No More Suffering

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Two weeks ago, I blogged on an article by Robert Wright, “The Meditation Cure.” Here is how he began:

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end.

Yesterday, in a review of Robert Wright’s new book, “Why Buddhism is True,” Antonio Damasio had this to say about Wright’s book, and more broadly, on whether Buddhism practices can lead to healthier individuals and communities:

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows:

  • First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them.
  • Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time. It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex.
  • Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage.
  • Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Leaders and Solitude

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Not many of us associate the two words “leadership” and “solitude.” That’s why I was intrigued by a review of the new book, “Lead Yourself First.” The essence of the review is that leaders need solitude to have the chance to “percolate” and “marinate” in his or her own feelings and to step out of events and locate the sacred space where he or she can reflect on what’s going on inside himself, thus attaining the moral and emotional conviction necessary to act.

In the review, Andrew Stark makes many interesting points, saying, for example:

Former Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant runs into it in his garden. For entrepreneur Sarah Dillard, it’s to be found when she’s hiking. Tim Hall, a cycling coach, grabs some of it while gazing out at his bird feeder over coffee every morning. The pastor Jimmy Bartz encounters it while fly fishing.

What they are discovering, as Raymond M. Kethledge and Michael S. Erwin report in “Lead Yourself First,” is solitude, a vitally necessary but all too scarce commodity for organizational leaders. It’s scarce because, even more than the rest of us, leaders get bombarded 24/7 by attention-demanding memos, tweets, texts, emails, phone calls, videoconferences and hallway button-holings.

It’s necessary because only with some alone-time can leaders hope to gain a “sense of control” over all that incoming information, as communications officer Jaya Vadlamudi tells the authors. Only by herself, she says, can she hope to “whittle” such stimuli down to the essentials and reach clarity. Or as the Schwab executive Peter Crawford puts it: Solitude makes it possible to engage in the mental equivalent of “stripping away all the cookies on a computer. Once they’re cleared, my mind works better.”

Read more of this revealing article here.

Mindfulness Meditation

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Buddha meet Charles Darwin. This initially may seem to be an odd pair to put together, but not according to a recent article by Robert Wright, “The Meditation Cure.” Here is how he begins:

Much of Buddhism can be boiled down to a bad-news/good-news story. The bad news is that life is full of suffering and we humans are full of illusions. The good news is that these two problems are actually one problem: If we could get rid of our illusions—if we could see the world clearly—our suffering would end.

And there’s more good news: Buddhism offers tools for doing that job. A good example is the type of meditation known as mindfulness meditation, now practiced by millions of people in the U.S. and other places far from Buddhism’s Asian homeland. Mindfulness meditation, Buddhists say, can change our perspective on feelings such as anxiety and rage and thereby sap their power to warp our vision and make us suffer.

These claims—the bad news and the good—are more than two millennia old, but they’re now getting important support from evolutionary psychology, the modern study of how natural selection engineered the human mind. Evolutionary psychology gives Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament a back story. It explains why humans are prone to illusions and to suffering and why the two problems are related. And this explanation can strengthen the Buddhist prescription, adding to the power of mindfulness meditation in particular.

Mindfulness meditation is an exercise in attention. It involves calming the mind—typically by focusing on the breath—and then using the resulting equanimity to observe things with unusual care and clarity. The things observed can include sounds, physical sensations or anything else in the field of awareness. But perhaps most important is the careful observation of feelings, because feelings play such a powerful role in guiding our perceptions, thoughts and behavior.

 

Want more? You can read the full article here.

Hurricane Dancing

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There are years that are watershed years, times where just extrapolating the present into the future isn’t enough.

For most of us, these years come and go and only in hindsight so we put it all together and take stock about what just happened.

It wasn’t until I read Tom Friedman’s article, “Dancing in a Hurricane,” that I was able to reflect that 2007 was such a year. Here is part of what he said:

What the hell happened in and around 2007? 2007? That’s such an innocuous year. But look again.

Steve Jobs and Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, starting the smartphone revolution that is now putting an internet-connected computer in the palm of everyone on the planet. In late 2006, Facebook, which had been confined to universities and high schools, opened itself to anyone with an email address and exploded globally. Twitter was created in 2006, but took off in 2007. In 2007, Hadoop, the most important software you’ve never heard of, began expanding the ability of any company to store and analyze enormous amounts of unstructured data. This helped enable both Big Data and cloud computing. Indeed, “the cloud” really took off in 2007.

In 2007, the Kindle kicked off the e-book revolution and Google introduced Android. In 2007, IBM started Watson — the world’s first cognitive computer that today can understand virtually every paper ever written on cancer and suggest to doctors highly accurate diagnoses and treatment options. And have you ever looked at a graph of the cost of sequencing a human genome? It goes from $100 million in the early 2000s and begins to fall dramatically starting around … 2007.

Read more of this short – but revealing – article here.

Brain at Work

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Many of us “of a certain age” recall school as a journey of memorization. Whether it was the table of elements, mathematical formulas, or the dates of historic events, paraphrasing the Nike ad, we “just did it.”

That has changed dramatically and from their earliest days of schooling, today’s kids figure they can just “Google it,” to uncover literally anything they want to know. Can we now just give oer brains a rest? Not so fast.

I was intrigued by an article in the New York Times entitled “You Still Need Your Brain.” Here is part of what it said:

Google is good at finding information, but the brain beats it in two essential ways. Champions of Google underestimate how much the meaning of words and sentences changes with context. Consider vocabulary. Every teacher knows that a sixth grader, armed with a thesaurus, will often submit a paper studded with words used in not-quite-correct ways, like the student who looked up “meticulous,” saw it meant “very careful,” and wrote “I was meticulous when I fell off the cliff.”

With the right knowledge in memory, your brain deftly puts words in context. Consider “Trisha spilled her coffee.” When followed by the sentence “Dan jumped up to get a rag,” the brain instantly highlights one aspect of the meaning of “spill” — spills make a mess. Had the second sentence been “Dan jumped up to get her more,” you would have thought instead of the fact that “spill” means Trisha had less of something. Still another aspect of meaning would come to mind had you read, “Dan jumped up, howling in pain.”

Read the full article here.

Moment to Moment

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Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have been around for a while now, with more and more practitioners finding value in living in the moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. As one convert put it, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find out I didn’t show up for it. The mindfulness movement is growing, both in our personal lives as well as in the workplace.

Some wonder why mindfulness hasn’t caught fire more rapidly. I wondered too, before I read an interesting piece in the New York Times entitled, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.” The writers lay out a good case for why we don’t embrace mindfulness more enthusiastically, and it goes directly to what makes us human. Here’s part of what they say:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

You can read this interesting article here.

Making a Mark

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We all likely belong to one or more institutions. Some belong to many. I’d always wondered why I “stuck” with and to some institutions, while others faded out.

I wondered, that is, until I read David Brooks piece called, “How to Leave a Mark on People.” Here is part of what he said:

Some organizations are thick, and some are thin. Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory. Which raises two questions: What makes an institution thick? If you were setting out consciously to create a thick institution, what features would it include?

A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary. A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul. So thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.

Thin institutions tend to see themselves horizontally. People are members for mutual benefit. Thick organizations often see themselves on a vertical axis. People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.

In the former, there’s an ever-present utilitarian calculus — Is this working for me? Am I getting more out than I’m putting in? — that creates a distance between people and the organization. In the latter, there’s an intimacy and identity borne out of common love. Think of a bunch of teachers watching a student shine onstage or a bunch of engineers adoring the same elegant solution.

What about your institutions?

Want more? Read the full article here.

Here Comes the Sun

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Today is the day. The summer solstice. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with this event, but that’s where it ends. So here is a bit more granularity.

At the summer solstice, the Earth reaches the point in its orbit where the northern hemisphere is most tilted toward the sun, which puts the latter higher in the sky at noon than at any other time of the year. This is also the day of the year with the longest daylight period and the shortest night.  In prehistoric times, the summer solstice was of great importance to aboriginal peoples.  The snow had disappeared, food was easier to find, and crops already planted would soon be harvested in months to come. From then on, however, the days would begin to shorten, indicating the inevitable return of the cold season.

Rules for Modern Living

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We live in an age of excitability, agitation and venting, thanks in large part to our unprecedented leisure time and astounding technology. Yet we also want happiness, serenity and meaning, which is why so many of us keep heading for the self-help section at the bookstore. One powerful way to reach those goals comes from the unlikely revival of the Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism—seemingly the farthest thing imaginable from our own anxious times.

You may associate Stoicism with suppressing emotion and enduring suffering with a stiff upper lip, a la Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. Not so: Stoicism is practical and humane, and it has plenty to teach us. The philosophy may have been developed around 300 B.C. by Zeno of Cyprus, but it is increasingly relevant today.

The Stoics had centuries to think deeply about how to live, and they developed a potent set of exercises to help us navigate our existence, appreciating the good while handling the bad. These techniques have stood the test of time over two millennia. Here are five of author Massimo Pigliucci’s favorites:

  • Learn to separate what is and isn’t in your power
  • Contemplate the broader picture
  • Think in advance about challenges you may face during the day
  • Be mindful of the here and now
  • Before going to bed, write in a personal philosophical diary

Stoicism was meant to be a practical philosophy. It isn’t about suppressing emotions or stalking through life with a stiff upper lip. It is about adjusting your responses to what happens, enduring what must be endured and enjoying what can be enjoyed.

Want to read more? You can read the full Wall Street Journal article here.

Popular?

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Most of us remember our angst as teenagers about wanting to be popular. But few of us realize that it’s something in something in our DNA.

Today some people feed that need via social media, and for too many it becomes something of an obsession.

That’s why I found this piece by Mitch Prinstein, “Popular People Live Longer,” so enriching. Here is part of what he says:

I often hear from teenagers that one of their greatest goals is to obtain more Instagram followers than anyone they know. Even some adults appear obsessed with social media, tracking the number of retweets on their Twitter profiles or likes on Facebook. This type of status-seeking might be easily dismissed as juvenile or superficial, but there’s more to it.

Recent evidence suggests that being unpopular can be hazardous to our health. In fact, it might even kill us. Yet most don’t realize that there’s more than one type of popularity, and social media may not supply the one that makes us feel good.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, consolidated data from 148 investigations published over 28 years on the effects of social relationships, collectively including over 308,000 participants between the ages of 6 and 92 from all over the world. In each study, investigators measured the size of participants’ networks, the number of their friends, whether they lived alone, and the extent to which they participated in social activities. Then they followed each participant for months, years and even decades to track his or her mortality rate.

The results revealed that being unpopular — feeling isolated, disconnected, lonely — predicts our life span. More surprising is just how powerful this effect can be. Dr. Holt-Lunstad found that people who had larger networks of friends had a 50 percent increased chance of survival by the end of the study they were in. And those who had good-quality relationships had a 91 percent higher survival rate. This suggests that being unpopular increases our chance of death more strongly than obesity, physical inactivity or binge drinking. In fact, the only comparable health hazard is smoking.

Interested in learning more? You can read the entire article here.