you ever get into your
car, start it up, and arrive at
your destination 20 minutes
later with no recollection of
the drive? Cars encourage
us to disengage from our
surroundings—we close the
doors and are efectively
cocooned in our own little
soundproof world until we
get out again. It’s harder to
turn inward when walking
or riding a bike. Instead,
you’re out there in the
world, exposed to the elements, your attention drawn
outward.
They may cross your mind,
but the next step is what
really matters: Reach out.
All relationships require
tending, and regularly
stretching beyond your
immediate social circle is
an easy reminder of how
much wider our human
circle is. Try this: Make a
list of people you’d like to
stay in touch with (your old
college roommate, a retired
colleague, your aging aunt,
the neighbor who is going
through a rough time), and
post it somewhere you’ll
see it every day. Then, each
week, pick a name, and then
drop a note, write an email,
or pick up the phone and
call them. You’ll feel good
for nurturing the connection, and, who knows, your
thoughtfulness might just
be the boost the person
needed that day.
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Let a manager know you
received great service
It’s so easy to be a critic.
(Um, Yelp much?) But do
you shout from the rooftop when you have good
customer service? When
someone goes out of their
way to be helpful, kind,
and super-efficient at their
job, it’s like a balm for the
bumps and scrapes of daily
living. Telling a supervisor not only gives deserved
credit to the employee, it
lets the business know what
it’s doing right. Really, it
takes so little efort to give
a compliment, but the message can go far.
Make friendly
eye contact
We’re not talking about
creepily laser-beaming into
someone’s eyes. Instead,
simply lift your gaze and
look into the face of the
person handing you your
latte or holding the elevator. Just for a beat, meet
their eyes; maybe ofer a
gentle smile that says, “Oh,
hello there, fellow human. I
see you.” That’s it! Contact
made. Good vibes shared. ●
June 2018 mindful 19
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LIVING
| mindful eating
Long, Lithe, and Lovely
By Claire Ciel Zimmerman
TRY THIS
Savor asparagus season with
a simple salad of raw, thinly
shaved spears. Grab a bunch of
the thicker spears (go with green
or purple, not white) and run a
vegetable peeler down the length
of each to create ribbons. Toss
with the juice of half a lemon and
a glug of olive oil. Sprinkle with
salt and pepper. If you’re feeling
fancy, toss in some shaved or
grated Parmesan cheese. ●
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Claire Ciel Zimmerman is
Mindful’s Deputy Editor and
Eater-in-Chief.
20 mindful June 2018
NUTRITION INFO
Asparagus is an impressive
source of many nutrients:
vitamins K and C, folate, copper,
and most B vitamins, to name a few.
It’s also high in flavonoids that
offer heart-protective benefits.
source: whfoods.com
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF WASSERMAN / STOCKSY UNITED
It starts with a crunch
and finishes buttery
and smooth, like a cross
between a snap pea and
an artichoke. A perfect
complement to rich sauces
and light dressings alike,
asparagus is available
year-round in the US as
an import from warmer
climates. But during spring
and early summer, the
freshly picked, locally
grown varieties burst with
a delicately sweet, earthy
flavor unmatched by the
long-distance travelers of
autumn and winter. No
comparison.
© 2018 Eden Foods
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LIVING
| mindful md
BY ACCEPTING
OUR HEALTH
CHALLENGES, WE
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR
ADDRESSING
WHAT WE CAN
FROM A PLACE
OF EQUANIMITY,
BUILT THROUGH
THE PRACTICE
OF MINDFUL
AWARENESS.
Prescribing Awareness
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Bertin, MD,
is a developmental
pediatrician. His most
recent book is How
Children Thrive.
22 mindful June 2018
Most of us live with a medical ailment or
two—and, quite often, our reactions to them
undermine self-care. It’s easy to rationalize why
not to attend fully to whatever we’re experiencing when we feel angry or overwhelmed or
tempted to ignore it altogether.
For example, consider attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is a medical disorder.
Its genetic inheritance is similarly strong to
that of height, its rate similar around the world
(in spite of how it is often presented), and it
includes brain diferences that have been documented in multiple studies.
As with any health condition, handling ADHD
well means coming to terms with its full range of
efects. ADHD afects a person’s life management,
not only their attention. It can impact school performance, emotions, relationships, jobs, driving—
anything requiring “management.”
As if all of that weren’t hard enough, external judgment runs high with ADHD. Children
get labeled as lazy, unmotivated, or even bad
because of their “disruptive” behavior. Parents
get used to hearing that they should somehow
get a handle on their kids. And adults with
ADHD scramble endlessly to stay organized, →
By Mark Bertin
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JURI POZZI / STOCKSY UNITED
We oten seek comfort in ignorance. But by downplaying or ignoring
health issues, we can inflict further harm on ourselves and others.
mindful md
prosper, and navigate relationships—often to
the frustration of those around them, who don’t
understand what they’re coping with. These
outside pressures may lead individuals with
ADHD to excessively judge themselves.
What comes next, then, when someone
doesn’t know they or their child has this challenging disorder? Or, on a subtler level, when
someone doesn’t grasp the full extent of what
ADHD does? No one can skillfully handle its
symptoms before accepting they aren’t chosen
behaviors, but are caused by ADHD. Without
awareness and targeted treatment, children and
adults struggle. Their neurology continually
frustrates their eforts, and eventually their
self-esteem—along with social life, health, and
overall well-being—will sufer.
Nonjudgmental awareness means accepting
any illness or disorder—whether in yourself
or in someone else—for what it is, including
challenges along with triumphs. With ADHD,
it’s a huge step to realize a child who misbehaves simply cannot yet (as opposed to will not)
control his impulses. It’s no small thing for an
adult to know she is brilliant and hardworking,
despite her struggles to handle projects. The
purpose in doing this isn’t to master our challenges forever, but simply to see clearly from
day to day.
No matter what health issues we face, we
can commit to letting go of all the extra baggage that can show up over time. The instinct
that lays blame or rejects our shortcomings
only gets in the way of progress. We don’t
have to pretend to always be comfortable with
our health challenges. But by accepting them
anyway, we take responsibility for addressing
what we can from a place of equanimity, built
through the practice of mindful awareness.
Meditation helps by giving us an opportunity
to sit with discomfort. Much of what arises in
meditation sheds light on unpleasantness we
may otherwise avoid habitually. Do you find
yourself caught up in fear, or disappointment, or
self-criticism? That’s all common and normal.
We can give ourselves permission to feel exactly
what we feel, even when we’re not as OK with a
situation as we’d like to be.
Outside of meditation practice, do what you
need to do to care for your health. Whether it is
diabetes or asthma or a learning disability, aim
to see your situation with clarity and determination. While you sit in meditation, however,
there’s nothing to fix or change. This is what is.
Practice settling and seeing life clearly, laying
the groundwork for a happier, healthier life. ●
24 mindful June 2018
EXERCISE
Turning Toward Discomfort
SIT FOR A FEW MINUTES,
focusing on the sensation of
breathing. Your mind will stay
busy. When a thought arises,
take note of it, then patiently
return to the breath.
Next, THINK OF SOMETHING UNCOMFORTABLE
about yourself—nothing you
find overwhelming. It could
be a quality that you don’t
like so much or wish you
didn’t have.
NOTICE WHAT ARISES. It
might be a sense of physical
discomfort or an emotion
or an anxious thought. Give
attention to all of it: the facts,
your reactions, emotions like
disappointment or frustration, and anything else that
comes up.
If the practice becomes too
uncomfortable, TAKE CARE
OF YOURSELF. Allow yourself a break, seek out support,
and let go of the practice for
now. Come back to whatever
feels most appropriate in this
moment.
For the last few minutes,
TAKE TIME FOR SELFCOMPASSION. On each
in-breath, be aware that this
is a challenge for you right
now, and all people have challenges. On each out-breath,
wish yourself the same happiness and wellness that you’d
wish for your best friend.
END WITH A FEW MINUTES OF MEDITATION, simply feeling your breath move in
and out, noting thoughts and
letting them go. Set an intention to move forward with both
acceptance and resolve.
LIVING
| inner wisdom
The Happiness Debate
Scientists are weighing what it really means to be
happy—and their findings aren’t so straightforward.
Over the past decade social scientists have taken a deep dive into what
seems like a straightforward question:
What makes us happy? The pursuit of
pleasure? The absence of hardship and
difficulty? Or, seen from a longer view,
the feeling that your life has meant
something?
The answer has proven less obvious,
and largely depends on whom you talk
to. When it comes to the science of
happiness, researchers still don’t fully
agree on how to measure it or, even, a
clear definition of what “happiness” is.
Take, for example, the widely
reported and controversial “happiness gap” finding that parents are less
happy than people who don’t have
children. One of many studies, a sur-
26 mindful June 2018
vey of 397 adults, found that parenting
may provide meaning in life but not
necessarily happiness.
But when researchers from the
University of California, Riverside,
measured both happiness and meaning together, parents, in general, came
out happier and more satisfied in their
lives than people without children.
“When you feel happy, and you take
out the meaning part of happiness,
it’s not really happiness,” researcher
Sonja Lyubomirsky told Greater Good
Science Center.
Diferences like this have spurred a
new inquiry into what actually qualifies as happiness.
And it’s generated new interest in
a 2,500-year-old theory that there are
two types of happiness: hedonic (positive feelings associated with pleasure
or goal fulfillment) and eudaimonic
(positive feelings derived from pursuing meaning).
Hedonic is about in-the-moment
pleasure. It’s the pursuit of enjoyment—fun for fun’s sake. It’s focused
on your own wants and needs and has
an energetic, upbeat quality.
Eudaimonic (pronounced u-duhMOH-nic) is more about fulfilling your
higher potential instead of an immediate desire. It’s associated with things
like seeing the big picture, aligning
yourself with a larger purpose, and
helping others.
While both can evoke good feelings,
current measurements of straight-up →
By Kelle Walsh
We’ve noticed something.
Perhaps you have, too.
The workers of the future have arrived.
The rising generation of innovators are seeking out
professional homes that articulate a holistic approach,
merging wise business practices with support for
wellness on all levels:
The individual, the company,
the community, society as a whole.
Let’s talk.
Ask us how our newest
mindfulness trainings use
app-based learning to
tackle issues related to
eating and anxiety, all the
while accommodating your
workforce’s expectations
for flexibility, and achieving
wellness on the go.
Mindfulness training helps an organization
embody values that today’s top talent are most
drawn to, such as inclusivity and inventiveness.
Furthermore, mindfulness training unlocks the skillful
expression of those values, so all members of your
organization—not to mention the people you serve and
partner with—are able to succeed together.
Let us show you how well-being practices
ARE business practices, with mindfulness
leading the charge.
mindthemoment@harvardpilgrim.org • www.harvardpilgrim.org/mindfulness
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The Mind the Moment program was developed and is offered by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc.
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inner wisdom
POSITIVE
EMOTIONS
CAN HELP YOU
CONNECT MORE
WITH OTHERS,
BROADEN YOUR
ATTENTION, MAKE
YOUR THINKING
MORE FLEXIBLE,
AND INCREASE
YOUR ABILITY
TO SEE THE BIG
PICTURE.
happiness—things like
greater positive afect and
less negative afect—typically fall in the hedonia camp.
Eudaimonic pursuits, on the
other hand, may not bring
a lot of pleasure. In fact,
activities and life focus that
provide a sense of meaning
often involve times of struggle and stress.
So… how does this make
you happy? Some scientists
argue that the pursuit of
meaning, self-growth, and
alignment with something
outside of yourself, while
not always fun, leads to
greater life satisfaction
overall than the pursuit of
pleasure alone.
It may be better for your
health, too. Studies have
revealed a slew of health
benefits from eudaimonic
pursuits, such as volunteering. A 2013 study found that
people who derived their
happiness by having a sense
of meaning had a stronger
immune profile; literally,
their brand of happiness
reaches down to their cells.
They also are less reactive to stress, have higher
HDL (“good”) cholesterol
levels, sleep better, and may
28 mindful June 2018
experience less depression.
Meanwhile, people who
identify more with hedonic
happiness show greater
pro-inflammatory gene expression, the kind common
among people exposed to
chronic stress or trauma.
For all of these reasons,
it might be easy to surmise
that eudaimonia is the one
true path to happiness.
Yet some scientists warn
against this kind of one-isbetter thinking.
Elizabeth Dunn at
the University of British
Columbia tells the Greater
Good Science Center, “To
say that there’s one pathway
to meaning, and that it’s
diferent than the pathway
to pleasure, is false.”
Fun, laughter, and enjoyment are all essential elements of the life experience.
And these efects are not
experienced in a vacuum. In
fact, Dunn and others point
out, feeling positive emotions can help you connect
more with others, broaden
your attention, make your
thinking more flexible, and
increase your ability to see
the big picture, all of which
may contribute to seeing
and aiming for greater
meaning.
Researcher Veronika
Huta writes that each
plays an important role in
the cultivation of a good
life. People who pursue a
balance of both hedonic
and eudaimonic happiness
have “higher degrees of
well-being than people
who pursue only one or the
other” with a higher degree
of mental health, and experience more well-rounded
well-being. The consensus,
she says, is that people need
both hedonia and eudaimonia to flourish. ●
LIVING
| the mindful faq
Am I Doing This Right?
The latest installment in our ongoing series of
helpful answers to common meditator questions.
A
30 mindful June 2018
If you’ve developed a solid
routine like this, of sitting
for any amount of meditation every day, the first
thing you should do is to
pause and take that in.
That is an important and
noteworthy accomplishment that many people only
dream of. Great work!
There is some emerging evidence that more
benefits may result from
spending more time in
mindfulness practice, but I
would suggest letting your
experience be your guide.
What feels right to you? Do
you notice the impact of
your practice on the rest
of your life? Would you
appreciate more of whatever it is that you notice?
That could be the answer
to your question.
But curiosity should
really be your guide in this
situation. See if you might
look at extending your
practice as a kind of experiment or adventure—try
adding 5, 10, or 15 minutes—letting go of specific
expectations about what
that longer practice might
yield, and simply show up
and be curious. See what
you notice, just like you
always have. Some people
find that when they practice for longer than 15 minutes, they face challenges
that never arise in shorter
practice sessions. That may
or may not be your experience, but you’ll never know
unless you try. And as far
as science knows, you’re
very unlikely to overdose
on a little bit of regular
meditation practice! ●
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven Hickman is a clinical
psychologist and founder of the
University of California, San Diego,
Center for Mindfulness and executive
director of the nonprofit Center for
Mindful Self-Compassion.
By Steven Hickman
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RUTH BLACK / STOCKSY UNITED
Q
I meditate for 15 minutes every morning,
and I’ve become pretty comfortable with
that routine. Should I increase the length
of my sessions?
brain science
The Quest to Live Forever
Some scientists are working on making the last stages of life a little
healthier, others are trying to extend life, and still others are hoping to
make death obsolete.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sharon Begley is
senior science writer
with STAT, a national
health and medicine
publication. She is also
author of Train Your
Mind, Change Your
Brain and Can’t Just
Stop: An Investigation
of Compulsions (2017,
Simon & Schuster).
32 mindful June 2018
When the respected physiologist CharlesÉdouard Brown-Séquard extolled the rejuvenating properties of mashed-up puppy and guinea
pig testicles before Paris’s Société de Biologie in
1889—describing how injections of the liquefied
gonads allowed him to perform experiments for
hours on end while standing, lift 100 pounds with
ease, and expel a jet of urine 25% farther than he
could before—he was not the first scientist who
claimed to have discovered a way to turn back
the biological calendar. The Epic of Gilgamesh
(c. 2100 BC), for instance, recounted the king’s
search for eternal life (it turns out to be a thorny
marine plant, but he doesn’t manage to hang on to
it). And the “recipe for transforming an old man
into a youth” can be found in an Egyptian medical text from 2500 BC. I’ll save you the trouble:
It’s a fruit-infused mudpack for the face.
Nor, of course, was Brown-Séquard’s the last
such discovery. A few decades after his death
at age 76 (oh, well) in 1894, other fountain-ofyouth fads swept Europe and America. Implants
of goat testicles into men’s scrota became all the
rage in the 1920s, and the “Steinach operation,”
basically a one-side vasectomy, promised to
increase vigor, reduce fatigue, and slow aging.
Among the recipients was poet William Butler
Yeats. I leave to your imagination why these
early eforts focused on men and their reproductive organs and ask a diferent question: Why are
some people obsessed with extending life span?
For obsessed is what many are. In the last
few years anti-aging research has been attracting buckets of public and private funding, the
United Kingdom’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics
pointed out in a report released in January 2018.
Tech billionaires have been sinking money into
what is variously called life extension, the end of
aging, a search for immortality, or, as longtime
biology-of-aging scientist Cynthia Kenyon put →
By Sharon Begley • Illustrations by Edmon de Haro
Get Started
with Mindfulness
Save $12 on our 3-Volume Set
Order Before June 15, 2018
Use Code: GETSTARTED3
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brain science
CRAZE OR CRAZY? | Young Blood
One of the anti-aging schemes
sprouting up in Silicon Valley
harvests the blood of teenagers, extracts the plasma, and
injects it into older clients.
The Monterey, California,
start-up Ambrosia charges
$8,000 for plasma transfusions, 1.5 liters at a time,
over the course of two days.
Founder Jesse Karmazin, MD,
ACCORDING
TO DR. JOON
YUN, “THERMODYNAMICALLY,
THERE SHOULD
BE NO REASON
WE CAN’T
DEFER ENTROPY
INDEFINITELY. WE
CAN END AGING
FOREVER.”
34 mindful June 2018
is conducting trials on his
patients and claims to have
demonstrated improved sleep
and reductions in proteins
associated with cancer and
Alzheimer’s disease—although
mainstream scientists have
criticized the trials for lacking
a control group and drawing
its cohort only from those who
can afford the steep fee.
it more modestly to The Guardian, a way to “have
a healthy life and then turn out the lights.”
That describes the goal of some in the anti-aging world. Health spanners want to discover
genetic tweaks, medications, and other interventions that will give people a healthier life
and, in particular, a healthier late-in-life life—by
postponing or eliminating disease, decrepitude,
and dementia—followed by a quick and painless
death. In 2016 the US National Academy of Medicine launched a “Grand Challenge for Healthy
Longevity,” which will award at least $25 million
for breakthroughs in increasing health span.
That, however, wouldn’t necessarily extend life
span, or not more by than a few years.
Even if we conquered all disease, cellular
aging baked into our DNA and made inevitable
by the laws of thermodynamics would eventually “turn out the lights.” That’s where other
anti-aging warriors come in. Immortalists like
PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel talk about living
forever. The credo of most immortalists, though,
is better summed up by British researcher
Aubrey de Grey, whose TED talk on conquering biological aging has been viewed some 3.5
million times: The first humans who will live to
1,000, he argues, are alive right now. Dr. Joon
Yun, who runs the Palo Alto Investors healthcare hedge fund, has said, “Thermodynamically,
there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy
indefinitely. We can end aging forever.” He
didn’t say “end death,” but eliminating aging and
overturning entropy would probably get us at
least to de Grey’s 1,000-year-olds.
Thanks to both health spanners and immortalists, “We are seeing huge market demand for
aging research,” funded primarily by private
investors, according to neuroscientist Terrie
Moffitt of Duke University, who contributed to
the Nuffield Council’s report.
The investment is driven, in part, by legitimate advances in understanding the biology
of aging. Although there is no consensus about
its precise cellular or genetic causes, scientists
have made significant strides in identifying key
components of aging, such as the shortening
of telomeres (stretches of DNA at the ends of
chromosomes) and the activation or suppression
of diferent genes.
They are also identifying ways to target the
drivers of aging. A clinical trial of metformin,
a diabetes drug, is expected to start this year:
The drug boosts the activity of an enzyme
called AMPK, which not only lowers blood
sugar (hence diabetes) but seems to also prevent
diseases of aging. Other studies are examining
the super-low calorie regimen called dietary
restriction, which can extend healthy life span in
a range of animals and slow biological aging in
people. Here, the focus is on finding molecules
that mimic the molecular efects of an 800-calorie-a-day regimen (which few of us can manage,
even if eternal life beckoned). In a similar vein,
the craze for resveratrol, a compound in red
wine, peaked a decade ago once studies began
showing that people who took resveratrol pills
didn’t live longer or healthier. Nevertheless,
research continues, buoyed by the fact that the
compound afects the activity of aging-related
enzymes called sirtuins.
How much is it worth to some people
to defeat aging?
Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page
spent a reported $1 billion to launch the biotechnology company Calico, whose mission is
to slow or stop cellular aging and thus “enable
people to lead longer and healthier lives.” Unity
Biotechnology, which also seeks to thwart
aging, has drawn investments of at least $116
million from Thiel and Amazon founder Jef
Bezos. Some people are so optimistic that scientists will eventually vanquish aging and possibly death—although perhaps not soon enough
for them personally— that 150 people have paid
to preserve either their heads ($80,000) or their
entire bodies ($200,000) in liquid nitrogen at
the Scottsdale, Arizona, facility of the Alcor
Life Extension Foundation, including de Grey
and the futurist Ray Kurzweil. The obsession
of tech billionaires with defeating aging even
THERE SEEMS TO BE A CERTAIN KIND OF
HUBRIS AMONG THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL
THAT NURTURES A BELIEF THAT THEY ARE TOO
POWERFUL AND TOO IMPORTANT TO DIE.
became a plot point in the HBO series Silicon
Valley, with one particularly odious executive
hiring a strapping youth to give him regular
infusions of young blood.
Elysium Health, cofounded in 2014 by MIT
biologist Leonard Guarente to extend health
span and slow biological aging, raised $20 million in 2016 alone, valuing the private company
at just north of $150 million. Although Guarente, who discovered how sirtuins afect aging,
is sometimes portrayed as an immortalist, he
views his anti-aging research “as a branch of
medicine,” he said. “I hope that what comes out
of it is a way to improve our health... To think
that we can program immortality is ludicrous.”
Why do tech billionaires believe otherwise?
“There is a kind of hubris there, the hubris of
powerful men,” said Julian Hughes, professor
of Old Age Psychiatry at England’s University
of Bristol and a coauthor of the Nuffield Council report. That hubris nurtures a belief that
they are too powerful and too important to die.
Philosopher David Archard of Queen’s University Belfast, chair of the Nuffield Council, said
he wouldn’t be surprised if “the denizens of
Silicon Valley take themselves seriously enough
to believe their immortality or delayed death is
in humanity’s best interests.”
Yet many people face the prospect of their
demise with equanimity. “A lot of people think
death will be a release and even welcome it,”
said Hughes. “Their spouse has died, their
friends have died; they’ve had enough, really.”
The realization that drives those who accept
the inevitability of death can also kick in well
before one has “had enough.” Most people agree
that death as such “is bad because it deprives
us, finally and irrevocably, of what gives value
to life,” including pleasure, happiness, friendship, knowledge, and love, Archard said. “On
that view, the longer you live—with infinite
extension of life as best of all—the more of these
goods or constituent pleasures you can enjoy. If
one more day of life is preferable, then surely an
infinite number of further days is optimal?”
But an enduring strand in philosophy
answers, surely not. What gives our activities,
work, and relationships meaning and purpose
and value “is that they are pursued with a finite
life,” Archard said. “An immortal existence
would run out of purpose.” ●
June 2018 mindful 35
alison canavan
“
the mindful interview
finding beauty
inside
From the outside, former model Alison Canavan’s life
looked picture-perfect. But her glamorous exterior masked
a lifelong struggle with depression.
INTERVIEW BY KELLE WALSH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANIEL HOLFELD
At 15, Dubliner and self-described tomboy ALISON CANAVAN
was entered into a modeling competition by her mother. It marked
the start of a whirlwind career that found her traveling the globe,
featured in the pages of international fashion magazines, walking
runways for leading designers, and living the high life in cultural
hubs like New York City, Paris, and London. But there was a shadow of sadness following her, which had emerged in her teens and
haunted her throughout her twenties. And it was made worse by the
nonstop partying lifestyle she threw herself into, with alcohol her
drug of choice.
When she drank, she says, “I felt free, I felt good, I had confidence,
and I had no worries.” Drinking soon became her obsession: when
she could drink, how much she could drink, feeling remorse about
something she’d done while drinking—that is, when she could remember what had happened. She tried to stop on occasion, including
by attending AA meetings, but couldn’t admit she belonged there. →
June 2018 mindful 37
the mindful interview
“Until we start
being truthful with
ourselves and with
everyone around us,
we’re not going
to heal.”
As the years wore on, her “lows got lower,” she
recalls. She began relying on Xanax “just to
leave the house and get on the subway,” and
took Valium to sleep. “Whenever I felt an emotion, I swallowed it with a pill,” she says.
A few months ater a painful breakup—
one that found her returning to Dublin and
the comfort of family—she learned she was
pregnant. The news finally motivated her to
get sober. Soon ater she gave birth to James
in 2010, though, she fell into a deep postpartum depression. At one point, she was in such
a bad state she wasn’t allowed to be alone
with the baby. Her doctors wanted to prescribe more drugs, she says, but she resisted
because she was breastfeeding. “It wasn’t just
about me anymore,” she says. “I had James to
think about.”
Over the next few years, she committed to
her physical, mental, and emotional health,
studied nutrition, and made meditation a daily
habit. Her best-selling book, Minding Mum,
is the result: In it, she explores what self-care
really means when you’re a mother, and what
she’s discovered about finding health—of both
body and mind.
Mindful spoke with Alison about her journey and what it took to get where she is today.
MINDING MUM
It’s Time to Take
Care of You
By Alison Canavan
In this “new mum’s
guide to feeling great
inside and out,” Alison shares what early
motherhood is really
like: being home with
baby, postpartum
depression, nutritional needs, body
image, exercise
post-pregnancy—and
how to feel great in
this new reality.
alisoncanavan.com
“James was the
catalyst, because
I wanted to be a
better mom.”
Mindful: It may surprise people that
even though you’ve had a successful
career as a model, you’ve struggled
with self-confidence. How is that possible?
Alison Canavan: I never, ever looked
after myself. I never valued myself
enough. It’s interesting that you go
into an industry to be seen—that’s
one thing we all have in common: We
all want to be seen, to be validated.
However, as a model, you don’t have a
voice. You’re “just a model.”
In Minding Mum you write, “I have
finally learned to like myself, hell, even
love myself… Giving myself permission to do this has made a remarkable
difference in my recovery from depression and anxiety.” Can you speak a bit
about self-compassion and the role it’s
played in helping you get to where you
are today?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelle Walsh is a contributing editor to
Mindful and is based in Colorado.
38 mindful June 2018
“Self-compassion” is something I
really struggled with. When you
start being kind to yourself, it can be
uncomfortable. I had never really lis-
the mindful interview
Alison and her son, James. Learning
she was pregnant, Alison discovered
her most compelling reason to recover
from substance abuse—and began to love
herself for the first time.
tened to or understood the voice in my
head. When I became aware of it, and
how negative it was, I started to be
even harder on myself. I had to start
writing things down that I liked about
myself, which at first were just things
that other people said they liked about
me. After I had James, I started feeling my heart opening for myself.
You had been meditating since you
were 18, and embarked upon many selfcare pursuits through the years. Yet you
were still struggling with undiagnosed
depression and drinking a lot. What
changed?
The partying element was so free
and easy in my industry. It was easy
self-medicating. And temporarily, it
does ofer pain relief.
After having my son, I started to
wake up. James was the catalyst,
because I wanted to be a better mom.
But I needed to do it for me. As I went
on, I was like, Hey, I might be worth it.
I was discovering my own value.
The journey over the past few years
has been to sit with my emotions,
which can be so painful. But it’s the
only way. Until we start being truthful
with ourselves and with everyone
around us, we’re not going to heal.
You can’t be talking about depression
and be out drinking four or five nights
a week. If you want to get better, you
have to do the work.
It’s a harsh truth, and one I didn’t
want to hear for many, many years: If
you have mental health problems you
are exacerbating those problems if
you are drinking. Alcohol is a depressant. I know we’d all love to think we
can have a few glasses of wine and it’s
fine, but it’s not.
People are finally agreeing. We
do have a big problem with drinking
in Ireland, and it’s related to mental
health. There’s a saying: If you want
to be lonely, get sober in Ireland. We
are not comfortable with people who
don’t drink.
How does the message that alcohol and
depression don’t mix land in Ireland, a
place known for its pub culture?
How are the things you talk about—
mindfulness and the idea of a more holistic model of health, facing depression,
dealing with addiction—received there?
Irish people are definitely getting more
interested in their health and their
well-being. But in America, people are
more open. If I post something about
addiction, Americans will comment
about their own struggles. In Ireland,
people private-message me.
Can you say more about this?
We’re starting to talk about mental
health a lot in Ireland. But I don’t
think the stigma has been removed.
People write to me, saying, “I’ve been
struggling with depression,” but
there’s still a lot of shame, like “Oh,
you can’t cope.” →
June 2018 mindful 39
“When you speak
your truth, you don’t
feel like you’re hiding
anymore. It’s peace
of mind, getting
comfortable in your
own skin.”
But I think we’re moving in the
right direction. Listen, there’s no
plain sailing in this life. But I think
the truth sets you free, internally.
When I didn’t speak my truth, I felt
trapped in my own body. Trapped in
addiction. But when you speak your
truth, you don’t feel like you’re hiding
anymore. It’s peace of mind, getting
comfortable in your own skin, that
gives you some sense of self.
That’s something that a meditation
practice helps bring you to: It helps
you get to know yourself and trust
your instincts a little more. I know
from personal experience that working with the mind works, and mindfulness is one avenue to do that.
What does this look like in practice?
Start small. You can’t say, “I’m going
to meditate for an hour a day” when
you’re just starting out. Start with
three minutes, then try five minutes,
then work up from there.
I don’t think mindfulness is
optional anymore. The world is moving too fast. All of our natural mindfulness moments have been taken
away from us in the digital world. So
we need to consciously create them.
In Minding Mum you discuss your
diet, exercise, meditation, and other
40 mindful June 2018
the mindful interview
Alison and James do a mindfulness practice
together at home. You can model meditation
for children of any age, Alison advises in
Minding Mum. Invite them to try it with you
when they get curious.
routines, and offer tips, but also
encourage readers to find their own
“happy living formula.” What does
that mean?
It means figuring out foods that work
for you, the right sleep cycle for you,
the right exercise, some kind of spiritual practice. And it’s going to change,
even seasonally. Part of this is also
having fun and enjoying the journey.
I work with moms who are like, “Oh
God, I have to go to the gym,” and I’m
like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, this is your
only hour to yourself and you’re dreading it? Find something you love doing.
Authentic self-care is a lot more
than food and fitness. In fact, I’d put
mindfulness at the top of the list. Until
you sit with yourself, you can’t know
yourself, you can’t have self-esteem or
take proper care of yourself. Otherwise, you’re going to be looking at the
outside world to make you feel better.
You also need to show up for
yourself most when you don’t want to
show up for yourself. I didn’t want to
meditate this morning, because I was
tired. But I knew if I didn’t meditate,
didn’t write in my gratitude journal,
and do some breathing, I wouldn’t be
able to get through this busy day.
So, would you say that mindfulness is
the key to happiness?
Happiness is something I’d be very
wary of making the goal; you can’t be
there all the time. Happiness comes
and goes. I think contentment is
something you can have. I’m content
pretty much every day. I do have bad
days—it’s just part of the human experience. But I can sit with them and
be with them. It doesn’t mean that
everything is going to fall apart. ●
42 mindful June 2018
science
THE
MAGNIFICENT
WILD
MYSTERIOUS
CONNECTED
AND
INTERCONNECTED
BRAIN
Our brain is like a wild, raging electrical storm that
wondrously enables us to make our way. Yet a lot of
mindfulness literature makes it sound like a very simple
machine. Two leading neuroscientists suggest better
ways to think and talk about the brain and the mind.
Illustrations by Aaron Piland
f
FOR SOME TIME AT MINDFUL,
we’ve been concerned that discussions of the brain—particularly in
the context of mindfulness and
meditation—have become simplified to the point of distorting
the truth. They often present the
brain as a set of building blocks or
Lincoln Logs, each with its own
function. The goal of meditation
in this model is to strengthen
certain parts and suppress others.
When we asked neuroscientists
doing actual research about these
notions, the answer ranged from
“that’s very, very simplistic” to
“that’s nonsense.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barry Boyce is Editor-in-Chief of Mindful and
Mindful.org. He is also author of The Mindfulness
Revolution, an anthology of applied mindfulness
instructions from leading teachers and experts.
44 mindful June 2018
We are in the middle of an epidemic
spread of BS about the brain. Something new comes up just about every
week that grossly oversimplifies both
what science currently knows about
the brain and how the brain might
actually work. Trainers and coaches
and keynote speakers frequently
make extravagant claims about “brain
change,” “growing the brain,” or
“adding gray matter.” Forbes recently
published “6 Brain-Based Leadership Game-Changers for 2018,” by an
author who writes about “leveraging
neuroscience to create remarkable
leadership.” The first diagram illustrates the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the supposed newest part of the brain, the neocortex,
where “meaning is made.” A quick
internet search will let you know that
this hypothesis, known as the Triune
Brain, “is no longer espoused by the
majority of comparative neuroscientists in the post-2000 era.” It’s been
debunked for almost two decades.
A newsstand publication called
Mindfulness Made Simple contains a
two-page spread on “How Mindfulness Physically Changes Your Brain”
that points to mindfulness causing
growth in the presumed good parts
of the brain and shrinkage in the
bad parts. It takes some preliminary
research out of all context and states
it pretty much as fact. Any honest
neuroscientist will tell you that we
simply do not know this much about
how the brain is afected by mindfulness, since we don’t even have a single
definition of what mindfulness means.
And what we feel we know today will
be eclipsed by findings after our lifetime. Humbleness is the watchword
when it comes to assertions about
how the brain and the mind work.
A book from a major publisher sells
itself as “Mind-Hacker’s Guide to
Shifting into Brain 3.0.” It promises
science
We are in the middle of an epidemic spread
of BS about the brain. Something new
comes up just about every week that grossly
oversimplifies both what science currently
knows about the brain and how the brain
might actually work.
that you can use science to rewire
your brain. Among its claims: You can
“overcome PTSD without medication
by strengthening neural circuits in
Brain 3.0, making your emotional
immune system stronger.”
Let’s be clear. This is not science.
It is snake oil.
The problem, scientists and
science educators point out, is not
that people are being coached and
coaxed to “use their brains better.”
The problem is using pseudo-science
as evidence for the efectiveness of
a practice or to present outmoded
models of the brain and mental experience. These models are often taught
to children in school, who go home
and tell mommy and daddy that the
amygdala is bad and the prefrontal
cortex is good. Is it fair to reduce
something so wondrous as the brain
to a couple of parts—even if this
mythology helps children to notice
their reactivity and calm down?
To delve into the state of the brain
science surrounding meditation, we
invited two neuroscientists to join
in conversation with Mindful about
how to efectively talk about the
brain when presenting mindfulness
and meditation.
Amishi Jha, PhD, is associate professor of psychology and the founder
and head of the Jha Lab at the University of Miami. Her pioneering work,
much of it funded by the Department
of Defense and carried out with the
military, students, and athletes, shows
how mindfulness can protect attention and working memory. The lab
is also working on how to scale up
mindfulness for larger populations
and make its efects long-lasting. She
is working to find accessible training that can be broadly adopted by
high-performance and high-demand
groups, including first responders,
police, and firefighters.
Cliff Saron, PhD, is a researcher
at the Center for Mind and Brain and
director of the Saron Lab at the University of California, Davis. He is known
for directing the Shamatha Project, a
multiyear investigation of long-term
intensive meditation. Findings so far
indicate that the practice sharpens and
sustains attention, enhances well-being
and empathy, and improves physiological markers of health. Saron is interested in not just what the brain is doing
when attending to a task, but what’s
happening on a moment-by-moment
basis as we construct reality.
While Saron and Jha are separated
by a continent and diferent research
goals, they see eye-to-eye on the need
to be cautious in making assertions
about long-term alterations to the
brain. They collaborated with a few
others on an important paper that
provided a preliminary model for
distinguishing a variety of mental
factors involved in a range of meditation practices.
Our several conversations lasted
many hours and ranged far and wide.
Here are some of the highlights of our
exploration of brain and mind.
Barry Boyce
Editor-in-Chief
June 2018 mindful 45
science
BARRY BOYCE: Many mindfulness
teachers like to use a model of the
brain that pits the so-called emotional center deep inside the brain,
the amgydala, against the reasoning center of the brain up front, the
prefrontal cortex, which carries out
our “executive function.” In the battle
between these two, mindfulness is
on the side of the executive function,
coming in to help when the amygdala
is out of control. How do you feel
about this characterization?
Amishi Jha: I understand the good
intentions of smart and kind-hearted
people when they use overly simple
models of the brain in an attempt to
make brain functions broadly accessible, even to small children. They’re
trying to help people understand
something about problems they’re
encountering with their emotions or
their attention. I’m trying to do the
same thing when I work with first
responders or soldiers. No one wants
to make costly mistakes.
However, we can do better than
using a misleading model that implies
that a part of the brain, the amygdala,
misbehaves or “goes bad,” causing us
to freak out, and that to control this
reactivity—fear, anxiety, inappropriate
behavior—we need to use the “good”
part of the brain up front that comes
in and tamps down the bad guy.
Cliff Saron: The “good brain, bad
brain” idea gets things of on the
wrong foot completely. You can err on
the side of complexity or simplicity. If
you’re trying to simplify things, you
want to do it in such a way that you’re
still on the side of accuracy. Amishi
is exemplary at getting to the essence
while still being truthful, using a
model that scales up to something
that represents a better understanding. Locating all emotion in the
amgydala belies what we know about
the powerful interconnectedness of
the brain. Pictures of the anatomical
connections of the amygdala to other
parts of the brain, even from 25 years
ago, show an incredibly dense level
of interconnectivity with almost all
46 mindful June 2018
science
parts of the cortex. Huge amounts
of the brain are involved in even the
simplest of tasks.
Barry Boyce: These models are
meant to provide children with a
way to think about emotionality as a
natural brain process—to help them
depersonalize it and find calm and
composure. Is it such a problem if it’s
a cartoon-like oversimplification?
Jha: It’s an open question whether
using a model of brain function actually helps them calm down. These
kinds of models are not limited to
presentations to children. I’ve heard
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teachers talk about the reptilian
brain needing to be overcome by the
modern-day frontal lobes. That’s the
“triune brain hypothesis”—a 1960sera story of a battle between the older
and newer brain not widely accepted
in neuroscience today. It’s not part of
the curriculum for MBSR, but it’s a
kind of freelancing that people do.
We don’t really have any evidence
that you would get any less benefit
if you didn’t use a model of the brain
in teaching people meditation. Why
mislead if you don’t need to? The modular view of the brain—with a specific
function separately housed within a
particular chunk of the cortex—is like
a holdover from phrenology, when
people thought brain functions were
tied to bumps on the skull—a bumpy
forehead meant someone was more
intelligent. We can do better than this.
Barry Boyce: Why does it matter if
we’re using notions of the brain that
make it easier for us to understand
what this thing inside of us is doing?
Saron: As someone who tries to think
and teach carefully about the brain,
one of the things I grapple with is the
diference between feeling like you
understand something and having the
experience that something is beyond
one’s grasp. Fully understanding the
human brain falls into the latter category. To think otherwise is a caricature of what neuroscience is about. →
June 2018 mindful 47
Not So Fast!
A few “facts” about the brain that are
misleading or downright false.
WE ONLY USE
10% OF OUR
BRAINS
Amishi Jha says
she still hears this
all the time. Yet it
is entirely made
up and has, in
fact, never been
espoused by any
scientist.
I MUST BE
“RIGHTBRAINED”
SINCE I HAVE
A CREATIVE
PERSONALITY
While lateralized
brain regions are
involved in specific
processes such as
aspects of language, and it is well
known that certain
brain structures
differ in size in the
right and let sides
of our brain, the idea
that creativity vs.
rationality in one’s
personality is driven
by a “right-brained”
or “let-brained”
dominance remains
unsupported. The
brain’s hemispheres
are highly interconnected and work
together for complex processing.
CROSSWORD
PUZZLES
WILL KEEP
MY BRAIN
FROM AGING
Crossword puzzles
may be fun (for
some, anyway),
but doing them is
not protective for
the brain. This is
because the puzzles engage only
a specific set of
processes. While
doing crosswords
may make you better at them, there
is no evidence
that there will be
broader benefits to
other processes,
such as memory or problem
solving.
THE BRAIN
DEVELOPS
INTO
ADULTHOOD,
AND THEN
YOUR BRAIN
CELLS JUST
DIE OUT
More than 100
years of neuroscience failed to find
brain cell birth and
growth in adult
humans. Then in
1998 the discovery was made that
new brain cells do
form in specific
brain structures
within the adult
brain, such as the
hippocampus, a
structure involved
in storing memories. Thus, it
seems that at least
some parts of the
brain can regenerate cells throughout the lifespan.
NEUROPLASTICITY
ONLY
OCCURS
WITH
MEDITATION
fMRI IMAGES
PRESENT
PICTURES
OF HOW
THE BRAIN
WORKS
Neuroplasticity
refers to the
brain’s ability to
reorganize its
neural connections and functions. This can
occur in response
to physical injury
to the brain, such
as trauma, tumor,
stroke, or disease, as connections between
cells change to
compensate for
missing or compromised brain
regions. Neuroplasticity also
occurs in response
to new experences
or situations,
such as learning
a new skill.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is
a breakthrough
technology that
has allowed more
precise anatomical
pictures for use in
medicine; functional MRI is imaging that moves
through time and
has been used
extensively in brain
activity research.
While the images
it puts out are
flashier than more
direct methods,
science
such as measuring electrical
activity, the data is
extremely tricky to
interpret, requiring
a lot of complex
statistics. It also
opens the door to
a trap in thinking
called “reverse
inference”: looking
at apparent brain
activity shown
by the fMRI in a
particular region
and making an
assumption
about what is
going on there
based on what
other research
has shown about
that region. It’s an
educated guess,
but it does not
qualify as conclusive evidence of a
particular kind of
brain activity. In
short, fMRI must
be interpreted
cautiously. What
you see is not what
you get.
I’ve developed a six-day workshop
called “The Buddha, the Brain, and
Bach” with senior meditation teacher
Sylvia Boorstein and my wife, Barbara Bogatin, a cellist with the San
Francisco Symphony. We explore the
intersection of contemplative practice,
neuroscience, and musical creativity. We touch upon fundamentals of
brain structure and function as well
as complex dynamical aspects. It’s a
curriculum designed to use the deep
awareness cultivated in contemplative
practice to foster a sense of knowing
and wonder, showing that it doesn’t
make sense to rely on narratives that
tie things up neatly.
Jha: I agree with that, but in my work
I also find it helpful to orient people to
what’s happening with their attention
when they get of task and bad things
result. Naturally, one of the first
things we think of in trying to keep
something simple is how would you
explain that to a child?
Coincidentally, that occurred for
me with my daughter. She was seven
at the time. She jumped up on my lap
while I was working on my computer.
She ended up picking up a model brain
I had sitting around. Not surprisingly
she took the whole thing apart. She
lifted up one piece after another and
asked, “What does this do?”
With the occipital lobe, I said something like “it helps you to see”; for the
temporal lobe, it helps you hear; for
the cerebellum, it helps you coordinate what’s coming from all your
senses, and so on. I was just giving her
simple answers, because I was trying
to work. At some point, though, I said,
“No, let’s not do it this way. Let’s talk
about how this actually happens.”
Then, I talked to her about how all
of these parts never work alone. They
always work together, but they work
in specific ways together. As an analogy, I asked her to think about what
body parts she would use to do a cartwheel. She said, “I need my hand, and
that’s connected to my arm, and that’s
connected to the rest of my body.” As
I coaxed her through this investigation, she realized she needed all those
parts and more, and she needed them
to move together in a pattern that
results in a cartwheel.
That’s a pretty good way to think
about how the brain works. All of
these diferent parts talk to each other
and they need to act together for us to
accomplish something we’re trying to
do. She seemed to get that you can’t
just think of the parts in isolation; you
always have to think of how they work
together with other parts and with the
whole. So I think you can be simple
and accessible and also correct, without introducing a lot of distortion.
Barry Boyce: I appreciate that, since
science is supposed to be an honest
exploration of what’s going on, not
simply a way to find easy explanations
for things that are hard to understand. In that regard, let’s talk about
“executive function.”
As discussed above, strengthening
this function—the inhibition, problem
solving, decision making, reasoning
activities identified as the work of the
“upper brain,” the central lobes—is an
attribute often ascribed to mindfulness. Is that a fully accurate story?
Jha: You get into trouble when you
imply that what some people call the
“upstairs brain”—referring to executive function—does all this beneficial
regulating and balancing. Treating
the frontal lobes almost like a character in a story—the good guy, the
white knight—can lead to the view
that everything that flows from strong
executive control is beneficial. The
reality is that someone with high
working memory capacity and very
good executive control could do some
very bad things. Just because a particular brain network can do “good
things” doesn’t mean that what it does
is always for the good.
Saron: I would like to drill down a
little deeper and ask what’s implied
by “executive function.” We need
to foster a critical perspective and
always pay close attention to the narratives that emerge from the words
we use. In the history of science, →
June 2018 mindful 49
science
Evolution resulted in attention as a solution
to the brain’s problem of information
overload. How do we best utilize this
resource? What do we do when it’s hijacked?
Does meditation have a role to play?
when there is no integrated theory,
someone comes up with a term that
simplifies understanding. That’s how
a phrase like “executive function” is
born and comes to mean our capacity
to maintain behaviors in line with a
goal. It becomes a convenient construct in institutionalized education,
which began with an agenda of an
individualist society needing workers. You wind up with this fuzzy
warm feeling about accomplishing
goals and being productive. And
what’s the important thing we need
to teach kids?
To do what they’re told!
To attain goals someone else sets!
Contemplating, examining—those
may go by the wayside.
Barry Boyce: So, when we choose
to call this brain activity “executive
function,” it’s loaded with all sorts of
assumptions that go beyond what’s
going on in the brain.
Saron: Yes. “Executive function” is
not a fixed thing. It could be called
by many names that would take
your imagination to diferent places.
It’s fractal. Labels and handles
can sometimes obscure as much as
elucidate. Science is a human social
activity that undergoes changes
based on the zeitgeist of the time.
And the less and less we know about
something, the more room people
have to fantasize.
Barry Boyce: But don’t models also
have a role to play?
Jha: I understand what Clif is getting
at, and I agree that as scientists we
need that kind of awareness of the
big picture and a humble acceptance
of the limitations of what we’re
embarking on, but I also want to be
clear about why I think it’s useful to
describe the brain to people at all.
My attempts are not an abstract
educational exercise. They’re always
meant to help people address the way
they’re sufering right now. I recently
met with a military leader who was
trying to understand what was going
on with his own mind wandering. He
had a clear and present need, because
the wandering was causing problems.
My interest in attention speaks to
when people hold goals in their mind.
How does the brain create goals and
hold those goals? We can start by
saying that the brain has an attention
system because there’s far more in
the environment than the brain can
fully process. Evolution resulted in
attention as a solution to the brain’s
problem of information overload. It
constrains what we deal with so we
can more fully process it.
Given that, how do you best utilize
this resource and what do you do
when it’s being hijacked by rumination, mind wandering, or distraction? When we talk about the brain
networks involved in being on- or
of-task, we’re leaning on findings
from my home field of cognitive
neuroscience. Many studies have
found that the brain organizes itself
into functional networks that vary
in their activity and in their interactions over time.
For example, we have the central
executive network, which has to
do with the ability to harness our
resources to control what we’re processing more fully.
The salience network involves
being aware of what’s happening,
internally and in the environment.
The default mode network we think
of as what the brain defaults to when
you’re not attending to a task. (See
sidebar on page 53.)
These three networks—and
specific networks within these
networks, and other networks as
well—are part of the landscape we’re
going to have to deal with when
we consider how our brain’s information-processing resources are
utilized for the task at hand—and
what might be going on when someone experiences rumination, worry,
or flashbacks due to PTSD. It’s not
about good guys and bad guys. It’s
about the dynamic, interactive ways
various networks function in relation
to each other as we experience and
navigate the present moment.
Saron: That’s very clear, and I can see
how that can be helpful. It’s several →
June 2018 mindful 51
notches closer to reality than what you
hear so often in popular depictions.
What I think we can add to that picture, though, is that a very large proportion of the information processing
we are doing is unconscious yet intelligent. It’s awe-inspiring to appreciate
that we function with most all of our
processing of the world below the level
of conscious awareness. We open our
eyes and we just see, without having to
consciously construct what we see.
The investigation
has only just
begun, and the
tools we have,
while relatively
advanced, are
still too primitive
to definitively
measure
achievement in
mind training.
52 mindful June 2018
Barry Boyce: What’s your view on
using brain measurement equipment
to assess meditation, to detect when
we’re in a good meditation zone?
Saron: These attempts present big
problems for me. There was a plan for
a program in Taiwan whose mission
was to find brain signatures for compassion and then measure how well
participants in a contemplative training program were achieving that. To
rely on neuroimaging to assess what is
essentially our humanity is preposterous and scarily misguided.
I also find research using scans to
assess meditation quality similarly
suspect. Who decides exactly what
is impermissible in meditation? How
do we know which forms of mental
activity in an individual are deleterious and which are not?
Let’s say the machine determines you’re having self-referential
thoughts. If that is true, perhaps you
internalized many diferent representational stances toward reality—
ways you think about yourself to
yourself —and because there’s nothing to do as you sit on your meditation cushion, these thought patterns
start bubbling up into awareness.
All the ways you’ve avoided psychological issues in your life start to
emerge in consciousness. You have
a memory, and that memory causes
associations. Do we now label that
bad meditation? Or is it merely a part
of the introspective terrain being
traversed in that sitting session?
When you give yourself over to the
full depth of the intention behind your
meditation practice—what motivated
you to do it in the first place—it’s not
likely about scoring points for being on
your breath. A rich view of the “present moment” encompasses the ways
we work with the temporal and spatial
aspects of experience: times and
places that are not in our immediate
sensory field but are nonetheless very
significant for our sense of well-being
and connection to the world.
Jha: We’re nowhere near to understanding the many facets of the suite
of practices we are all introducing
to people. The investigation has only
just begun, and the tools we have—
while advanced compared to decades
ago—are still too primitive to serve
as definitive measuring sticks for
achievement in mind training. Furthermore, we don’t have any way of
positing a “mindful brain.” We don’t
have brain signatures for something
called “mindfulness.” There are just
too many processes at play to have
one simplistic label.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use
current neuroscience to help people
get some insight into processes in
the brain that may be problematic for
them. The goal is not to see what a
mindful brain looks like but to determine how information processing
(e.g., within systems like attention)
may be altered and perhaps improved
by training in mindfulness exercises
over days, weeks, or years.
Saron: Why do we need empirical
validation for meditative experience, anyway? When it comes to the
benefits of stopping and pausing, why
HOW IT WORKS
NETWORKS VS. MACHINE PARTS
can’t common sense prevail? Do you
really need brain imaging to tell you
that if you stop and smell the roses,
you may sufer less? Brain imaging
results are loosely coupled to individuals’ actual experience. They can’t be
used as a promise for what outcomes
will result from practice. My 44 years
of exposure to meditation teachings
and practices has been essential to
my understanding of myself, the ways
I connect with others and engage in
research. And that didn’t require any
scientific data.
Barry Boyce: We commonly hear
that “mindfulness changes the brain.”
Don’t lots of things change the brain,
since neurons that “fire together, wire
together”?
Saron: That’s the fundamental law
of neuroplasticity: Repeated activity
makes it easy for the same activity to
happen again. You could say the brain
only works by changing. So if you
repeatedly do something crappy, you
get better at that, too!
Jha: If you keep ruminating about
your worst experience, your brain will
be very efficient at calling to mind
that episode. Throughout the history
of neuroscience, we’ve known brains
alter and transform. The seminal
studies of brain damage tell us the
brain changes when you destroy
parts of it through stroke or injury.
These patients recover in some cases,
meaning reorganization enables brain
function to adapt in a better direction.
What’s novel and innovative about
brain training in general—and in
particular for us, mindfulness meditation—is that beneficial changes don’t
always have to be in response to some
insult or injury. You may actually be
able to engage in training to help optimize certain abilities. →
We oten hear people say that
one sub-organ of the brain is
responsible for x function and
another for y. However, observations of brain activity have
shown that this idea that different parts of the brain work
independently to perform a
given function—the modular
paradigm—is inaccurate. The
story we frequently hear that
the amygdala is the emotion
center and the prefrontal
cortex performs executive
functions unfairly depicts the
brain almost as a collection
of machine parts. It may
have some usefulness as a
metaphor for how different
types of brain function might
interrelate, but it presents a
very limited mechanical view
of the brain—which misses
the dynamic quality of brain
activity and is not good science education.
A metaphor that’s more
prevalent among neuroscientists today is the network
view of the brain: “dynamic
interconnected sets of
systems (subsystems, and
neural nodes) that work
together to carry out certain
kinds of activity,” in Amishi
Jha’s words.
The networks consist of
relationships between an
array of brain regions formed
through repeated communication among the parts as we
navigate through life. Three
large-scale brain networks
are talked about in the literature today as they relate to
meditation:
SALIENCE
NETWORK (SN)
The SN has been
likened to an air
traffic controller.
Our nervous system is bombarded
with a massive
volume of sensory
inputs. The SN filters and sorts the
input, operating
at two levels. The
first, described as
“fast, automatic,
bottom-up,” processes features of
our environment
we’ve learned or
instinctively know
are important
(i.e., salient). For
example, quickly
noticing ice on
a sidewalk that
might cause us to
fall down. At the
second level, the
salience network
allows us to focus
our attention in
order to achieve
a goal.
CENTRALEXECUTIVE
NETWORK (CEN)
The CEN’s role has
to do with higher-order cognition
and attentional
control. It’s what’s
at work when we
make decisions
about focusing
and sustaining
attention, what we
choose to place in
working memory
(what we need to
hold in mind to
stay on task), and
problem solving.
When we say we’re
“thinking hard”
about something,
there is major
involvement from
this network.
DEFAULT MODE
NETWORK (DMN)
Perhaps the
trickiest of the networks to describe
and understand,
the DMN is oten
talked about as
what the brain
“defaults” to when
it doesn’t have
a task at hand.
It processes
self-monitoring,
autobiographical
information, and
social cognition
(roughly speaking,
determining relations with others).
Spontaneous
mind wandering
and self-talk are
associated with
the DMN. The
fact that the DMN
includes internal
dialogue and mind
wandering has
caused it to be
described as both
a font of creativity
and the locus of
problematic rumination.
June 2018 mindful 53
science
BEYOND
THE BRAIN
WHERE IS
MY MIND?
While the study
of thought and
thinking has been
dominated by neuroscience in recent
decades, in a talk
at TED2017, Anil
Seth, professor
of Cognitive and
Computational
Neuroscience
at the University of Sussex,
talked about
how the study
of human experience crosses
many disciplines,
including “neuroscience, physics,
virtual reality,
mathematics,
psychology, psychiatry, neurology,
cognitive science,
and philosophy,”
to name a few.
When we
range beyond
the pure study of
“the brain,” we
enter the realm
of the mind and
consciousness.
While the brain
and the nervous
system are part of
anatomy, the mind
cannot be found.
How it is that we
are conscious—
that we experience
and know—is not
54 mindful June 2018
something we will
ever find in a brain
scan. Also, as Anil
Seth points out in
his TED Talk, we
are not passive
recipients of a
world that is being
shown to us like a
movie; instead we
“actively generate
the world.” The
simplest study of
optical illusions
easily demonstrates that we
are making up the
world as we go
along.
Cliff Saron
emphasizes that
when we are
talking about the
brain and the
mind, it helps to
not limit our thinking to activity that
takes place in an
organ in our skull.
Mental activity
joins us together
with the world and
its inhabitants in
a vast web of connections. As Anil
Seth says, when
we study how
minds and brains
work, we quickly
see that we are
“part of, not apart
from” the world
around us. Therefore, in contemporary philosophy of
mind, many people
like to emphasize cognition as
something that
doesn’t simply
reside in one
organ in our head.
And they shit the
emphasis using a
schema known as
4-E Cognition:
EMBODIED
The brain operates
within and throughout our body.
EMBEDDED
That bodily system is embedded
in, connected to,
and part of an
environment.
EXTENDED
That environment
extends through
time and space,
meaning it doesn’t
have fixed boundaries and it keeps
changing.
ENACTIVE
We are not
passive cognitive
processors of a
predetermined
reality; we “enact”
reality through
the actions we
perform.
In very simple
terms, the reality
you experience
and create in different settings—in
a meditation room,
a busy airport, a
forest, an office
building—will be
very different. The
brain shapes and
is shaped by our
bodies and our
surroundings.
Therefore it does
not make sense
to talk about your
brain apart from
the environment it
is intimately part
of and the ways we
interact.
When you mindwander with
awareness, you
value the content
that emerges—
discovering things
you didn’t know you
were looking for.
Barry Boyce: How is training your
attention with meditation diferent
from an of-the-shelf brain training
program designed to help you pay
better attention? Or from engaging in
a psychotherapy program to help you
with your emotion regulation, such as
anger management?
Jha: Right now there are no established brain training programs that
have been able to overcome a really
big problem: generalizability. You play
a “brain-training” video game over
and over again to improve memory,
right? What seems to happen is people
just get better at that game, but no one
has shown that it increases general
memory capacity, for example.
You don’t meditate to become an
Olympian breath follower, so we hope
to find out whether there is something
about focusing on the breath that may
generalize to being able to focus better
on things other than the breath.
Meditation seems to be categorically
diferent in that the brain-changing
and performance benefits do seem to
generalize. We give people an attention
test after they’ve completed a mindfulness training program and they
perform better than people who got
some other type of program. Perhaps
mindfulness training promotes alterations in how specific brain networks
science
are engaged and how these networks
interact with each other.
Saron: It’s also possible that a person
could get to similar places practicing
some other skill with tremendous
dedication to achieve a high degree
of mastery. Think about the years of
intense physical and mental training
for an Olympic-level skier or a worldclass violin soloist. The line between
formal meditation practice and other
focused activities blurs, but meditation can certainly be a complementary
component. My wife says her cello
practice and meditation practice are
like two sides of the same coin. We
have much more to learn about that. I
also think there are styles of practice
that may be more prone to fixation.
There are many stories of people coming out of retreats unable to attend to
daily living efectively. Neuroplasticity is a two-way street, and you can
maladaptively reorganize so that daily
life actually becomes more complex.
Jha: That’s why when we’re developing programs, we need to think in
terms of a suite of practices. How do
you set a program up so that it doesn’t
cause people to hyper-fixate on certain practices that may become problematic for them? Jon Kabat-Zinn did
a really good job in developing MBSR.
He didn’t just put in concentration
practices. He has open monitoring
practices in there. He’s got not just
breath awareness and sitting, but body
scan, and the sequence it’s ofered in
may correct against fixating tendencies. In my lab, we take a very similar
approach. Since the networks themselves are complex and their interrelationships are equally complex, it
seems unlikely that a single kind of
training would be the silver bullet.
Saron: I advocate a balanced perspective on practice goals: There’s a whole
spectrum from getting a little more
focus and control of myself to achieving altered states of consciousness
such as we read about in the autobiographies of great practitioners. Diferent goals yield diferent regimens, and
diferent kinds of attention will need
to be paid to those who take part.
Barry Boyce: In training people, it
seems very important to keep ambitions in check. If we have a program
trying to help the average person take
mindful pauses in daily life, we don’t
say this is suddenly going to lead to
astounding life changes. Modest goals
are fine. The more you elevate the
promise, the more attention must be
given to the protocols, because you
don’t get the benefits of training for
nothing. Results are in proportion to
time and efort.
Saron: That’s a principle that should
become widespread.
Barry Boyce: Some people say mind
wandering is our biggest problem;
others say it’s just our mind at play.
Jha: We need to be careful with the
terminology. When I refer to mind
wandering, I mean having off-task
thoughts during an ongoing task. That
can certainly have deleterious efects.
The other version is when you’re not
trying to complete a particular task
at hand, but rather you are allowing
the free flow of conscious experience.
That can look an awful lot like what I
just referred to, but there is a critical
diference: It’s consciously engaged
and doesn’t have the kind of negative
outcomes that can occur when you’re
asleep at the switch.
Saron: This is where creativity comes
in. You’re allowing for the emergence
of that unconscious intelligence I
referred to earlier. You don’t cut of
access to it. That’s mind wandering
with awareness. You value the content
that emerges along the way—discovering things you didn’t know you were
looking for. It gets back to the awe I
was talking about earlier. I encour-
age everyone to look at something
National Geographic did with the
work of Jef Leichtman and his lab
at Harvard. It’s very high-resolution
3-D images of teeny tiny portions of
mouse visual cortex. It’s breathtaking
to look at all that’s going on there in a
4-minute video narrated by Jef. He
talks about coming to a point where
you relax and say “OK. I don’t get it!”
When Leichtman asked his students to consider if knowing everything possible about the brain is a
mile, how far have we traveled? Their
answers tended to range from a quarter-mile to three-quarters of a mile.
His answer: 3 inches. Our mandate in
life as scientists is to be drenched in
noncomprehension and to be suspicious of when we really think we
know how things work.
That points to the irony of conforming mindfulness training to a
tinker toy version of reality, instead
of something that could suggest the
possibility of motivating people to
investigate the vastness of their own
mind. As Francisco Varela suggested,
that is where science and contemplative practice can meet: as complementary paths of deep inquiry.
Vinod Menon once said to me at
a UC Davis MIND Institute talk in
Sacramento that “as our methods
improve, our models will completely
change, and our current models will
look infantile.” Having been part of
right brain/left brain dogma 40 years
ago, I can attest to that.
Jha: My son, who is a big physics
kid and appreciates all that we’ve
learned in the long history of physics,
asked whether I think we’ll know
everything there is to know about the
brain in 200 years. If I tell him “no,”
his response is something like “Why
are you bothering?” And yet, we do
bother, because it’s like a practice: You
hold in mind those open questions all
the time, as you continue to focus on
learning what you can as it presents
itself to you now. ●
June 2018 mindful 55
meditation
Have a Seat
Taking the time to discover the most
suitable cushion, bench, or chair for
your body will pay off in years of less
painful meditation sessions.
CUSHIONS COURTESY OF DHARMACRAFTS
Photographs by Marvin Moore
June 2018 mindful 57
CUSHIONS AND BENCHES COURTESY OF SAMADHI CUSHIONS, DHARMACRAFTS, AND SIMPLY SITTING
Know Your Seats
58 mindful June 2018
Ah, the ZAFU. In the Western
world, it’s the most ubiquitous
of meditation seats. For
many meditators, this simple,
round or crescent-shaped
cushion allows a cross-legged
posture where the knees rest
effortlessly below the hips. Or,
if you’re more comfortable in a
kneeling position, you can turn
the zafu on its short side and
straddle it.
The consistency of the zafu
depends on what it’s filled with,
ranging in density from a firm
pillow to a stiff bean bag (see
page 60 for more about cushion fillings).
GOMDENS come from a
different lineage of meditation
than zafus, and were designed
specifically with chair-bound
lifestyles in mind. Having foam
innards, they’re taller and don’t
compress like some zafus,
but rather stay flat, so your
pelvis stays level, rather than
angling forward. Your ankles
can be loosely crossed in front
of you, not directly under you,
which reduces pressure on the
ankles and knees.
Mini
gomdens
work well
for travelers
or children.
meditation
BOLSTERS AND SUPPORT
CUSHIONS may not be the
main attraction, but they still
can be a big help. Yoga and
meditation supply businesses
sell specifically designed
bolsters, but any small pillow
around your house may work
just as well.
The largest is the zabuton (or
flat mat), which is placed under
a zafu (or gomden, or chair…)
to cushion the lower body.
Smaller bolsters and cushions
can be used with any other
seat: adding height to your
zafu or gently tilting the pelvis
forward in a chair. You can even
put a pillow on your lap to rest
your arms on, taking pressure
off your shoulders.
BENCHES are the firmest of
all seat options (aside from
hard chairs). Some types of
bench allow you to meditate
kneeling. Physical therapist
and meditation teacher
Elizabeth Deboo notes that
this bench tilts the pelvis
forward to uphold your spine’s
natural curve, making this
no-give seat more easeful than
you might expect. You may
want a bolster under the knees
or ankles.
Other benches come with
cushions, and some sit higher
off the ground to accommodate
longer or bigger legs. You can
sit cross-legged on these, as
on a gomden.
CHAIRS make for excellent
meditation seats, particularly
for meditators who are stiffer
or have pain or injuries in the
back, hips, or knees. And
fortunately, almost any chair
you have can be adapted to
suit your body. A firm back and
seat is good—you can add a
pillow or blanket for comfort,
but nothing so squishy that it’s
hard to sit up straight.
If you notice any strain on
the shoulders or lower back,
either armrests or a bolster
will help by supporting your
arms. Finally, make sure the
chair’s height is right for you.
Deboo says she checks three
things: “Are the feet flat on the
floor? Are the hips and torso
forming a 90-degree angle?
Are the feet and ankles forming
a 90-degree angle? That foundation makes for a really nice
stack of the spine.”
W H A T
D E ?
WHAT IT FEELS LIKE
WHY USE IT
Kapok is a cotton-like fiber
from the seedpod of the
kapok tree. It has been
the padding in zafus for
thousands of years.
Though it’s soft and airy,
when stuffed tightly into
a cushion, kapok creates
a surprisingly sturdy
surface. A kapok-filled
zafu will elevate your hips
more than a buckwheat
cushion. Over time, the
kapok will compress,
but most cushions are
zippered so you can
refill them.
If you want stability in
your seat, rather than
shiftability, kapok will do
the trick. It’s also the best
filling if you like to straddle
your zafu (either round or
crescent) with your hips
lifted higher.
More precisely, it’s the hull
of the buckwheat kernel
that also forms a popular
filling for zafus.
The texture is very fine and
moveable, like a soft hill of
sand. Imagine you’re on
the beach, listening to the
gentle whoosh of waves
(the second part may be
wishful thinking…).
You’ll love buckwheat
filling if you want a cushion
that contours to your body,
while also letting you shift
around when sitting crosslegged—or if you’re shorter
or very flexible, thus
requiring less distance
between the ground and
your bum.
This is natural cotton
batting like you’d find in a
pillow, often pre-consumer
recycled.
Found in the zabuton and
in many support cushions,
cotton provides a soft,
slightly bouncy padding
(and insulation from cold
floors), so no part of you
will be ungrounded.
Versatility is the name of
the game: Grab a cottonfilled cushion if you
find your feet or ankles
uncomfortable resting on
the floor, or if you’d like
extra lift or padding in any
area. Cotton-filled zafus
are inexpensive, but less
durable than buckwheat
or kapok.
Foam is a lightweight,
spongy, man-made
material.
Found in gomdens and
in some bolsters, foam
provides a flat, firm
surface that still has a
slight give to it.
A foam seat may be ideal if
more height and a soft, yet
stable surface work well
for you.
KAPOK
WHAT IT IS
BUCKWHEAT
I
COTTON
N S
S
FOAM
I
’
A Perch with Purpose
meditation
Sometimes as meditators, the last thing
we’re inclined to pay attention to is how we’re
sitting. It can be tempting to ignore the physical
side of practice and focus only on the workings
of our mind. Isn’t the body just tagging along
for the ride? Not so. We meditate with the body
and mind as one unit. When we try to ignore
our body, or to literally bend it to our will in
meditation (cramping our legs under a too-short
cushion, straining to keep the hips above the
knees), we find our body and our state of mind
aren’t easily compartmentalized. If our body
is uncomfortable, it has a way of nagging at us,
holding our attention and causing us to tense
up—thus making the discomfort even worse.
We’re able to be more naturally attentive when
our bodies are supported and in alignment. And
while healthy posture looks similar for most,
what people need varies widely in terms of the
cushions, chairs, or props that allow us to hold
that position with ease.
Knowing the various options for meditation
seats and bolsters will serve you well for two
reasons. First, comfort is a significant factor in
whether or not you’ll keep up your practice. Second, and just as important, what you find comfortable will shift over time. The body is constantly in flux, just as the mind is. A well-made
zafu may cost a little more, but it can last for
decades, and you can adapt it in countless ways
as needed. You can make your seat taller with
a bolster, add a zabuton or extra padding under
knees or ankles, or use it as a footrest when you
meditate in a chair. It’s a good idea to talk with a
meditation teacher who’s qualified to advise you
regarding particular physical concerns.
Especially when you’re learning to meditate,
the intention to be attuned to your body will
help you deal with the inevitable cramps and
aches of seated meditation practice. Elizabeth
Deboo, a physical therapist and meditation
teacher, recommends that when you notice discomfort in any area of your body, first identify
where you feel the sensation. Then take a few
deep, slow breaths. It’s normal for the brain
to zero in on what feels unpleasant. See if you
can instead shift or expand your attention into
the space around you. “As you calm down, your
nervous system calms down, and the tension in
We’re able to be
more naturally
attentive when our
bodies are supported
and in alignment.
your body is going to soften,” says Deboo. “If it
doesn’t soften, and it’s the only thing that you
can become aware of,” then it’s probably best to
adjust the way you’re sitting.
With this gentle method of inquiry, you can
find a healthy balance between getting comfortable and perhaps, gradually, creating the
potential for more spaciousness in your seated
posture. Deboo has noticed some meditators
struggling to push through pain, saying to
themselves, “Even if I’m not comfortable, I
should probably just endure this.” But, she
says, it’s more constructive to work with your
body. She emphasizes that you “can create the
space—meaning body space and meditation
space in your environment—that works, and
that makes you want to come back to it.”
Supporting your body, when you’re meditating and when you’re not, is a meaningful act
of self-compassion. It’s also an opportunity to
let go of resistance and comparison (including
any lingering mental images of graceful gurus
who, by all appearances, were born sitting
cross-legged). There really is no ideal to strive
for. When you approach your practice with a
spirit of acceptance and curiosity, your expectations don’t carry so much weight. Then you can
deeply explore what it’s like to be here: in your
seat, in this moment, just as you are. ●
June 2018 mindful 61
•
GET REAL
•
mindfulness for
the hard stuff
Look On the
By Elaine Smookler
Illustrations by Federica Bordoni
62 mindful June 2018
Bright Side…?
Optimism can seem like a dead end or even a harmful delusion.
But it’s not about slapping a filter over bleak reality; it’s about
allowing yourself to see life’s full range of colors.
get real
Antoine had cut himself on the broken glass
coaster we’d left on top of the refrigerator.
My husband was whispering the details as I
walked through the door. “I think he’s going
to be fine,” he said quietly, “but we should give
him some money.”
Antoine worked for the service that came
to clean our friend’s apartment while we were
staying there. When I went upstairs to find
him, he said his hand was probably going to
be OK, but he mentioned a past event when a
tree branch had punctured his skin, causing an
infection in his arm. I glanced at the small seethrough bandage on his index finger and saw no
I could have been suspicious
and self-protective, careful not
to appear too responsible lest
it bite me in the hindsight, but
this just isn’t how I want to live
my life. Call me an optimist.
Mistaken Identity
Think first impressions don’t lie? Let’s reconsider.
Have you ever
made a negative
assumption about
someone, only
to later find out
that you had the
person pegged
all wrong?
Snap judgments can reveal
a lot about our
deeper biases and
fears. When you
unpack them, you
create new opportunities to better
know your own
mind—and more
freedom to choose
how you want to
move through life.
TRY THIS
evidence of anything serious, yet I sensed that
Antoine felt vulnerable. I ofered to take him
to the emergency room, which he declined. He
seemed fine, but how did I know? As he left I
pressed some cash into his hand and gave him
my phone number, inviting him to call me if anything terrible came from this mishap.
The next day I tracked down the cleaning service to see how Antoine was. The person there
said he had mentioned the incident but was able
to work. She said she’d tell him I called. →
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elaine Smookler is a registered psychotherapist, mindfulness
teacher, writer, and performer who helps people develop
mindfulness and resilience in everyday life. Take a moment
and recall someone you may have
had a strong cynical opinion about:
your best friend’s
new boyfriend,
your good-looking
neighbor, the new
sales manager
at work.
Then, get curious: What was it
that you percieved
that provoked
your cynical line
of thinking? Was it
their name? Their
role in society?
Their accent? The
way they looked?
Did they remind
you of someone?
When you were
proven wrong, how
did it feel? Was it
a relief? Embarrassing? Frustrating? Did it make
you feel hopeful
or maybe a bit
vulnerable?
How did this
experience shit
your thoughts and
feelings about
the person, about
yourself, and
about the world?
What did you learn
about how quickly
a negative viewpoint can seize
your mind and
reframe what you
are perceiving?
This exercise is
not about being
right or wrong.
It’s about
developing the
awareness to
notice when you
might be making
choices that either
shut down possibility or let you
remain open.
It’s so easy to
mentally categorize people so that
they fit into the
story line we create to make sense
of our world. But
when you’re willing
to take a deeper
look, you readily discover that
nobody is just one
way. We’re multidimensional, made
up of many parts
and experiences.
Each time you
catch yourself making an
assumption about
someone, you
have the opportunity to pause, take
a breath, ask yourself “Is it true?”
and consider a
shit in how you
view them.
Not predjudging people is a
deep source of
generosity. When
we push away
others with our
negative frames
of reference, we’re
protecting cozy
territory we’ve
marked off for
ourselves, but
openness is the far
more invigorating
strategy.
June 2018 mindful 65
get real
When you seek safety behind a selfprotective shield of cynicism, you
don’t see that life is nuanced. Behind
immovable ideas of who and what is and
isn’t to be trusted, you remain isolated.
When I told my husband about the call he was
incredulous. “Are you crazy? I only told you he
cut himself because I thought we should slip
him a few bucks for his trouble. You didn’t have
to make such a big thing of it. Now they’ll probably sue us. Did you ever think of that!?”
The thing was, I had. I’d seen way too many
courtroom dramas not to consider the possible
ramifications of showing my concern—not to
mention that both my parents were lawyers.
66 mindful June 2018
When my husband first told me about the incident, I had felt my chest tighten. And when I
went looking for Antoine, I noticed two voices
sparring for my attention: one that echoed my
husband’s cynical “Don’t cop to anything!”
vigilance and one gently whispering, “But I
like myself much better when I stay close to
my humanity.” Someone who was just trying
to make his way through life had cut himself
on a coaster we’d broken. In my eyes, we were
responsible for his care. I took a breath and
decided to follow the second voice.
I could have been suspicious and self-protective, careful not to appear too responsible lest it
bite me in the hindsight, but this just isn’t how
I want to live my life. I find that if I stay open,
awake, and aware; if I investigate and act in
accordance with my values; and if I err on the
side of trusting in the general good-heartedness
of other humans, my day-to-day life ofers me
many lovely moments. Difficult things happen,
but overall, my clouds do tend to harbor silver
linings. Call me an optimist. →
RESEARCH
The Science of Optimism
Being guarded and careful might seem like a sound
strategy, but maintaining an upbeat, positive
frame of mind may extend your life.
One of the strongest predictors of
developing agerelated dementia
is the presence
of a specific gene
variant called
APOE ε4. Carriers are 47% more
likely to develop
the age-related
disease than noncarriers.
But there might
be an even bigger predictor of
dementia: how you
feel about aging.
Researchers
at Yale University
recently discovered that people
who carry the
gene variant yet
who hold positive beliefs about
aging are almost
50% less likely to
develop dementia
than those with
negative age
beliefs.
How is this
possible? What
does a positive
outlook have to
do with whether
a gene gets
expressed or not?
Add this question
and this exciting
new finding to the
growing mound
of evidence that
positive outlook,
i.e., optimism, has
demonstrable
impact on our
physical, mental,
and emotional
health.
For the
dementia study,
researchers
speculate that
positive beliefs
about aging are
protective: By feeling good overall
about your experience of aging, you
experience less
stress. Stress has
long been identified as a contributor to numerous
health conditions
and has been
indicated as a possible contributor to
dementia.
A positive
outlook may also
serve as a coping mechanism
against difficulty,
in this case,
against societal
ageism. The role
of optimism as a
protective coping
strategy has been
well documented
across a spectrum
of health concerns, including
speedier recovery
from surgery and
less rehospitalization following
medical intervention as well as in
the experience of
pain. Numerous
studies over the
past few decades
have identified a
positive outlook
with reductions
in heart disease,
stroke, and perception of pain,
and indicated its
role in strengthening the immune
system. In one
study of more
than 2,500 men
and women over
age 65, those with
the most positive
outlook had the
lowest blood pressures.
And, we recently
learned, optimism
might even help
you live longer. In
2016, researchers
at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan
School of Public
Health found that
women who were
optimistic had
27% less risk of
dying from major
diseases, including cancer, heart
disease, and respiratory disease.
The reason?
Optimism is correlated to healthier
behaviors, such as
eating well, exer-
cise, and sleeping
better. But the
effects may not
only be behavioral:
Optimism is also
linked to lower
inflammation and
cortisol levels
and healthier lipid
levels.
These findings
“suggest that
we should make
efforts to boost
optimism, which
has been shown
to be associated
with healthier
behaviors and
healthier ways of
coping with life
challenges,” study
coauthor Eric Kim
said.
June 2018 mindful 67
get real
Accentuate the Positive
The (not so) secret to seeing more goodness.
In order to support an optimistic view, it’s helpful to recognize that the more attention you give something, the
more of it you’ll notice. This
works both ways. The more
you expect the worst—from
people, from life—the more
of it you’ll witness. The more
things you recognize as positives in your life, and in the
world, the easier it becomes
to recognize them in the
future. Science supports this.
Writing in a gratitude journal,
for example, has been shown
to help fine-tune your ability
to notice the good things in
your life.
As you sharpen your vision
to see the good, it can help
loosen your grip in expectation of something going
wrong. You begin to see that,
in spite of difficulty or uncertainty, there’s actually a lot to
feel positive about.
TRY THIS
Get a stack of colored index
cards (sticky notes work,
too). Then, look at your
week ahead and choose an
“Optimism Day.” When the
day comes, periodically stop
what you’re doing and take
note of anything that makes
you feel good.
68 mindful June 2018
The sun finally came out.
The short line at the coffee
shop this morning.
A moment of shared laughter
with your coworker.
You’re learning to eat better and feeling the positive
effects.
Feeling more present and in
command in your life.
An instance where you were
able to stay cool when you’d
usually blow your top.
The power of medicine and
how it’s helping your mother.
Space X and the idea of Star
Man zooming through the
cosmos.
Write each good thing on a
separate index card or note.
You can even decorate your
optimistic messages with
colored pens, labels, stickers—anything to support the
good feeling you’re capturing.
Visual aids can be helpful
reminders, so display these
positive messages where
you’ll see them. You can keep
your notes displayed, take a
photo to create a record of
each week’s cache, or take
’em down and start fresh
the next week. Soon enough
you’ll likely see that there is
no shortage of things to make
you feel optimistic or bring a
bit of warmth to your heart.
I once tried my hand at stand-up comedy. I
quickly learned that other comics viewed optimism…well, cynically. After all, for many people
daily life is a stream of violence, sufering, and
uncaring. Lean down to smell the roses—and
someone steals your wallet. Only a chump would
expect it to be otherwise.
P.T. Barnum famously once said that there’s
a sucker born every minute. None of us wants
to be that sucker. So by fine-tuning our radar
for threats and assuming the worst of everyone
and everything, maybe, just maybe, we won’t get
caught with our guard down. Cynicism lets us
stay distant, cool, and superior to the muck of
the human experience. If life were high school,
it’d be where the cool kids hang out.
Stranger danger
The reasons for cynicism may seem valid at
times. Life is unpredictable. Painful stuf happens. Sometimes the person you trusted, the job
you counted on, the seemingly friendly stranger
pans out diferently than you hoped. In those
moments, you might feel that staying on the
alert for anything negative or unpleasant might
be the only way to avoid having the rug pulled
out from under you, again. Maybe you think
that cynicism has worked pretty well for you all
these years, so why change? Perhaps it is just the
devil you know.
But if happiness is your goal, how can you
hope to achieve it if you’re holding so tightly to
the belief that people can’t be trusted, systems
fail, and things are never going to go your way?
When you seek safety behind a self-protective
shield of cynicism, you don’t see that life is
nuanced. Yes, it’s a risk to remain open to others, especially others you don’t know. Stranger
danger! But being open is also how you make
new friends, fall in love, experience delight, and
grow from everything you encounter. It’s how
you become a more fully functioning agent in
your own life and in the world.
More than likely you’ll uncover some scary,
painful, and unpleasant stuf along the way.
You’ll encounter lots of middle, no-big-deal stuf,
too. But if you’re looking for it, you’ll also see
there’s lots of good stuf happening, all the time.
Cynicism can’t aford this view of life’s subtleties; it paints from a palette of black and white.
Behind immovable ideas of who and what is
and isn’t to be trusted, you remain isolated.
But instead of making you stronger, this stance
keeps you from developing the resilience you →
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gain when you bounce back from the fall, the
heartbreak, the stolen wallet. And social scientists tell us that resilience is one of the biggest
indicators of happiness and life satisfaction.
Your ability to deal with difficulties, learn from
them, and move on, determines whether you
thrive or merely survive.
To make matters worse, instead of protecting
you, cynicism can actually attract the people
and situations that seem to confirm your belief
that life is a cruel joke. This is due to a psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias,”
or, as Harvard researcher David Perkins calls
it, “myside” bias. It may be a negative view, but
it’s mine. Without recognizing it, you seek out
people and experiences that mirror your views.
So your Facebook feed gets filled with tales of
warning and your ears perk up at news stories
that fuel your fears. You find evidence of a dark,
foreboding world everywhere you turn.
And underneath it all, your cynical view may
be preventing you from noticing how your own
thinking and behavior might, in even some small
way, incite situations that lead to pain, upset, or
drama—the very outcomes that “prove” how you
can’t trust anyone or anything.
A better alert system
Mindfulness ofers a diferent way to be alert
and relaxed in our lives. When practiced
regularly, it attunes you to the subtleties in
your mind and body—you become a ninja of
your inner landscape. With three-dimensional
awareness, you pick up on moments of ease
and joy, not just threat. And with relaxed but
heightened attention, you’re in a much better
position to remain present to it all—the pleasant,
the unpleasant, and the relatively neutral—while
navigating with more dexterity and grace.
This perspective might also allow you to see
how you connect unrelated events and put a
negative spin on them. “Have you heard about →
70 mindful June 2018
get real
Beginning with Awareness
When we clear our mental slate, we get kinder.
Kindness and caring for others doesn’t only arise from
good wishes. It can also emerge naturally from noticing
fixed viewpoints and letting them go, however briefly. Ater
all, when they arise again—as they will—we can simply
repeat the process.
1
Notice
Irritation
When you find
you’re getting
edgy and irritable
with what someone else is up
to, see if you can
take a break in the
action and explore
underneath the
irritation, going
to its roots. Don’t
waste time beating yourself up
about it. Just take
a moment to see
what your curious,
investigating mind
is revealing.
2
Examine
the Story
You’re Telling
Yourself
Underneath the
irritation is likely to
be a story line. And
the story is where
the bias is held.
“These people…”;
“When someone does that,
they’re…”; “I can’t
stand it when…”
Part of what’s
going on here is
that the powerful
discerning mind
we need to evaluate our own and
others’ behavior
gets carried away.
We’ve shut off
our curiosity and
decided what’s
what. See if you
can drop the story
without the world
falling apart.
3
Enjoy the
Space
In place of the
fixed story line, a
gap will emerge.
Without your
predetermined
and prepackaged
label, you’ll begin
to notice more
details. You’ll
begin to notice
the humanity
and vulnerability
you share with
others—however
different and
however flawed
they may appear
from your perspective. The less
you “know” in this
case, the better. You can see
freshly.
4
Share the
Warmth
Chances are that,
without the armor
of your fixed label
to create barriers and distance
between you and
another, you may
be touched by
their humanity. It
may soten you
up and open your
heart. You may
find a luminous
warmth lies within.
Let it be there.
Appreciate it. It will
spread naturally, if
you remain with it
for a while.
5
Move On
Avoid fixating on
the process of
unmasking as a
big deal. The less
you think it’s a
momentous thing,
the more likely it
is to become a
simple habit, like
drinking tea or
coffee.
June 2018 mindful 71
get real
Morty? Dead, at just 95! And he took vitamins!
I knew those things didn’t work!”
Through mindfulness, we come to know ourselves with greater kindness. Without judgment,
we can acknowledge our fears about people and
the world and be curious about them instead of
just accepting them as fact.
It also helps you to recognize how a cynical
attitude sits in your body. Is it heavy or light?
Does it feel open or closed? Likewise, how does
it feel when you have an unexpectedly pleasant encounter or experience? Can you notice a
diference?
Optimism isn’t about shielding yourself from
any experience, or about being careless or falsely
hopeful and putting yourself or anyone else in
harm’s way. Instead it encourages wisdom by
seeing the dark and the light, and by looking
deeply at your choices so that you stay in alignment with your values. When you live from this
optimistic place, you free yourself up to be a
much more powerful presence in all situations,
even the ones you don’t want. Imagine being
able to hold the space for hard-knuckle reality,
and still remaining open.
From a health standpoint, an optimistic view
heavily tips the scales in your favor. It’s been
linked to longevity, helps you cope with disease,
and speeds recovery from surgery. Optimism
is also tonic for your psychological health.
Research shows that increased access to positive
feelings makes social interactions easier and
more enjoyable. And by broadening your sense
of possibility and your thinking, optimism supports greater opportunity, which in turn creates
more positive feelings and better social interactions, and onward it goes.
72 mindful June 2018
get real
Optimism isn’t about shielding
yourself from the truth. Instead it
encourages wisdom by knowing
yourself. When you live from this
place, you show up as a much more
powerful presence in all situations.
When Antoine cut himself on the coaster at
our friend’s house, I opened myself to being
optimistic about the outcome. I chose to care
and stay close to my humanity. And when I
reached out to him the next day, my husband
was right: I had potentially given him and his
bosses ammunition to take advantage of the
situation.
I did both of these things mindfully, knowing
what was at stake. And still, I made the conscious choice not to armor myself and act out of
fear. I chose optimism.
This is the kind of choice we all face every day.
Antoine got the message that I had called to
check on him, and sent me a text later that day.
“It’s okay today, so not to worry,” he wrote.
Mindfulness is about being awake to possibility. We can choose, every time, to be open
or closed to what comes our way. We can bring
fresh eyes and a fresh perspective to each
interplay of dark and light. We can be realistic,
optimistic, and curious about it all. ●
June 2018 mindful 73
reviews
Bookmark This
read…listen…download
HOW WE WORK
Live Your Purpose, Reclaim
Your Sanity, and Embrace
the Daily Grind
Leah Weiss • Harper Wave
Let’s face it: Work is broken. Despite numerous attempts to rejigger and modernize and
open up the workplace, in the opinion of Leah
Weiss—who teaches “Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion” at the Stanford Graduate
School of Business—most people work in a toxic
environment.
She’s not talking about sick building syndrome, though plenty of people still work in
buildings cut of from the natural world with
bad air, bad lighting, and bad building materials. She’s talking about working hours that
stretch out of all recognition, the added ability
to field communications at any place or time,
and few if any doses of serious downtime to
recharge. Weiss cites a study that shows that,
in 2015, less than half of workers who received
paid vacation days used all or most of them and
that 44% of respondents said their job “negatively afected their overall health,” while 40%
said it negatively afected family life, weight,
and sleep.
Chief among our problems is a mindset that
creates a false dichotomy between “work” and
“life,” causing us to expect life to make up for
the damage done at work, when in fact what
we need to do, individually and collectively,
is learn how to live better at work and everyplace else. We need to transform the workplace
and reclaim our lives by learning to pay more
consistent attention to how we feel. As the tried
and true mindfulness question goes: What is
happening right now? If we keep up this kind of
investigation, Weiss contends, change will happen. And leaders need to step up and take the
initiative to create workplaces that value how
people really feel.
74 mindful June 2018
BE MINDFUL & STRESS LESS
50 Ways to Deal with Your (Crazy) Life
Gina M. Biegel • Shambhala Publications
With mindfulness being
taught in an increasing
number of schools, many students are learning how mindful practices can help them
deal with busy school days,
high expectations, relationships, and the omnipresence
of social media. Biegel, a psychotherapist and the creator
of Mindfulness-Based Stress
Reduction for Teens, knows
the aspects of mindfulness
most useful for young people,
and this book lays these out
clearly. Without talking down
to anyone, Biegel identifies
simple actions that young
people can take for self-care,
easing anxiety, and cultivating more ease. This book
will help in the vital work of
empowering teens to improve
their own wellness.
THE GREEN BURIAL GUIDEBOOK
Everything You Need to Plan
an Affordable, Environmentally
Friendly Burial
Elizabeth Fournier • New World Library
It’s long been known that
the modern way of death is
deeply flawed. The funeralhome-run operations—the
retail setting, the extremely
costly coffins, embalming practices, burials, and
even cremations (which
require extreme levels of
energy)—“not only fail to
provide a satisfying ritual for
mourning,” says Elizabeth
Fournier, but they also leave
behind a “lasting financial
and ecological burden.” The
seventh generation of morticians in her family, Fournier
is a convert to green burials.
She offers here everything
you need to know about
this new and growing set of
practices.
“When you are feeling nervous,
your body is like a snow globe
that’s been shaken.”
BREATHE
Inês Castel-Branco • Magination Press
Breathe tells the story of a
young boy who is nervous and
struggling to sleep. His mother
guides him with imaginative
breathing exercises to explore
lung capacity, as well as some
animal-based yoga stretches.
With practice, the child
discovers how these tools can
rob fear and sadness of their
power to keep us awake at
night. This book speaks to children with the confidence that
they can understand how and
why attention to our breath is
so powerful.
HERE WE GROW
Mindfulness Through
Cancer and Beyond
Paige Davis • She Writes Press
Four years ago Paige Davis
received a diagnosis every
woman dreads: breast cancer. At just 38 years old, and
long committed to healthy
living, she was devastated—
but in a way, she writes in this
encouraging new memoir,
she’d “been in training for
this” for her entire life. From
her teens on she’d been
exploring the body–mind
relationship, leading, among
other things, to a daily meditation practice.
Over the whirlwind year
that includes a double
mastectomy, a harrowing
bout of chemotherapy, and
breast reconstruction, Davis
turns again and again to the
breath, accessing the well of
inner stillness that exists in
even the most uncomfortable moments. It’s a powerful
reminder of how presence
can shit any experience into
one of learning—and growth.
June 2018 mindful 75
reviews
RELATIONAL MINDFULNESS
A Handbook for Deepening our
Connection with Ourselves, Each
Other, and the Planet
Deborah Eden Tull • Wisdom Publications
Deborah Eden Tull grew
up in a progressive community of artists and activists, whose motivations
contrasted starkly with her
Los Angeles surroundings.
Yet even in this changeoriented environment, she
couldn’t help feeling that
more was needed in order
to efectively address our
most pernicious human
problems: from personal
fear, pride, and stress to
social inequality, bigotry,
and profit-driven destruction of nature.
Tull’s drive to cultivate
greater peace and happiness led her at age 26 to
Zen Buddhism, where she
found meditation to be “a
direct means for softening
our obsession with productivity and returning us
instead to a more vast
presence of being.”
Through years of
monastic practice (which
she later left to teach and
practice in society), she
learned that the social good
is served by moving toward
what she calls “we consciousness,” and that this
shift is innately a mindful
one. Gently, lovingly, she
shows how bringing
mindfulness to how we
show up for ourselves, our
dear ones, and our wider
communities creates the
clarity to live with wisdom
and compassion in trying
76 mindful June 2018
and isolating times.
Relational mindfulness,
Tull describes, is the
antidote to our illusion of
separateness—which “fuels
a way of life that is unsustainable both personally
and globally. Every seed of
violence in our world—war,
social injustice, planetary
abuse, and any ism—stems
from the seed of this
illusion.”
This book doesn’t promote an intellectual grasp
of what mindfulness is
and does, nor is any kind
of religious belief indispensible to its premise.
What it accomplishes is
a thoughtful, piece-bypiece consideration of the
issues caused by our deeply
limited conditioning, by
our misperceptions about
the world and ourselves—
and how we’re capable of
realizing our interconnectedness more deeply
through relationships. It
can be read in a group with
shared intention, with
a partner, or by oneself.
What matters is that we
take its compassionate
message to heart. In the
words of another spiritual
teacher and activist, angel
Kyodo williams, “Love and
justice are not two. Without inner change, there
can be no outer change;
without collective change,
no change matters.”
“One of the worst things we can
do to ourselves on the anxious
journey is to get anxious about
being anxious.”
FIRST, WE MAKE THE
BEAST BEAUTIFUL
A New Journey Through Anxiety
Sarah Wilson • Dey Street Books
Sarah Wilson, also the creator
of I Quit Sugar, hits a beautiful
balance in this book between
deep reflection and downto-earth advice for thriving
with anxiety and related
conditions. A far cry from
the bedside manner-y tone
common to self-help, Wilson’s warmth and humor will
quickly win you over (example:
frank talk about her finding
that meditation retreats can
bring constipation relief).
The only deficiency is in the
neuroscience, which leans on
debunked theories involving
the “reptilian” or “old vs. new”
brain regions. These inaccuracies are small, however,
beside her sound recommendations: from anxiety-proofing your diet to making your
bed every day to finding clues
in mental illness that evolve
the way you care for yourself.
MAKE A LIST
How a Simple Practice Can Change
Our Lives and Open Our Hearts
Marilyn McEntyre • Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing
What could be simpler, what
could be more elegant than
making a list? And lists have a
great pedigree: the to-do list,
the shopping list, the laundry
list, the top forty, the Bill of
Rights. Lists persist because
they work: A review of the efficacy of checklists in hospitals
showed that the lists improved
patient safety with no
reported negative effects. We
forget stuff. It’s good to have
a list. This book offers ample
fun (and insight), and it starts
out with a great list: reasons to
make a list. Just two reasons
out of nineteen are to discover
subtle layers of feeling and to
connect the dots. Sold. ●
reviews
PODCASTS
INVISIBILIA
Episode: Pt.I: Emotions / Pt.II: High Voltage
This wonderful if offbeat podcast (its title is
Latin for “invisible things”) fuses science with
narrative storytelling. These episodes investigate
psychologist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s case that
how we conceptualize (and deal with) emotions
is totally backward: “Emotions aren’t a reaction
to the world; they actually construct the world.”
This is weighed against some true, truly weird
stories: Traumatized by a car crash, a man sues
who he crashed into—the parents of the child
he killed (!). An anthropologist discovers a “new”
emotion among a head-hunting tribe in the
Philippines. And a woman struggles to find love,
due to a seemingly involuntary reflex.
QUIRKS & QUARKS
Episode: Friends share more than interests.
Their brains are similar, too
Dr. Carolyn Parkinson, a psychological
researcher at UCLA, led a study that interviewed
300 students to learn the degrees of friendship
or distance they had to others within the group.
Then, students watched an assortment of video
clips while the researchers took fMRI scans of
their brains. It turned out that how close the
students were to one another could be predicted
by the similarity of their neural responses to the
videos. This leaves open the question of whether
we gravitate toward others who already see and
process the world similarly, or if we become
friends first and, through unknown mechanisms,
our mental patterns converge over time.
FREAKONOMICS RADIO
Episode: Here’s Why All Your Projects Are
Always Late—and What to Do About It
Why do we procrastinate—and why,
nevertheless, can we always convince ourselves
that we won’t next time? Experts weigh in, from
psychology and neuroscience to sotware design
and New York City’s Second Avenue subway
that took 50 years to start building. We fall
victim to the planning fallacy, which involves our
“optimism bias”—believing the grass is greener
in the future—and the fact that most of us don’t
love data integration. The key to more accurate
expectations? “Use data instead of human
judgment.” Artificial intelligence: 1; people: 0.
June 2018 mindful 77
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2018-19 Retreats and Workshops with Hugh Byrne
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June 2018 mindful 79
mindspace
notice what you notice
80 mindful June 2018
Words and Illustration by Missy Chimovitz
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