Peak wellness

Another Monday has rolled around. We all feeling well?

We’ve reached peak wellness. Most of it is nonsense.
Nourishing these interrelated dimensions of health, however, does not require that you buy any lotions, potions, or pills. Wellness—the kind that actually works—is simple: it’s about committing to basic practices, day in and day out, as individuals and communities.

Unfortunately, these basics tend to get overlooked in favor of easy-to-market nonsense. That’s because, as many marketers (including in the self-help space) are fond of saying, “You can’t sell the basics.” I think that’s naive. We’d be much better off if we stopped obsessing over hacks and instead focused on evidence-based stuff that works.

Mindfulness has been reduced to a ‘hack’ these days.

The problem of mindfulness
A third line of attack can be summed up in the epithet ‘McMindfulness’. Critics such as the author David Forbes and the management professor Ronald Purser argue that, as mindfulness has moved from therapy to the mainstream, commodification and marketing have produced watered-down, corrupted versions – available via apps such as Headspace and Calm, and taught as courses in schools, universities and offices.

My own gripes with mindfulness are of a different, though related, order. In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.

Maybe we just need to cheer up! Let’s put on a happy face and fake it till we make it.

Against cheerfulness
Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice …

Giving up a commitment to cheerfulness would mean risking judgment for being ordinary, human, mortal. If, however, we could learn to share in the misery of others without trying to cheer them up and send them packing, and if they could do the same for us, then we’d have a shot at true fraternity, the kind that Aristotle prescribed when he said we should live with our friends. … Profound human connection and communion – in other words, love – has no use for forced cheer, and is often sabotaged by false faces. If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.

Happy Monday everyone!

Mondays, eh? The Book of Life is here to help again.

The true cause of dread and anxiety
It therefore follows that the first step towards breaking the cycle of alarm is to notice that we are behaving like self-hating people convinced that we deserve misery and that this self-assessment is in the process of heavily colouring all our assessments of the future.

Then, very gently, we should start to wonder how a self-loving person might behave and look at matters if they were in our shoes. When panic descends, we should try to reassure ourselves not with logical arguments about the grounds for hope but by wondering what a person who didn’t loathe themselves might be thinking now. If we could reduce the element of internal punishment and attack, how would the situation appear?

And, to help gain a little perspective, try this from Quartz.

To get better at life, try this modern mantra
The word mantra comes from Sanskrit and literally means “mind tool” or instrument of thought. People have used these tools for thousands of years to quiet thinking, cultivate focus, and induce spiritual states. In truth, anyone can use them, and there is scientific proof they work, whether or not you are spiritually inclined. …

“Right now, it’s like this” is an invitation to explore what is present. At the same time, it clearly reassures us that impermanence is hard at work. So even though the mind threatens me with the idea that “it’s going to be like this forever,” this phrase helps me call bullshit on that. It helps me let go of the main message from the mind, “that something has to be done.

Let’s see if this helps.

happy-monday-everyone-1

Just thinking about coffee can improve your focus, researchers say
Future research, with larger sample sizes, is needed to confirm these effects and to parse the stimulating consequences of say, black diner coffee and a milky espresso drink, or various strains of tea, the authors note in their paper. One day, they propose, it might be possible to match the task at hand with the appropriate level of mind-generated arousal.

For now, Chan believes that “[we] need to better understand the ‘meanings’ and ‘beliefs’ we assign to foods and beverages,” he writes. What we feed our minds has a lot to do with what it feeds us in return.

happy-monday-everyone-2

Let’s try it: coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee coffee

Looking for connections

As this video from Kurzgesagt explains, “We are living in the most connected time in human history, and yet an unprecedented number of us feel isolated.”

Loneliness
Everybody feels lonely sometimes. But only few of us are aware how important this feeling was for our ancestors – and that our modern world can turn it into something that really hurts us. Why do we feel this way and what can we do about it?

I mentioned last year the steps being taken by the government and others to tackle loneliness. Help might be at hand, though. Literally.

Loneliness is bad for your health. An app may help.
Little changed for those in either the control group or the one taught attention-only mindfulness. But the subjects whose training included acceptance and equanimity were measurably more sociable. Their daily routines, after using the app for two weeks, typically included several more interactions with people that lasted at least a few minutes, and their questionnaires showed a decline in their feelings of loneliness.

Because loneliness, like mindfulness, is a subjective state, it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions about why and how a focus on acceptance prompted greater sociability. But David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the study with the lead author, Emily Lindsay, believes that “the equanimity piece is key.” The poise it teaches, he says, may help people become less self-judgmental, less self-conscious, more amenable to interacting with others.

Here’s another write-up of the research, from Reuters this time.

Smartphone mindfulness app may help curb loneliness
“Perhaps by practicing monitoring and acceptance daily, even though for a short period of time, we can feel more at peace and free, more centered, and less affected by the possible negative thoughts and feelings generated in our mind,” Zhang said. “So we are closer to who we really are – we are social beings and we inherently need to connect to others.”

A theme which kicks off this stand-up routine from Simon Amstell, from 2010. This is how he starts, once the applause as he walks on stage dies down.

“Hello. Thank you. How are you? Are you all right? Well, this is fun, isn’t it? This is sort of a fun thing to be doing. This is fun, right? I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.”

Simon Amstell – Do Nothing Live

Don’t worry, though. He ends it on quite a positive, inspirational note. It’s all about letting go.

Bees, breathing and Buddhism

A painful lesson in Zen and the art of honeybee reverence
After the stings, I had a new kind of puzzle to solve. What were the bees trying to tell me with this intense pain? As I blew up, my thoughts came: I should know to pay closer attention and not brazenly steal from creatures I am trying to advocate for and protect. I shouldn’t take them for granted. Relationships with insects aren’t easy. And, as a friend reminded me, love hurts sometimes.

Breathtaking
This is conscious breathing’s more beguiling side: its capacity to interact with emotion, the psyche, perhaps even the spirit. A century of philosophical globalisation has seen a broadly Eastern conception of conscious breathing move from the esoteric to the mainstream. Today, certain techniques are so mainstream that your doctor is just as likely to recommend them as your hippie sibling. Hillary Clinton has said that, along with Chardonnay, yogic breathwork helped her get over losing the 2016 US election to Donald Trump.

How Buddhism resolves the paradox of self-deception
It might strike the modern reader as patently wrongheaded to suggest that any religious tradition contains the seeds of a solution more satisfying than secular proposals. For, understandably, many see religious belief as coterminous with wishful thinking and incompatible with reason. However, the Buddhist response sketched here depends exclusively on arguments about human nature that are equally open to dispute and defence. There is no recourse to mystical or non-empirical claims.

Looking East for answers

I don’t think we modern Westerners appreciate how easy it is for us to dip into Eastern philosophy. It’s all just a mouse-click away (and maybe feels a little superficial because of that?). It wasn’t always like that, of course.

How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis — David Hume, the Buddha, and a search for the Eastern roots of the Western Enlightenment
But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

In fact, if you let yourself think this way, your life might actually get better. Give up the prospect of life after death, and you will finally really appreciate life before it. Give up metaphysics, and you can concentrate on physics. Give up the idea of your precious, unique, irreplaceable self, and you might actually be more sympathetic to other people.

How did Hume come up with these ideas, so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of his day? What turned the neurotic Presbyterian teenager into the great founder of the European Enlightenment?

And here the detective story begins. It’s a great read, and crazy to think that in the early 1700s, when Hume was building up his body of work, the number of Europeans who had studied Buddhism could literally be counted on one hand.

Now, of course, Buddhist-inspired meditation and mindfulness techniques are big business, with apps like Headspace and Insight Timer on millions of phones. But are they really getting us any further forward?

Meditation in the time of disruption
A 2016 blog post by Puddicombe on the Headspace site entitled “How to meditate in ten minutes” begins, “If you’ve decided to give meditation a shot, congratulations! You’ve also decided to improve your sleep, lower your blood pressure, increase your marital harmony and reduce your stress.” Puddicombe’s 10-minutes-a-day claim speaks to the hilariously modern expectation that self-transformation be fast, friendly, and neat. It also fits with the company’s broader focus on metrics and results. As with mindfulness meditation generally, the science surrounding Headspace serves the dual purpose of making meditation seem worth one’s time and dispelling the worry that one is being indoctrinated. In other words, the question is less about faith, which is unseen, and science, which—as those with faith in science believe—sees all.

Or, as the company’s chief science officer, Megan Jones Bell, puts it, the research is there “for people who need science as a belief point.” Jones Bell joined the company in March 2017. For her, meditation is in part a subset of mental health, and the people who seek out Headspace are looking for ways to nurse internal wounds. “Their motivation to change something or learn something new is coming from a place of ‘I’m not OK, and I need help,’” she says.

The distinction is important: Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.

They’re not the only ones wanting a quick fix. Katie Bloom from the Outline enrols on a 10-week introductory ‘happiness’ course from the School of Practical Philosophy.

Enlightenment can be yours for just $10
The fine print reads: “Jobs come and go. Physical beauty fades, markets rise and fall. Even close relationships can end. But the benefits of philosophy last a lifetime.” These benefits — HAPPINESS included — can be gained, according to the ad, by attending the 10-week introductory course at a place called the School of Practical Philosophy.

The clichéd, Hallmark-y, feelgood pop-philosophy isn’t to everyone’s tastes, though.

The classes had more in common with my Catholic K-12 education than with the philosophy courses I took in college. It’s difficult to characterize what we learned, because none of it really cohered. Each week had a theme (“The Light of Reason,” “Beauty,” etc.), and consisted of cherry-picked ideas from eastern and western philosophies and religions, devoid of context and presented as fact. We had souls, we were told; the proof was that our bodies and thoughts and feelings changed, but something inside of us remained constant. There was beauty in everything, we learned one week, a banal-seeming claim that set off an agonizing half-hour argument about whether there was beauty in the Holocaust.

But maybe getting to the bottom of Truth and being one with the fundamental nature of knowledge and existence isn’t what it’s all about, as Katie muses at the end of the course.

Here’s what else I learned. Two Watches looked forward to class all week. His divorce had been awful, his kids lived with their mom, and he was lonely. (“Even close relationships can end,” goes one of the SPP’s subway ads.) He worked in maintenance at Yankee Stadium. He hadn’t gone to college, and he didn’t belong to a church — his life was not teeming with opportunities to talk about the nature of wisdom. The lessons were fun, but the real appeal was community.

The students who stuck around until the final week reminded me of the many lonely people I had met while working in the service industry, people who often tried to turn a short, professional interaction into something lengthy and intimate. It was possible my classmates were not compelled by the notion that “three distinct energies governed the universe.” Maybe they just liked sitting in a room of people who would listen to them. The week before, an elderly widow had confessed in halting speech that it was hard to be kind to her husband towards the end of his life, because his illness changed his personality, made him mean. I watched as the woman sitting next to her, a stranger, squeezed her hand.

Rather than looking for answers, perhaps we’re just looking for people to ask the questions with.

Be mindful, watch more TV

This is great. There are so many mindfulness and relaxation apps out there, this one fits right in.

Multimedia artist Stine Deja satirises the commodification of mindfulness
“I was inspired by the over-branding, commercialisation and digitisation of relaxation. You can literally buy everything and I thought it would be interesting to push the idea of commercial wellbeing to the max,” Stine explains. Her idea came to her after she read a study that showed people to be more relaxed when watching television than when sleeping. The 4K Zen hat, which works like a portable darkroom, is symbolic of more than commercialised mental happiness. It also visualises an ideal of wellbeing as one of isolation, where the user escapes into a virtual universe inhabited only by them.

Taking your mind for a stroll

I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that have allowed me to take a stroll most lunchtimes, to get my eyes away from my monitor for a while. Here’s a great article on the rejuvenating powers of walking.

Walking as creative fuel: a splendid 1913 celebration of how solitary walks enliven “the country of the mind”
In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes: “Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.”

School wellbeing ideas

Two simple mindful meditation exercises for teachers
Teaching can be hard, and reports tell us those in the profession feel under increasing pressure. A BBC investigation earlier this year found that stress-levels have soared in recent years due to increased workloads. In my 20-years of practice as a psychologist, I’ve found that mind-body strategies such as mindfulness meditation are one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety – especially for teachers.

Buddhify

Buddhify – mobile mindfulness meditation app for iPhone and iPad
Despite being a very modern approach to mindfulness in terms of presentation and delivery, buddhify is not superficial or frivolous. It is based on years of meditation experience, and a deep understanding of how mindfulness can be best expressed in the 21st century.”

Something to try, as I really need to crack on with my practice, but I’m a little sceptical of shortcut lines like it “teaches you mindfulness while you are doing the everyday activities of your normal day.” But then again I guess that’s the idea, to be mindful all the time, not just when you’re sitting. Interesting.

Worrying, meditation, SharePoint

Scheduling ‘worry time’ may help you fret less
First, patients must identify and realize when they are worrying. Second, they must set aside a time and place to think about these worries. Third, when they catch themselves worrying, they must postpone worrying, and instead focus on the task at hand. Finally, patients are told to use the time they’ve set aside for worrying to try and solve the problems their worries present.

A guide to meditation for the rest of us
“Why meditate, especially if you’re not planning to drop everything you’re doing and Google for the closest mountain retreat? If you’re anything like me, meditation will help you realize just how far, and how fast, your mind can wander from what you’re supposed to be doing at the moment. In an age of multitasking, hyper-scheduling, and instant internet distraction, that alone can be a huge help. Beyond just anecdotes, it’s also been suggested that meditation can actually exercise your brain’s “muscles” to increase focus, and has been shown to lower stress and increase forgiveness among college students who take up the practice.

What is SharePoint good for?
Rob Koplowitz said that SharePoint was a Swiss army knife of a product that had a huge array of different features. A service like Box.net was like a screwdriver – it did one job (filesharing). But if you only want a screwdriver, why buy a Swiss army knife?

Mindfulness

Be Mindful is a campaign, by the Mental Health Foundation, raising awareness about the benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness helps people change the way they think, feel and act. It helps them to break free from a downward spiral of negative thought and action, and make positive choices that support their wellbeing.

Meditation, 2009 blogs

Stepping towards enlightenment
The mind can do wonderful and unexpected things. Meditators who are having a difficult time achieving a peaceful state of mind sometimes start thinking, “Here we go again, another hour of frustration.” But often something strange happens; although they are anticipating failure, they reach a very peaceful meditative state. My first meditation teacher told me that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. He was right. During the difficult meditations you build up your strength, which creates meditation for peace. We may want to spend much time—months or even years—developing just these first two preliminary stages, because if we can reach this point, we have come a long way indeed in our meditation. In that silent awareness of “just now,” we experience much peace, joy, and consequent wisdom.

Best new blogs of 2009
Editors Kevin Nguyen and Nick Martens and fellow bloggers talk about the latest and greatest additions to their RSS readers.

Paperless meetings, urban meditation

Paperless Committee project
The “Paperless Committee,” is an electronic meeting system that was designed to increase the efficiency of the Committee on NGOs. It allows the delegates to view the documentation in all six languages of the UN; to have continuous document updates from the Chair and the Secretariat, wireless connectivity, and electronic vote counting. In the last stage of the “Paperless Committee,” the documents were also accessible for the delegates to view via the Internet days before the Committee on NGOs started.

From 2003.

Urban meditation designed for you – The Hear and Now Project
Many of us could do with the benefits that come with regularly practising meditation – as it can help develop qualities such as calm, focus and compassion. And perhaps nowhere are these qualities needed more than in the hustle and bustle of modern city life.