Being conscious in the present moment

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” ― Anne Frank

I listened to a recent Radio 4 radio programme and in it, they were talking about the lifestyles that we have developed in the 21st century. We are immersed in time-bound activities. Whether at work, in our social circles or even in our personal lives. Whether it is checking Facebook multiple times a day. Posting endless tweets, I think of it as chirping like a bird. Endlessly checking e:mails. Running from one meeting to another without a break in between. Watching TV whilst eating dinner. You get the picture. I am sure if you stopped for a moment, you can add to the list with some of the things that you do.

I love the fact that most people would call themselves, “Human Beings”. We are not. We are in fact “Human Doings” rather than “Human Beings”. We spend all of our lives doing things, rather than being present in the moment, every moment. Even in inside our heads, we ruminate and constantly have thoughts flickering and jumping out. I have no idea who measured it, but someone has come up with the fact that we have on average, between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day.

Mindfulness meditation helps to calm the jumping mind, as well as make you more present and conscious in the present moment. Those fleeting moments, where the mind stills, the thoughts cease and you are at peace are truly magical.

As a questing and inquisitive person, I was wondering what being conscious meant, when I saw an article entitled – A great brief video introduction to consciousness and its myriad mysteries. I have shared the link and the separate article that related to the video at the end of this post.

I loved the tag-line on the video – Here’s what we know, and what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know we know, and what we don’t know we don’t know. (The Economist) – and sat and watched it a couple of times. The science of consciousness and what it means to be human is the basis of the video. We might be the only species on the planet that have consciousness, though there is research to say that Bonobos, orang-utans, elephants, dolphins and magpies react in ways that might be interpreted as self-recognition. Gorillas, gibbons, monkeys, dogs and pigeons do not.

Scientists are searching for the neural correlates of consciousness—the bits of the brain responsible for generating conscious experience. In effect where consciousness exits in our brains. The article and video go on to describe one area of the brain that is of particular interest. The claustrum. This is a prime candidate because of its extensive connections with other parts of the brain. A crucial property of consciousness is that it integrates many sorts of experience, both sensory and internally generated. Discovering how this integration happens is known as the binding problem. In 2005, a paper published by Francis Crick and Christof Koch looked at the binding problem. The two researchers lit upon the claustrum as something that might help illuminate it.

The claustra (there are two, one in each cerebral hemisphere—see diagram) are thin sheets of nerve cells tucked below the cerebral cortex that have connections both to and from almost every area of the cortex. They are the only structures that link the various parts of the cortex in this way. More research is underway to try to confirm that this is the centre of our consciousness.

As for me, I will continue to practice being the present moment and try to still my ever “roving claustrum”. 

The video is here:

http://boingboing.net/2015/09/11/a-great-brief-video-introducti.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+boingboing%2FiBag+%28Boing+Boing%29

The article is here:

http://www.economist.com/news/science-brief/21664060-final-brief-our-series-looks-most-profound-scientific-mystery-all-one

An article on animal self awareness:

http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/10-animals-with-self-awareness.html

I leave you with the following quote:

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.   Delicious Ambiguity.” ― Gilda Radner

An afternoon with the Dalai Lama and Friends

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”Dalai Lama XIV

I am a member of Action for Happiness – a UK based organisation set up to promote happiness and well-being. This week they hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an event in London to launch a new happiness programme and I decided to go. The venue was the Lyceum Theatre, with over 2,000 people at the event, even on a wet and windy Monday afternoon.

The afternoon kicked off with a brief introduction by the Action for Happiness host, Mark Williamson. He introduced His Holiness the Dalai Lama onto the stage with Richard Layard [a labour economist and author of a number of books on the economics of happiness]. Mark then launched the Action for Happiness 8 week programme and introduced onto the stage Jasmine Hodge-Lake and Adrian Bethune, two early members of the programme, to talk about the benefits of the programme and how they had used it in their personal and professional lives.

Richard Layard then started the conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama which lasted for nearly 2 hours.

One of the first questions was, “How to create happiness in ourselves?”

The Dalai Lama responded with: the fact that happiness is based on loving kindness and compassion to ourselves; that we should feel that for ourselves; that we should recognise that when we feel frustration or anger that is when you need to practice your mindfulness.

Next they talked about Secular Ethics. Secular ethics is a branch of moral philosophy in which ethics is based solely on human faculties such as logic, reason or moral intuition, and not derived from supernatural revelation or guidance (which is the source of religious ethics). The Dalai Lama talked about love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness are at the heart of secular ethics. We all need friends and family. That you need to show and demonstrate love, which leads onto trust and honesty, which deepens and strengthens the bonds of friendship.

The middle part of the discussion was on the three elements in the broader society that need to exist in harmony to foster happiness. They were firstly love and compassion. Second, philosophy and religion. I loved the metaphor that the Dalai Lama used for religion at this point. Different religions are like different foods. They all nourish you in different ways. But they all nourish you. And you might not want to just eat one food type, else it could become stale and boring. Rather, people like to pick and choose what they eat, so to do different people pick and choose their religions. Finally, thirdly, culture. How does the culture of the country you live in support happiness?

The final part was around wealth and happiness, where his holiness talked about the fact that in numerous conversations he has had over the years with the rich and famous, money does not give you inner peace.

After a short break, the afternoon continued with a panel discussion with:

  • Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta, a leading authority on social innovation
  • Suzy Greaves, editor of Psychologies magazine, who has launched 1,000 Happiness Clubs across the UK
  • Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University and a co-founder of Action for Happiness
  • Richard Davidson, a renowned neuroscientist and a global expert on emotion and the brain
  • Finally, my favourite, Matthieu Ricard, monk and author of the book Altruism. A book I would recommend you read.

What followed was a whirlwind discussion around topics, such as;

The plasticity of the brain and the four constituents of well-being; how to move from despair to happiness;  how to bring happiness into schools and stop the “grave / grind system” of education; to altruism and caring mindfulness, where you can be mindful without caring compassion, but you can not be compassionate without being mindful.

Finally, there was a brief introduction by Daniel Goleman; author of the world famous book Emotional Intelligence; on the new book, “A Force for Good”, which lays out the Dalai Lama’s vision for a better world.

We wrapped up the afternoon with the news that the launch of the programme was going to be broadcast by the BBC, a wonderful outcome.

The link below is to the BBC News programme that mentions the launch of the Action for Happiness programme.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rakF28bExMU

“The Dalai Lama is supporting the launch of the Exploring What Matters course developed by Action for Happiness. This was broadcast on BBC 10 o’clock News on 21 Sept 2015”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34292274?post_id=1122009653_10206935069871539#_=_

Action for Happiness website:

http://www.actionforhappiness.org/

I leave you with the following quote:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Dalai Lama XIV

Being v’s Doing? The choice is yours

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”Narcotics Anonymous

As human beings, we spend all of our existence doing instead of being. We should in effect be called Human Doings. From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment when we close our eyes and hopefully fall asleep, we are in “doing mode”.

We think of ourselves as creators of things, rather than just existing. We are not content just to be, we are conditioned to do something or achieve something. The egoic drive in us produces our world we craft around us, but it can also be destructive. For instance in our constant need to control everything, each other and also ourselves.

So what are some of the characteristics of this “Doing” world we have created for ourselves?

Doing Orientation – Emphasizes action and proactive behavior Values efficiency and results

  • Status is earned (e.g. the work you do in your job). It is not merely a function of who you are. This means we constantly strive to climb that greasy career ladder.
  • Further, the status that you have earned is not automatic and can be forfeited if one stops achieving it, i.e. you quit your job. I recall someone I worked with who was a senior client director, coming into work one day and saying, I am giving this up to become an acupuncturist. When I asked why, it was because he wanted to help and support people, rather that strive for “success” as he put it.
  • Great emphasis is placed on targets, deadlines, schedules, and goals. Personally, socially and in the work environment, we set ourselves up almost with the intention of failure.
  • The doing tasks take precedence over personal relationships. When was the last time you thought about not doing something and instead just being with someone.
  • ………I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

If you then think for a moment of the “Being” world that we can develop and grow, some of the characteristics could include.

Being Orientation – Emphasizes contemplation and reflection Values quality of life

  • Harmony and a feeling of acceptance of everyone as unique
  • Extended family orientation where we want to spend quality time with those around us
  • Contemplative and recognizing the wisdom and knowledge of people,
  • We accept who a person is. It’s automatic and therefore open and honest.
  • Relationships should take precedence over tasks. More time is spent on getting to know someone before agreeing to do business with them

On a personal level, we have created goals, targets and tasks for ourselves. Losing weight; giving up smoking; getting that “dream” job, etc. Even when we take a break from work and go on “holiday” we tend to fill up the time with tasks and activities, rather than enjoying the moments of contemplation and of being with friends and family. The world around us.

When was the last time you just sat and did nothing. Completely. Absolutely. Nothing. Not even letting some of those 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts that cross your mind on a daily basis, invade that being moment? Go on give it a try.

I read an article by Mary Pritchard in the Huffington Post that really struck a chord with me. Check out the section I found of interest below:

Instead of looking at your day as an endless to-do list, what if you started each day with a question: “At the end of the day, how do I want to feel?” After you ponder that one, you can ask yourself, “What will make me feel that way?”

I’m not saying that we should all give up do-ing in favor of be-ing; rather, I’m saying we should let our be-ing inform our do-ing. So if I want to feel relaxed at the end of the day, trying to cram five more things on my endless to-do list that day is probably not going to help me accomplish that goal. Neither would multitasking all day in an effort to get more done.

So I challenge you to try this: Each morning when you wake up ask yourself how you want to feel at the end of that day. Sit with it and let whatever the feeling is float up to the surface. Then ask yourself what one thing will help you feel that way. **

I leave you with the following quote:

Nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to attend. Already complete, whole and endowed. – Heart Sutra

Taken from the following article:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-pritchard/doing-being_b_4144965.html

10 Second meditation, what have you got to lose?

“God gave you a gift of 86 400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you ” William Arthur Ward

I came across another talk by Matthieu Ricard, this time talking to the actor, Richard Gere about Altruism. During the talk, there was an opportunity for people in the audience to ask questions and one was asked by a ten-year-old girl. The question was “What was the one thing we could practice every day that would help us be more compassionate and altruistic?”

Matthieu talked about the fact that as we grow up, we learn new things, sports, playing the piano, learning to read and write. None of these things happened just like that, but over time. So like any of these things, becoming more altruistic and compassionate takes time.

Matthieu then said that the other secret is the 10-second meditation. He heard it from a friend at Google. That sounds nuts? 10 seconds of meditation is going to make a difference? Come on? But wait a moment and think about it.

If you do something and repeat it many times, it starts to become a habit. Think about driving a car. You certainly did not start knowing how to change gears, going round corners, or reverse parking. Instead, you learnt each of these skills by repetition, constant repetition over a period of time. And even when you eventually passed your driving test, it takes years to become proficient at driving. So the 10-second meditation does sort of make sense.

So how does it work. For 10 seconds, maybe every hour or whenever you have a moment during the day; just pause, look around and when you see someone, say to yourself:

  • May you be safe and free from suffering
  • May you be as happy and as healthy as it is possible to be
  • May you have ease of being

He then goes on to give the analogy about a bottle of perfume. You open the stopper and just let the perfume out briefly. You do it often enough and the perfume begins to pervade the space around you. So to, if you do the 10-second meditation often enough, the feelings of altruism and compassion will begin to spread and be pervasive around you.

So does it work? Yes it does. I have been practicing mindfulness for a long time and the noticeable difference it makes to you and how you interact with other people is amazing. At work, in social situations and with my family and friends. Everyone has noticed how different I have become. Go on give it a try. After all, what have you got to lose? 10 seconds, that’s all.

By the way, if you want to watch the YouTube video I mentioned at the start, even for the section on 10-second meditation, then follow the link below. The 10-second meditation question and answer is at the 55-minute mark.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGVzRwM7EVI

I leave you with the following quote:

“Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.” ― Denis Waitley

We have all the time in the world, after all is it our world

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” ― H. Jackson Brown Jr.

We spend so much of our lives rushing from moment to moment, always complaining that we have run out of time; we don’t have enough time; or we wish we could have more time in our lives. Yet we forget that the time is defined by ourselves. We have specified how long the day is. We have sub-divided and cut it up into ever smaller segments. We then seek to manage and control every moment of those moments.

Sometimes we are given the opportunity to sit back and not worry about those individual moments. Perhaps on holiday; or in the car; or as a passenger in a bus; or even when you might be walking. For many of us, those moments are all too fleeting and we might then regret that we have “wasted” that time rather than completing the next task on life’s ever long “To Do” list.

What Mindfulness does though, is to give to every moment the opportunity to be present. To be aware, moment, by moment, of what is in front of you. As you have read this article, you are in the present moment. Even if it was only fleetingly.

We do have all the time we want in our world. Rich or poor, famous or just a normal person; the time is the same. How we choose to use it, that is down to us all, individually. I would ask that you do take a moment out of your day. To sit and feel yourself breathing. To appreciate life around you. To feel you are here. Right now. In the present moment.

I enclose a link to the song that inspired this post.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJeEwkVoUpk

I leave you with the following quote:

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

What does Mindfulness Meditation do to your brain?

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

There are a raft of articles that talk about the calming effects of meditation. Meditation helps relieve our levels of anxiety and depression and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. What is starting to come to light through medical research across the globe, is the impact on the structures of the brain. The practice of mindfulness meditation appears to have an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from reductions in fear and stress levels, through changes in the amount of grey matter up top, to reduced activity in the “monkey mind” centers of the brain, and even enhanced connectivity between brain regions.

So what are some of the effects of mindfulness?

Fear is reduced

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. In effect, fear and stress is reduced.

Amounts of grey matter up top

A study from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain – although older meditators still had some volume loss – compared to younger meditators. So the longer you practice mindfulness meditation, the better the impact on the amount of grey matter.

The “monkey mind”

Another study carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-oriented thoughts, what people call the “monkey mind.” Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to turn down the volume of this mind activity. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the default mode network, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it. I have noticed this myself through my practice. I am much more able to turn away from the rumblings of my mind and focus on a specific thought.

Better concentration

Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well. One of the central benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory. Since the strong focus of attention on your breath or and an idea, is one of the central aims of mindfulness meditation, it’s not so surprising that it should help people’s cognitive skills on the job as well. I can not say with certainty that the mindfulness practice has made me more attentive at work, though I certainly feel as if I am.

Now you might be thinking, that using mindfulness meditation to change the brain takes years to have an impact. Wrong. World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard J. Davidson is one of the leading experts on the impact of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, on the brain. He is the Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, with Sharon Begley, of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.“The structure of the brain can change in 1.5 hours of practice,” said Richard Davidson.

This is a short article that covers a very wide rangning set of studies. For further articles that you might find of interest, please go to:

Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain – Harvard Business Review:

https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain

“Train Your Brain” Webinar Audio Recording Featuring Richie Davidson and Dan Harris, hosted by Mindful.org

To listen to Richard Davidson talk about the benefits of Mindfulness, go to:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NI1pxA7lJ-Y

What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do to Your Brain?

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mindfulness-meditation-do-to-your-brain/

As always, I leave you with a quote….

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” ― Dr. Seuss

Can we be individuals in a world of numbers?

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” ― Mother Teresa

We all have those moments in our lives where numbers appear to be the root of all evil. Bank account numbers, credit card numbers, national insurance, health cover, etc. You name it, we are surrounded by numbers. So many in fact, that I doubt, unless you have a special mind for it, that you can remember them all.

I had the experience recently of having to make an online purchase and used my credit card, quickly followed by an application form that needed one of my daughters national insurance numbers. It made me feel as if I was just a number provider. 

If you are of an age you will remember the TV programme called, The Prisoner, developed and starring Patrick Magoohan. I used to watch the reruns in the early 1980’s, on a Sunday lunchtime. The opening sequence has the following dialogue:

Prisoner: Where am I?

Number Two (not identified as yet): In the village.

Prisoner: What do you want?

Two: Information.

Prisoner: Whose side are you on?

Two: That would be telling. We want information…information…information!

Prisoner: You won’t get it!

Two: By hook or by crook, we will.

Prisoner: Who are you?

Two: The new Number Two.

Prisoner: Who is Number One?

Two: You are Number Six.

Prisoner: I am not a number; I AM A FREE MAN!!!

Two: [Laughter]

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tra3Zi5ZWa0

If you think about it, the world we have created, with all the numbers and rules and regulations, is supposed to help manage our lives. We have made our lives more and more complex. We have added to our lives, so much “stuff” it is difficult to see where we as individuals exist. But wait. Stop for a moment.

Even those numbers that we use every day are unique to us. My credit card number is unique to me. My purchases and spend history are a reflection of me as a person. Of the lifestyle that I lead. We are even tracked by those numbers. Whether it is our shopping habits through loyalty cards; our credit card purchases sold as commercial data; our phone numbers used to push other services. Every item of our lives is leveraged, purchased and used.

How we live our lives within ourselves, though is not. Every moment that we breathe, think and move is ours. Ours to do with as we see fit. Our internal world is as unique to us as the external numbered world is shared by everyone.

Hang on a moment. The external shared numbered world is unique to us as well. All of those numbers that are “registered” to me are mine. They are a reflection of me. Not my persona, but the exterior representation. They were created for me, they exist alongside me and when I die, they will cease to ever be used again – hopefully. So maybe, after all, what we are, are unique, individual streams of conscious numbers in a world of numbers.

I leave you with the following quote from one of my favorite authors:

“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.” ― Terry Pratchett, Jingo