Thursday, June 18, 2009

Change: Only here, only now

Change is everywhere, at the center of every life process. The earth itself, like the universe, is inherently process and change. We celebrate changes: the seasons, the beginning of a new day, even the end of the day, milestones in our own and others' lives, learning accomplishments, completing processes, and going on to new things. We love the new and unusual. Our eyes pick out that which is different from the mass of same. We eagerly await new arrivals. New, new new. Up to a point. When changes begin to diminish us, ah, there we draw the line. Embrace turns to resistance. So it’s easy to accept some changes and almost impossible to accept others. The closer we get to changes within ourselves that we don’t like, the more complicated the whole picture gets.

We can change. Sure we can. We cut loose with a moment of spontaneity in an otherwise ordered existence, or we straighten up and take something seriously, we make new friends, strike up new relationships, and deliberately change for change's sake sometimes (rearranging the furniture). We make changes on our surface (I'll buy a new sweater today), we change our surroundings for awhile (I'll spend 6 weeks in France), we even change our careers. But try to change 'the way I am,' essentially, and you’ll more than likely find that "I" always seems to reassert itself, even if nudged from the center of our being occasionally. So why is it so hard to change ourselves? Or put another way, why do we cling so desperately to certain things, even when we don’t want to and know we shouldn’t, or even know that we can’t?

This spring I read several books on the brain, books about how we decide, how the various parts of our brains are different and how adaptable the brain is, about its chemical interactions with the cells of our bodies, the glands, and how all of that affects our health and the quality of our lives:

  • "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer (reporting on the relative value of using different approaches to knowing and deciding, in different situations)
  • "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely (a behavioral economist who studies how emotions, and not logic, affect our choices much of the time)
  • "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," by Sharon Begley (about a meeting among scientists, philosophers and the Dalai Lama in India in 2004, in which the scientists explained their latest research findings regarding how what we do, including thinking, changes the brain)
  • "Evolve Your Brain," by Joe Dispenza (another of the plasticity books, this one nearly a textbook on the brain -- maybe a bit more than I bargained for)
  • “Stroke of Insight,” by Jill Taylor (detailing the effects on her perspective of having had a stroke at age 37 that killed parts of the left hemisphere of her brain)
  • "A New Earth," by Eckhart Tolle (connecting all this up with Buddhism, or spirituality more generally)
Each author seemed to be saying roughly the same things from different perspectives, with different emphases, and to differing degrees of complexity and detail. They explained and reinforced in a fascinating way the wisdom of "just noticing," that one practices in meditation. Overall, their perspectives and insights suggested that my experiences of sometimes resisting change, relishing other changes, and of trying unsuccessfully to change myself are pretty ho hum, that questioning the attitudes and beliefs which I may feel quite certain are "me" is essential and that, far from immutable, “me” is just thoughts, conditioned on past experiences, which I can turn on and off at will. I can think different thoughts, about different things, from different perspectives about the nature of being, and doing. The authors explained both why accepting some changes that happen to us whether we like it or not, and making other changes we’d like to make, can be so hard. But more fundamentally, they provided the motivation to do something about old, repetitive, and sometimes destructive thought patterns, and the certain knowledge that one can do something, that we’re not stuck with the neural connections with which we’ve saddled ourselves (and those around us) perhaps for a very long time.

You want change? You gotta be here now.

Topping the list of lessons learned is that being in the present moment is essential — both for accepting that which can’t be changed, and for change itself. The present moment is the only place anything occurs, so it's the only place change can occur. Being present quiets the thoughts that perpetuate habits, attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and the other effects of our brain/body interaction that we take as ourselves, that we literally accept as immutable. We can't change if we can't be here now. So, that, apparently, must be the top priority: being here now. One must return to being here now a million times each day. It is not a steady state, at least not for those of us who spend nearly every waking minute being somewhere other than here now -- mostly in our heads, lost in thoughts about the past and the future. Meditation is simply practicing the skill of returning to the moment. Like practicing scales for pianists, practicing a serve, for tennis players, strength training, for those who need powerful muscles to perform some task. The real payoff is when you use the skill in the day-to-day of living your life. The pianist plays the piano; the tennis player plays a few games with a friend; the rock-climber pulls herself up a sheer rock face and sees that spectacular 360 degree view. Similarly, the person in the midst of simply living life recognizes that she is not here now: maybe she’s engaging in habitual behaviors, thoughts or emotions, tied to memories of events gone by or anticipation of things yet to come, but, once aware, she returns to the now. It’s that simple. Whatever physiological effects might accompany the thoughts, a surge of feeling, a bath of chemicals within the body, the tightening of muscles, a knot in the stomach, a change in heart rate, all dissipate and the body and mind return to resting state, to now. Thoughts cause physiological experiences. Not "your" thoughts. Just thoughts. Not you. Just thoughts.

The overlap of the authors' ideas with Buddhist principles enhanced my understanding of the concepts of our universal connectedness, our essential natures as parts of the whole, as not separate from others, from the earth we live upon, from the air we breathe. From this perspective it is possible to stop identifying with the thoughts, behaviors and feelings that we may feel are rock-solidly us, and immutable. That there is something in us that can simply be aware, that can observe the chemical and biological nature of thoughts, behaviors and feelings, suggests we transcend our transitory thoughts, our chemicals and our feelings.

The insight I gained into the dual perspectives through which all of us are able to see the world, resident right within our brains, the left and right hemispheric perspectives as one author describes them, makes the task of suspending judgment, linear thought and logic possible. And quieting judging, thought and logic and the voice that constantly rehearses, expresses and reinforces them is, as noted above, essential for seeing ourselves as connected, essential for accepting the present moment, and essential for change. It's the nuts and bolts of being here now.

The chemical, biological perspective shows what anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, depression and hatred do to our bodies and our brains. That certainly provides plenty of motivation to take on the task of dis-identifying, the possibility of accepting, and of changing. It is worth the effort.

And effort it is. No one says it is easy. But coming back to the present a million times each day is surely simple. It's not like you can screw it up. This piece of advice is repeated by all the authors I read this spring. And of course, Buddha said it 2500 years ago. Taylor's example of practicing the skills she wanted to relearn to regain her left-brain functioning illustrates the principle. It's at the heart of everything Tolle expresses. Dispenza's advice echoes the same point: we can change patterned thinking, including resistance, but it takes discipline and determination. One must return to the the task, to the present moment, again and again.

Ok, but how exactly does one be here now?

So, I read a lot of stuff. Poof, and it’s all gone. Memory falters. I need reminders that I can return to each morning, to help me wake up minute by minute throughout the day, to see the world through the right-brain perspective as well as the left, for example, to be able to choose compassion, forgiveness and love instead of fear, anger or rejection. It sure would be nice to be able to carry out my intentions, move beyond the resistance that interferes with accepting what is and taking appropriate action, to change counterproductive attitudes and behaviors, to be more compassionate, open, forgiving, and accepting, and less judgmental and attached to transient material objects and my preferred outcomes. Seems to me like a very tall order.

Practice, practice, practice: Formal, informal and real-life

Every author I read says be here now and accept, without judgment, what is in the present moment. Putting that into practice requires establishing new habits of seeing and being. You can't just expect that ideas, simply read, will take root and manifest in new behaviors by themselves. You literally have to practice seeing what’s happening from a different perspective. Lucky for us, life gives us different types of opportunities to practice: informal moment-to-moment awareness; formal practice (meditation); and show time -- when you are deep in the midst of some difficulty! The third is the hardest, but ultimately, achieving awareness within a challenging circumstance is the whole point, and doing so is easier if you have practiced informally and formally.

Formal practice

One can obtain staggering amounts of advice about how to practice formally, so I won't dwell on that here. Tolle provides six short audio meditations to get you started. Scroll down about 3/4 of the way on the page, Exercises for Your Awakening. But keep in mind what Tolle notes: formal practice is no substitute for moment-to-moment awareness. It's like practicing your serve, or scales, or strength training. It's a tool to improve real-life functioning, not an end in itself.

Informal practice: Moment-to-moment awareness

Moment-to-moment awareness is just what it says: being totally present in the moment regardless of what you are doing. In fact, it’s not about what you are doing, but how you do it. You can peel a potato and be there for it, or be a million miles away. You can take a walk and be completely present, noticing every sensory impression, registering how each footfall feels, how you are breathing, what you’re hearing, or you can be oblivious to it all and lost in thoughts. Taylor calls the state of moment-to-moment awareness "seeing from the right-brain perspective" because that's how she experienced that awareness -- only after certain parts of her left hemisphere were destroyed by a stroke. She gives the following advice for informal practice, moment-to-moment awareness, or, in her terms, seeing from a right-brain perspective:

When you feel you are out of touch with the right-brain perspective (consciousness or awareness), you can always return to it simply by being in the moment. There are many ways to facilitate being in the moment. You can ask yourself, "how does it feel to be here doing this?" In other words, get into your body. Feel your sense impressions, feel your life force, look around, take in the big picture, listen, taste, smell, identify what information is coming in through your skin, have fun with your senses. All sensory input registers as feeling. If you focus on how you feel, you are being aware; you are being mindful; you are here and now, in the present.

You can also consciously relax tense muscles to bring your attention to how you feel in the present moment.

You can walk in nature, sing, and dance to get yourself into the here and now.

To experience compassion, one can loosen attachment to our ego's inclination for superiority. This allows us to be more generous of spirit (compassionate). We tend to be compassionate with equals. Being compassionate is seeing another's circumstances with love (an open heart) instead of judgment (and its attendant emotional states, disgust, rejection, fear, anger, etc.).

To experience the joy of being alive, one need only be present. But your desire to be present must be stronger than your attachment to your misery, your ego and your need to be right. "Do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?"
Tolle characterizes the same moment-to-moment awareness Taylor calls "right-brain" as simply awareness, consciousness, or Presence (being fully present in the moment). He has advice for informal moment-to-moment practice too, in addition to the advice on the page referenced above, keyed to the chapters of his book:

Cultivate awareness: While you look at a flower, can you sense yourself as the perceiving entity, as Presence? If so, you are being conscious of being conscious. You are being aware of yourself as perceiving.

Accept the present moment: Clinging and fear represent a rejection of what is, a failure to accept that things pass away. Sadness occurs when we lose things or people we love, and can't accept their impermanence or allow change to happen. There is a continuous coming and going of events, people, etc., and knowing that nothing will last helps you to enjoy the moment. Accepting, not judging, and not being attached to outcomes place you completely in the Present.

Your everyday life can pull you into unconsciousness. You have to invite a different state of consciousness into the daily routine, a state of Presence. Even things that you usually do as a means to an end, especially if you do a lot of such things, can be done with Presence, making them, as much as possible, into an end in themselves. The goal is to be absolutely present every moment. You are present if you can look at things around you and not label, that is, perceive without naming. Everyday events can be your vehicle for waking up. You can also focus on your body's reactions: inhabit your body. Being conscious of your body anchors you in the present.

Take as your purpose simply being where you are, doing what you are doing, fully aligned with the present moment. Thus, your purpose is not about what you do, but rather being conscious, being awake, true to now, aligned with the power of the present moment. From this alignment, you can achieve whatever goal you pursue.

Practice in small ways, all the time (look out the window without judging), and then when you confront a negative situation, ask yourself, "am I able to accept this moment just as it is?" If you can, you grow in Presence power. Acceptance is Presence power.

Accept; enjoy; be enthusiastic: If you are deeply ok with the present moment, you will find your power to deal with whatever it brings you. Do everything you do with at least acceptance. Ideally, acceptance becomes enjoyment and even enthusiasm. You start simply with being Present and noticing your feelings and reactions that are not actually serving any goal or objective you may have, but are merely making you unhappy.

If you have to do something and you can't even summon acceptance, you have to recognize that you will bring suffering to yourself and those around you if you continue to do that activity without at minimum, acceptance. On the other hand, when you are either accepting, enjoying or enthusiastic, your actions can bring harmony and happiness to your life and those around you.

Enjoyment is appreciation of all that exists in the present moment. This explains why wanting is unfulfilling -- its focus is on pleasure and happiness in the future when you obtain whatever it is you want. This leaves you unsatisfied with the present moment, which is the only place you can ever be happy, joyful and alive.

Enthusiasm brings creative energy to what you do and to the world. It is the desire for growth and expansion connected to the Source. If you bring positive energy to what you do, you can move from acceptance, to joy to enthusiasm!

So, you can practice being here now anytime, all the time, moment-to-moment. It’s like choosing to walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. After awhile it becomes a habit, and little-by-little, you become more fit, more able to endure, able to carry a heavier load. Same with being aware. If awareness becomes a habit, you can bring it to more difficult circumstances, not just the easy ones. Both Taylor and Tolle have strikingly similar advice for dealing with challenging moments, experiences we don’t like, wish wouldn’t happen, but can’t avoid. The same advice applies to situations we relish, however. Standing back in the midst of those is just as important, but our need to do so is not so acute.

First Tolle:

When you recognize negativity within yourself, you can choose to step outside it, by simply being the awareness observing the negativity.

Some of the negativity in life is our reliving (giving new life to) old pains. You can reduce the incidence of arguments motivated by old emotional pain by not identifying with positions ("my point"). You can catch yourself relating to someone or something in the present out of identification with old emotional pains from the past when you notice that you are reacting with an emotion that is out of proportion to the triggering event. If you notice these over-reactive emotions quickly, you can prevent them from triggering a cascade of thoughts that relate what's happening in the present to these old hurts (“this always happens...”), thus intensifying your emotional state and causing you to react to the present event from those past perspectives, instead of from seeing what is actually happening in the present. If you recognize this pattern early, you bring consciousness into the body -- you feel the emotion, the physiological sensations, etc. -- but you recognize it as a reaction to an old pain, being played out yet another time, in the present. That awareness is the beginning of dissolving the power of old hurts to perpetuate themselves in the present. You contain them through awareness.

He says that there is a common misunderstanding that acceptance precludes effective action, that if one accepts what is, one automatically concludes that it's alright, so there's nothing we can or should do about it. On the contrary, he counsels that complete acceptance generates positive energy, a certainty, that flows into the doing of whatever it is you choose to do in response to a situation. Your action comes out of the strength of acceptance, not the emotional weakness of neediness, resistance, anger, denial, frustration, or struggling. If you are listening and observing in the Present moment with an attitude of “I don't know,” in other words, you have silenced the chatter, stopped judging, and are just observing, seeing what is, you make a very different kind of decision about what to do.
Here's Taylor's advice for practicing mindfulness, or as she says, centering in the right-brain, in the midst of a negative thought pattern or negative reaction to an event:

  1. Be aware of when you have become mired in a negative thought loop. This is, in essence, putting your moment-to-moment awareness practice to work on a real-life problem.
  2. Focus on how the loop feels physiologically inside your body. How is your breathing, do you feel tightness anywhere, do you feel lightness in your head, is your stomach in a knot, are you shaking?
  3. Wait for about 90 seconds while you accept the physiological effects of this loop fully; it takes about 90 seconds for the judgmental, counter-productive, out of control, emotional and physiological response to dissipate.
  4. Consciously acknowledge the value of having a brain with the ability to think thoughts and cause emotions, but confirm to yourself that you are not interested in this loop anymore. Tell your brain to stop bringing this kind of thing up.
You aim for a balance between observing your neural, chemical, body circuitry and engaging in it. You surrender to it for a minute or so, then you let it drop.
Summing it up: Notice when you’re not here -- when you are in the past or the future -- and just come back to now

Basically both are saying, "wake up" in the midst of strong emotional reactions. Recognize that they are just thoughts, that they are not immutable ("oh, that's just me -- I'm that way"), that you have a choice about how you react to events in your life, and that you can choose to react from a much calmer and more nuanced perspective, the present. If you have practiced taking that perspective, that is, practiced silencing mental chatter, practiced seeing and accepting what is at this moment in everyday actions and in formal practice, rather than listening to the chatter in your mind translate what is through the filter of your past, your hurts, your attachments, your fears, your demands that things be other than as they are, you will be able to step to the right, as Taylor says, or become the awareness observing the negativity, as Tolle says, and decide what to do from a more conscious, less autopilot-reactive perspective.

For example, something might happen, you could think, “Here we go again... You always blah, blah, blah,” which will likely trigger an emotional reaction of some kind, anger, or resignation, or resentment. Normally, we totally identify with that kind of reaction: I am angry, or I am resigned, or I resent that.” But if we are able to notice the disproportion in the reaction to the event, this simple observation enables us to consider whether the thoughts and emotions might have been triggered by something old and deep, not by what actually happened in the present moment. You can walk away, focus on how your body is reacting, feel what the thoughts cause physiologically, acknowledge the ability to put 2 and 2 together and come up with ... way, way more than 4, but let the conclusion go. You can be in the present instead of the past.

Here’s another example: Have you ever noticed how someone you’ve known for a long, long time can say something in a group of people who don’t know him, that charms or amuses all of them but just makes you cringe? Is your reaction a little out of proportion to what was said? That’s it! You can ask yourself whether you might be reacting to old stuff, not in the moment, not here now. Want to change? Stop doing that. Notice when you do, then stop.