Waking Up is about exploring spirituality, understanding the effects of meditation on our brain and embracing the art of mindfulness in our life. This also means “being in the present moment”. The author Sam Harris, discusses his views and experiences on gaining rational-spiritual knowledge beyond religious barriers.
He often invokes the concept of non-duality presented in Pāli Canon, the age-old Buddhist collection of scriptures, and the Hindu philosophy of Advaita. The author believes, understanding and accepting the non-duality of self / consciousness can make space for better self-introspection and improve our lives.
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”1
Our lives are largely shaped by the way we shape our attention. The wandering mind has been correlated with increased activity in the brain’s midline regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. These areas are also referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN), as the name suggests, implies that they are most active when we while away our time in distractive thoughts.
Activity in the DMN, has been found to decrease when a person concentrates on outwardly tasks (tasks that do not involve thinking about oneself), also when a person practices mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation.
Are you Mind-full or Mindful?
The theory and practice of mindfulness has its origins in the Pāli Canon scriptures, with ‘Mindfulness’ referred to as ‘Sati’, meaning ‘Clear Awareness’ or ‘Bare attention’. The Buddha described the four foundations of mindfulness, as “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of pain and grief, for the attainment of the true way, and for the realization of ‘Nibbana’ (Sanskrit word ‘Nirvana’) or a state of enlightenment”.
Quoting the author on mindfulness “... a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one's mind or body-thoughts, sensations, moods-without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant. It simply demands that we pay close attention to the flow of experience in each moment.”
In order to facilitate the process of staying mindful as we carry out our daily activities, it is important to break free from our deeply conditioned habit of being distracted by thoughts without knowing that we are thinking. By practicing mindfulness, it becomes easy to Wake Up from the dream of wandering thoughts and begin to see each arising thought vanish without a trace.
The four foundations of mindfulness are:
• The body-breathing, changes in posture and activities
• Feelings -the senses of pleasantness, unpleasantness, and neutrality
• The mind-in particular, its moods and attitudes
• The objects of mind-including the five senses and other mental states such as volition, tranquillity, rapture, equanimity, and even mindfulness itself.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Dzogchen (Pronounced as Zogqên)
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, one of the renowned masters of Dzogchen (Dzogchen, often termed as the ‘Great Perfection’) taught the art of awareness in every moment, devoid of distractions. The Dzogchen practice of meditation teaches us to recognize thoughts as they appear and disappear, without judging them.
Master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s sons Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche continue to teach the practice of meditation and the significance of mindfulness in day to day lives. From my experience of following the meditation sessions guided by Mingyur Rinpoche, it gives a deep sense of relief to watch thoughts as they pass by, without suppressing them.
Get yourself some peace of mind!
The word ‘Stress’ is something that has unfortunately become a daily usage in our lives! The effects of stress mostly go unnoticed, until it flares up to take names such as Anxiety or Depression. Most of us never even considered mental health as the top priority, as much as we consider physical health. Only until a time comes, when all the suffering at the level of mind translates itself into physical ailments.
Research studies have proven that stress increases the size of Amygdala, the origin of emotions in the human brain. One study found that an eight-week program of mindfulness meditation reduced the volume of the right basolateral amygdala, and these changes were correlated with a subjective decrease in the level of stress.
In addition, regular and consistent practice of meditation and mindfulness has been found to reduce the expression of several genes associated with inflammation. According to psychological literature, mindfulness in particular fosters many components of physical and mental health, right from improving immune function, reducing blood pressure, cortisol (stress hormone) levels and reducing anxiety, depression, neuroticism and emotional reactivity overall.
Get out of the trap of Negative emotions!
The word Emotion, adapted from the French word émouvoir, means “to stir up”. Emotions, both Positive and Negative are intense feelings. So, what’s so special about Negative emotions?
Positive emotions such as Joy, Gratitude, Love, recharge our minds and bodies with positive energy. While negative emotions such as anger, fear, hatred, jealousy are so draining that they suck out all energy from the mind and body. When we don’t make conscious efforts to get out of the trap of these negative emotions, they take reins over our thought patterns. Eventually, we might be so engrossed in these draining emotions that we might not even realize how destructive they are.
Most of us fall into the trap of negative emotions, which then take a stronger hold than positive emotions. For instance, staying angry, as opposed to getting angry, requires a constant input of angry thoughts to produce the feeling of anger.
Quoting the author, “Most people know what it's like to suddenly drop their negative state of mind and begin functioning in another mode. Of course, most then helplessly grow entangled with their negative emotions again at the next opportunity".
We have all experienced short bursts of freedom from such negative emotions, for instance, consider interruption of an angry state of mind: a phone call from a friend, a baby’s cheerful laughter, receiving a most awaited job offer and so on.
Such freedom from negative emotions can be attained by practicing meditation on a regular basis, be it as short as a few minutes a day. While practicing meditation might not impart the skill of, for example, ‘Not getting angry’ in the first place, it would certainly help us in learning to not stay angry for very long.
Another helpful life tactic is journaling our thoughts whenever we feel the grip of negative emotions, this would help us understand our way of thinking. In particular, writing out a Gratitude-Journal turns out to be a powerful tool towards the gradual transition from negative thought patterns to neutral and positive thoughts.
Some Experiments and Experiences
In my experience, practicing the art of watching negative emotions or thoughts pass by, without judging them or falling in, has been such an effective antidote to anxiety. Almost of all the negative emotions require confrontation, not avoidance. Avoidance of negative thoughts/emotions might seem the be the easiest way out, although, in the long run, such feelings only return as quickly as they are avoided (probably in a bigger version). Before even attempting confrontation, acceptance (or just ‘being’ in the present moment) is the first most crucial step on the way towards freedom from anxiety and depression.
Killingsworth, M. A., and D. T. Gilbert. 2010. “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 330 (6006) (November 11): 932–932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439.