Sunday, January 31, 2016

To have compassion INSTEAD of empathy

I came across a very interesting podcast, where Sam Harris (neuroscientist/philosopher) interviews Paul Bloom about his latest research on empathy. Bloom defines empathy as the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes and understand what the other person is feeling in their situation. Bloom wrote an article called "Against Empathy" which understanding drew a lot of criticism.

I have always felt a lot of empathy for people (even to stories on the news), to the point that I feel so much pain for others' sad stories that I become just as depressed and not very helpful to anyone. Being a highly empathetic person actually makes me dislike being around too many people and makes me a difficult person to be around with. It drives me bananas how many supposedly good-hearted people can be generous and kind most of the time, but not feel bad about occasionally taking advantage of others, for the sake of say, defending their children or their loved ones. I walk around feeling confused and disgusted; meanwhile these people whom I consider to be selfish have moved on to service other people while I haven't done much to offer my compassion and service at all.

Putting it another way, I have been self-critical of how much I judge other people. But in fact, being overly judgemental of others really is being overly judgemental of myself. Since I am so strict with myself, I am incredulous how others could "get away" with the type of behaviours that I would not permit myself to do.

So what I really should do is to try to is to try to reduce my empathy for people's suffering, because it is more draining and paralysing rather than useful for me (or for the others). Instead I should learn to develop metta, or loving-kindness towards myself and towards other people. That is way more useful than empathy.

I am so happy to have stumbled upon this podcast. Society emphasizes the importance of empathy and I have not heard about empathy being discussed this way until now. Let's hope this will lead me to better directions out of misery and depression towards productivity and equanimity.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Is mindfulness making us ill?

I guess the title of the article is a click bait, where journalist Dawn Foster makes the piece controversial on purpose in order to get more readership. She started by describing her personal experience with meditation for the first time.  In the passage below, she described something I have also experienced myself:

"We’re told to close our eyes and think about our bodies in relation to the chair, the floor, the room: how each limb touches the arms, the back, the legs of the seat, while breathing slowly. But there’s one small catch: I can’t breathe. No matter how fast, slow, deep or shallow my breaths are, it feels as though my lungs are sealed. My instincts tell me to run, but I can’t move my arms or legs. I feel a rising panic and worry that I might pass out, my mind racing. Then we’re told to open our eyes and the feeling dissipates. I look around. No one else appears to have felt they were facing imminent death. What just happened?
For days afterwards, I feel on edge. I have a permanent tension headache and I jump at the slightest unexpected noise. The fact that something seemingly benign, positive and hugely popular had such a profound effect has taken me by surprise."

Instead of having a conversation with the meditation teacher about this experience, Foster went on to list a whole bunch more examples of negative cases that others have experienced, including a case as extreme as having to see a therapist for the next 15 years for psychotic depression. She ended the piece by saying that "there are alternative relaxation methods that can keep you grounded: reading, carving out more time to spend with friends, and simply knowing when to take a break from the frenetic pace of life."

Hmm.. I guess this is equivalent to trying out a "ballet for workout" class without anticipating how how intensity the class could be, getting a foot cramp from all the toe pointing, goes on to interview a bunch of other beginners whose experiences of the class also deviated from their expectations, and then concluding that there are alternative methods of exercises that could provide a good workout. Except reading, spending time with friends etc. do not quite achieve the same results as meditation. I suppose she was strictly talking about methods of relaxation.

The cases where people needed to go see a therapist... my guess is that they needed to see a therapist to begin with, but they had hoped that a session of a mass meditation class would magically make their inner problems go away. I would say meditation exposed the existing problems rather than causing them. How sad would it be, if the very simple act of concentrating on observing your breathing would make you depressed and go crazy?

As for the anxiety experienced from the first sessions, well, common sense should tell us that we shouldn't be able to hurt ourselves simply by sitting and having our eyes closed. This restlessness can be experienced when we wait too long for the traffic light, when airplane delay happens and we really need to get to our destination, and other situations in our life when our mind cannot anticipate what's going to happen next, or when our mind feels like the situation is not under its control. Hopefully the teacher will be understanding enough to let the student get up or at least shift positions.

So what the journalist main legitimate concern is that the meditation teacher isn't "qualified" enough to offer the class. Perhaps before one signs up for a meditation class, one should be given a short description of what mindfulness meditation involves, what mindfulness meditation is and isn't, and one should answer a medical questionnaire and sign a waiver just like the kind of forms they give out before you sign up for a gym. Um, I guess for legal reasons meditation teachers should have such a procedure to protect themselves from people's idiocy.

I would say that the journalist underestimated how powerful mindfulness meditation practice could be, and how erratic our minds are (which is precisely why meditation was invented in the first place, to deal with all our anxiety).

Another point is that if a company is not confident that it offers a great work environment for its workers, it might not be doing itself good by offering mindfulness class to its employees. One byproduct that could happen is that the employees may realize during meditation practice that they actually hate this job and need to make major changes to their lives. On the bright side good companies may use this to weed out employees that are not a good fit with this company. The ones who are left have hopefully decided that they want to grow at this company and can use the meditation classes to help clear their minds, solve their personal relationship issues, and be more focused at work.

I guess I wouldn't say that meditation is for everyone, since I have noticed some people reeeeeeally dislike the idea of examining their inner fears, shame, past traumas, and pent up grudges. They would prefer to stay in control by doing a lot of activities, taking food and other substances, using outer senses in order to suppress the unwanted thoughts and feelings that arise out of nowhere. I personally would prefer to look at my daemons in the eye and become aware of the list of issues that haunt me, figuring out which of my poor behaviours are coping mechanisms and which behaviours come from my authentic being. I would venture to guess that for those who don't want to examine their authentic selves, they are quite comfortable with their coping mechanisms and do not want to change their ways. To each their own, I say.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

There's no internal vs external... It's all one consciousness

Recently I have been going through Sam Harris's videos. He's an extremely smart guy, who is trained in neuroscience and philosophy, communicates with brilliant logical reasoning, and has quite strong opinions about religion. He also happens to have spent quite a bit of time learning meditation and western religions/philosophy with spiritual teachers in Asia. I quite like how he explains meditation.

I used to divide the world into external (outside of the body) and internal (inside of the body). One thing that Harris discussed in his guided meditation is that whether our eyelids are open or closed, it's one consciousness. There is no inside or outside. We experience the world with one consciousness. I have never thought about it this way before.

So my tendency is to latch on to ruminating thoughts... there are a few points that I repeat over and over again in my head because they are not resolved. I want my life to be a certain way (X), but I have problems with A, B, C, D, E, F, G.... etc. Since no one is interested in hearing about my rants, I internalize my complaints but go through these same few streams of thoughts over and over again in my head, strengthening those pathways while ignoring what's going on around me and diminishing my more pleasant memories.

My current strategy is to stare at my surroundings with greater intent whenever I find myself ruminating. Since I have trouble focusing on one thing, I switch my focus between visual cues, hearing, and breathing, in order to try to break my repetitive thoughts. It's been challenging but at least it's a start.

The goal is to try to shift my attention to the present, to the more neural and positive things happening in my life, rather than the broken record of negative thoughts. This will be my practice for the year of 2016.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

New Year, new changes

Lots of things have happened recently. As you know, I have been practicing meditation for the last few months, but unfortunately it all fell apart when I went to visit family over the holidays. I could not step back and observe the situation from a third person point of view. Instead I was the grumpy youngest daughter who ruined everyone else's fun.

I think a big problem is that I am very alone here in a foreign country. I have no one to talk to, no one who is interested in listening to what I have to say. When I go home, I was hoping the family would pay some attention to my expression of myself. Instead, the way they express love is to push too much food at me, which I got scared of since I witnessed that both my sister and her daughter have gained significant amounts of weight while my mother is still "being loving" and feeding them excessively. Secondly, all they can talk about is shopping, and food. My mom also constantly complained about how bad the TV shows have become, but still has the TV turned out first thing in the morning until bed time. I am just sick and tired of a family who attempts absolutely nothing to change the (big or small) problems they have in their lives. Another thing I can't stand is that they like to talk to me as if I were 5 or 10 years old. As much as I hated it, I couldn't help regressing back to a small child since I could not reason with them logically.

I actually achieved huge step forward by getting my mother to go see a counsellor with me, hoping to get him to explain the problems going on between us. Because of my short stay we couldn't go to a lot of sessions, but I have learned that after all these years, my mother thinks the problem is 100% with me. I am too pessimistic, depressed, and unreasonable. I think the counsellor got through a little bit to her that she needs to listen to me more often (although during our session she still cuts me off and goes on and on about what she thinks I want to say and what I should do and how I should behave, for my own good, etc etc). The counsellor said that he will ask her to keep going back to him but I doubt my mom will comply.  It is very difficult to get a 70 year old woman to change her ways, of course, but at least during the rest of my stay, she stopped forcing me to accept everything that she kept offering me.

I think I have become the way I am because my upbringing emphasised too much on school grades and not at all on building inter-human relationships. My family believes that as long as we are a family, we should do stuff together and keep all negative emotions bottled up without resolving them. My mother believes that by being optimistic alone will resolve all negative feelings.

My short meditation experience have taught me that because my family has never had any interests in listening to what I have to say, I have learned to internalize my dialogue into my head. When I watch my thoughts, the dialogue goes on non-stop all day long. When I feel really strongly about something it is next to impossible to stop the mind chattering. I will keep working on it though.

I also really need more socializing in my life. Finally broke up with bf. It's been really difficult because he has been like a best friend and I really needed companionship and someone to talk to. I used to only want to hang out with him and not bother making friends. But he got jealous that I wanted to spend time with my new found friends, but at the same time was not motivated to do activities with me. We would often just stay in his house the whole weekend and watch youtube videos. That is not the kind of life style I want for long term.

There will be some changes to work, but certain situations remain the same. Many individuals complain about the same things constantly ( I guess I used to be one of them) without bothering to make much changes. I need to figure out how to not be affected by all the negativities.

I realize this post is very long-winded. If possible I would actually like to quit my job and create a more focused blog instead of this rant-style diary type blog. Alas, I will tough it out for one more year. If academia doesn't work out then I will go try something new and work on my inter-personal skills. Actually, even if it works out (if I publish well), I'm not sure if I want to stay in this field. It is too competitive and I feel like I'm just playing catch up constantly. Also I feel like I've just being exploited by all the irresponsible ego-centric bosses. It's time to take my life back in my own control again.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Meditation works -- even if you are only half trying

After the "success" last time when I managed to stay awake the entire 45 minutes using ujjayi breathing, sadly subsequent practices I went back to falling asleep or paying too much attention to my mental ramblings half way through the guided bodyscan meditation. However, even though 95% of the time I could only focus on my body in the beginning and the end of guided meditation, I still feel very refreshed when I complete the practice.

In my regular life, I notice that I am more able to "be mindful", ie. focus on what's around me rather than being lost in my thoughts. I think the weekly practice of focusing on my breath or body really helps noticeably reduce my negative thinking train of thoughts.

I think yoga is also a way to practice meditation, or at least release the tension in the body. However the meditation course helps me to practice release tension even if I cannot do a yoga sequence. It is actually harder than yoga. By exerting the muscles, or holding a balance, or performing a stretch, it gives me a strong sensation to focus on. Bodyscan while inactive makes it really difficult for me to "feel my toes".... there are no sensations going on in the inactive body parts.

Now that I have learned some skills to cope with the racing mind, I need to get back to exercising after the course finishes so I can strengthen my body too.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Ujjayi breath while meditating - bad idea?

Recently I have signed up for a mindfulness-based stress reduction course, offered by my university to its staff, for free! What a treat! It's a shame though that only 10 people signed up even though there are 15 spots, and all 10 of us are female. It also seems like most of us already have some experience with meditation and/or yoga, so nobody is brand new to the concept meditation.

We go through a lot of basic exercises, sitting meditation, lying meditation, basic stretches, standing meditation, etc. This is an evidence-based course, taught by a postdoctoral researcher who is doing clinical research on meditation, so you can say it's kind of "dry", not much discussions about buddhism or spirituality, no warm and comforting languages, just a lot of exercises and discussions.

To sign up for this course, the instructor told us that we must do a 45min homework every day. It's a guided body scan meditation - basically focus attention on each individual body part until we mentally go through the whole body. Geesh, who has time to do such a thing every day? Plus, every time I did this exercise, I would fall asleep part way though and miss parts of the instructions.

Tonight, while I was having one of my insomnias, I decided to do the body scan exercise to help me fall asleep. One of the first body parts we are supposed to focus on are my left toes. We are supposed to stay as still as possible throughout the whole meditation, but I wiggle like a worm whenever I'm not asleep (except maybe after an invigorating power/ashtanga yoga class).

Anyways, I can't feel my toes without wiggling them. What should I do? Well, I decided to send my breath to the toes. Lo and behold, I can feel some tingling there! Awesome, so I continued to breath victoriously (ujjayi?) into every body part the guided instructions told me to focus on. It worked great for each leg, up to the abdomen, then into my back, and then... it felt like a low-voltage electric fence surrounding my whole body lit up, similar to how I felt when I first started practicing yoga (where we are taught to do ujjayi breaths throughout the practice) and when I took a pranayama course. So, while getting very excited by this experience, it now became difficult to focus on single body parts again since the whole body  is tingling. It was difficult to calm down but my breaths and the electrifying sensation managed to calm down towards the end of the guided meditation.

By the way, whether I fall asleep or get electrified, so far this meditation always makes me feel calm and relaxed after I completed it, so I highly recommend it! I think this youtube video is likely super similar to the one I'm using. Give it a try!

So now this exercise just went from sleep inducing to super interesting. I can't wait to experiment with it again tomorrow, maybe with quieter breathing, to see if I can still feel my toes with non ujjayi breath. Also, I will try again with ujjayi to see if I can induce the same sensations again.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Realignment of priorities in life

Recently I've been entertaining the thought that we live in a simulation... like the movie "The Matrix". Our lives are just a test, each individual with certain set of parameters (physical attributes, mental/emotional attributes, personalities, tendencies/potentials/ambitions, and a small degree of free will. If we don't actively fight our pre-programming, we go on an auto-pilot mode, but we have the capacity to be more aware of the autopilot mode and choose to behave differently. We each have multiple aspirations, but it's a struggle between self-discipline, wits and the autopilot mode to see if we achieve what we want to achieve.

The autopilot mode would be to either conform to the society you're born into (Western, Chinese, Muslim, African, etc), and/or to conform to your base desires, such as eating too much, not exercising, drinking too much alcohol/caffeine, smoking too much, procrastination, not trying hard at achieving anything, being too greedy / selfish, etc.

As an adult, it's very easy to get into routines and weeks/years later, you realize you're straying afar from your aspirations, using while in a society-approved state, such as working a job you hate, spending all of your efforts just struggling (rather than mindfully dealing) with family/kids instead of self-actualization, drinking/medicating all the years away, etc.

For me it's working. While trying to get work done, I neglect to be social, to exercise, to eat healthy, to develop a solid social circle, to clean my home, to interact with family, etc. When I look back at my science career I have barely achieved anything. Instead I have spent years working on my bosses' not well-thought out projects, forever trouble shooting rather than making progress, reinventing crappier versions of what's already around, and being unhappy the whole time. Doesn't help that I have a defeatist attitude, unstable emotions, shitty interpersonal skills, and a pessimistic outlook.

It's time for me to realize that given my limited intelligence, it's difficult for me to achieve big leaps in science. I need to refocus and re-determine specific goals I want to achieve in life, specific experience I want to have, and realign myself towards those goals. The type of things I wanted from a younger age (stable career in science, marriage) are simply not working out.

One tendency I have is to value everybody else's opinions over my own. My mother keeps begging me to find a life partner, so I am convinced that I cannot be happy unless I do so. Totally not true. I tried really hard at my relationship and ended up making both me and the boyfriend (who fundamentally never wanted to put much work into a relationship) really unhappy.

I learned a lot from the boyfriend too. I think he is very smart and more disciplined than I am, but because he was never raised to be ambitious, he truly isn't. When he sees rich people in nice cars, wearing nice clothes and eating at fancy restaurants, he gets angry at them, at not being born into a rich family, instead of pondering what he can do (eg. switch careers, side jobs, investments etc) to achieve that wealth. It's one thing to actually not care about money and be happy with living a hippie life. In Sweden it seems like many actually desire an urban life style that require lots of money, but they have been brought up to think that they shouldn't care about money, so they don't actively try to work towards their desires. Perhaps that's why alcoholism (self-numbing) is such a problem here. I can tell he's working hard to achieve a certain routine that's accepted by his society (which is supposed to be one of the most free in the world, but instead people totally conform to a few narrow social norms). Life is full of irony.

Another of my tendencies is to avoid following the conventional way of being. Everyone here dresses in a similar way, for example leather jackets and Converse sneakers. While I love both of these fashion items and would like to own both, I've been actively avoiding them since I feel like I would be wearing a uniform. This tendency to not conform is probably the reason why I haven't been very successful at my career or social life.

I need to work out all of my tendencies, how each of them are shaping my goals or hindering me towards my goals, realign my goals, and then work towards those base on the skills that I have. I don't think I'll have a good career in academia because I really dislike kissing ass and jumping through pointless hoops to get to where I want. I have to decide what I am willing to do (compromise/sacrifice) in order to get to where I want to be. Also I have to figure out the list of things I should stop doing (eg. fulfill a boss's randomly thought up projects; do whatever an acquaintance ask of me) because they make me really unhappy.

Now that I have a clear short term goal (tabulate the list of skills I own; can obtain; cannot obtain; realign my priorities in life), I feel like my life has a purpose again :) The next little while should be fun.