My friend, Aaron shared this link with me today, and asked for my thoughts. I doubt he wanted all of this, but I’ve been cooking these thoughts for a while anyway. Now is just as good a time as any to see how they’re coming along.
I definitely get behind the science of rewiring the brain. If Pavlov could do it with a dog, then of course humans can condition (and recondition) ourselves. As an example, in my junior year of high school, I was taking Psychology. Our teacher paired us all up and had one person charged with monitoring heart rate, and the other charged with jumping at the sound of his hand banging on the desk. After three repetitions, we were told NOT to jump, but to continue measuring our heart rate, which increased despite the lack of jumping. The experiment showed that we can influence physical performance using an external stimulus and conditioned physical response. If this works on a cardio-vascular level, then why shouldn’t it work neurologically?
The ever decreasing malleability of our brains is the reason children need lots of stimulation and nourishment, especially in early development stages. Evidence of this malleability continues into early adulthood, and can also work to an individual’s detriment (e.g., younger prisoners tend to accumulate more criminal education than rehabilitation throughout their incarcerations). I also see how practicing mindfulness is a great way to keep the brain receptive and open to further development.
Yoga as Mindfulness Practice
Learning mindfulness, for me, wasn’t something I initially learned in practicing Buddhism, though it is probably more known as a Buddhist practice than it is a yogic one; learning yoga was just a better vehicle for me to learn mindfulness. Because practicing yoga requires a certain amount of breath awareness, it naturally causes the yogi to mentally focus on an involuntary physical process that we likely never think about. Ever. Putting your attention on the breath means you can’t think about your grocery list or upcoming weekly events, or the snippy thing someone said to you earlier. You have to let all of that fall away to actually focus on the breath. Adding the process of holding a specific physical pose makes it all the more challenging. Building these very early practice skills trains the yogi’s body and mind to know what “calm” feels like, and what “stretch” is. From there, I learned how to use my breath to propel me through more physical poses/transitions, as well as how to bring my heart rate back under control once I’m finished with those poses and need to move on to something requiring balance (and calm). With this physical conditioning, I was able to start practicing seated breathing meditation, and now I practice seated Buddhist Metta meditation. It uses the same principles of physical conditioning, but it directs mental focus toward relationships instead of physical processes.
Beginning directed at the self, Metta (lovingkindness) meditation develops love, compassion, and equanimity for the practitioner (“watering the seeds of well-being”). I practiced this stage daily, up to several times daily, for several weeks before adding the other stages. The second stage introduces us to developing lovingkindness for others, specifically our benefactors. I’ve heard this stage is the easiest, and it was the easiest for me, also. I bet you could probably think of at least 3 positive influences in your life right now. Isn’t it easy to generate compassion and peace for them?
The third stage is to direct Metta toward a neutral person. This is typically difficult because how many of us hold people in our hearts and minds “neutrally?” We typically ascribe some sort of value (whether positive or negative) toward most people. So, this third stage of Metta challenges us to send lovingkindess toward someone we typically see as invisible (a grocery store clerk, a bank teller, a janitor). In my case it was the yoga teacher who sat at the desk before my Friday class. I found practicing Metta for her encouraged me to smile more at her when I signed in, and it gave me a genuine interest for peace and happiness in her life. I came to know she was studying in school, and I began asking her how she was doing on every interaction. When she had completed her program, I found myself being quite proud of this near-perfect stranger. So, practicing Metta in this third stage was particularly transformational for me.
The fourth stage of Metta is for difficult people or adversaries. For me it is most difficult to prevent conjuring up the MOST adversarial people in my life, and that is not the goal. The goal is to progress up to your greatest sense of challenge. Can you imagine wishing peace on someone like Hitler? This stage forces me to face all the ways I have defined people as “other” and somehow undeserving of the same happy, peaceful life I would wish for myself. This fourth stage of Metta, where I am practicing now, cultivates the skill of equanimity and leads to practicing Metta for all sentient beings in the fifth and final stage.
Other Buddhist Practices
Metta practice has also laid the foundation for learning about Dependent Co-origination or Transcendental Dependent Arising (TDA). This is just another iteration of re-conditioning, this time involving lots of introspective investigation, and it further aids in the alleviation of suffering. I am still just learning about this particular practice and therefore not educated enough to offer experiential evidence yet.
I believe it is Transcendental Dependent Arising Mr. Tingen is referring to when he writes about embracing our suffering with mindfulness and Right View. I am encouraged when he says, “If we don’t embrace suffering with mindfulness and with Right View, we will almost inevitably be caught in habitual suffering. But if we embrace our suffering with Right View and mindfulness, and stop the thoughts that trigger it, we can transform the energy of our suffering so that it becomes available for our well-being.” If we want to get out of our “victim” rut, then we need become skilled at embracing our suffering without wallowing in it.
When we have developed the skill to investigate our suffering without succumbing to conditioned states previously associated with it, I think we have practiced a skillful knowledge of Transcendental Dependent Arising (“Right Mindfulness”). We have become aware of our suffering (as the Buddha had become aware), and we have alleviated it (with reconditioning, also as the Buddha alleviated suffering). I expect this will be a life-long skill development to be truly effective, hopefully moving beyond just an investigative perspective to one of true equanimity. That I may eventually learn to become friends with my suffering as I have become friends with my breath, well…that seems impossible right now. But, if I condition myself to maybe sit with my suffering…to call up my anger or rage or hurt without lashing out in response to it, well that seems like a good first step toward ending the cycle of suffering; and even if the larger goal is impossible, the smaller one is both possible AND practical.
In my case, as in most others I would imagine, I am learning these techniques to help me deal with suffering that has already happened. But the stories of people using mindfulness to get through difficult situations are also quite impressive. Dr. Tenzin Choedak was the medical doctor for the Dalai Lama, but before that he had been imprisoned by the Chinese. He served 21 years in prison, 17 of which Dr. Choedak endured daily physical and psychological torture. Because he had developed the ability to withstand suffering without succumbing to it as a result of his Tibetan Buddhism practice, Dr. Choedak came out of that situation with relatively little “post-traumatic stress” and much wisdom to offer others.
Eastern Suffering and Western Guilt
Where this Eastern practice (sometimes observed as a religion) teaches us how we are all connected with our suffering and how to improve our relationships with greater (more skillful) understanding of suffering, both personally and generally, the Western understanding of suffering has a much different focus. In the West, where the religious social movement of Christianity influenced a great deal of culture, guilt and shame are fundamental to humanity. Because of “The Fall,” men have to work hard, and women experience pain in childbirth and menstruation. Christianity explains why we suffer, but it doesn’t tell us how to cope with it. In fact, the Christian understanding of suffering further creates a sense of “other”—a sense of disconnect. Even those who have been restored to God’s favor are set apart as sacred believers, exclusive of the “Gentiles.” So regardless of our spiritual condition as either sinful or atoned, Christians are never actually connected to anyone outside of Christianity. Woe to the believer who is excommunicated! With the Western sense of guilt or shame merely for existing as inherently sinful creatures, is it any wonder we need to spend more time cultivating kindness towards ourselves in comparison with Eastern Buddhists?
The fundamental vision of a sinful and guilty humanity also explains how Christian perspectives encourage suffering. Christians are encouraged to take up their crosses. Martyrs have been beatified, and some medieval Christian devotional practices included flagellation. This identification with suffering is supposed to instill a sense of understanding of/with Christ. But I think this is where the Western philosophy falls short. Yes, we all suffer, and Christianity offers a detailed mythology for why and how. But aside from telling us to hold the faith and endure it with the strength of Christ (to whom we attribute superhuman/divine powers like rising from the dead), Western Christianity offers little instruction on how to actually LIVE with suffering. (The Book of Job does provide a helpful example, as do parts of Ecclesiastes, both of which are Hebrew Testament contributions to the Christian textual canon.)
In the traditional Roman Catholic focus on the Passion of Christ, we have the reward of death as the end of suffering with eternal life rising as victorious even over death. Though it’s quite the carrot on the stick, are we to truly believe this unsubstantiated promise of eternal salvation will get us through life? Many do. And when their parents die, or their children die, or their spouse suffers a horrible malady, or whatever horrible thing you can imagine, Christians often end up blaming God or themselves because of the fundamental focus on the why and the how of suffering as opposed to the question of surviving in the midst of suffering or even preventing future suffering.
Developing the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, whether learned directly through Buddhism or indirectly as a benefit to yoga practice, is a fabulous way to recondition ourselves and to take on suffering without feeling the need to pass it on to others in an attempt to rid ourselves of it. Where I think Christianity falls short in merely explaining the why and how of suffering, Buddhism teaches us to be with our suffering without being affected by it, not a cultivation of indifference, but a cultivation of fortitude. It requires both discipline and courage to consistently subject yourself to exploring suffering. But, the freedom that awaits is most definitely accessible in this lifetime with the eternal reward passing onto future generations as opposed to something we might hope for, some day, if and when Christian eschatology comes to pass.
I hope sharing some of my own experiences with mindfulness illustrates that physical and psychological reconditioning has physical and psychological (and social/relational) benefits. It’s definitely possible to rewire the brain and to change the way we relate to ourselves and to others. I also think it’s possible to change the whole world with a systemic mindfulness element to public education! To change the world, we must change ourselves and the ways we act in it!
As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to share your own mindfulness practices or tips in the comments!