I wanted to pass on some exciting, and super valuable news to anyone interested in THE BEST EVER BOOK on the stages of meditation training. I’ve read many books on the subject, but this book is the most informative, clear, and thorough by a long shot. The book is titled,The Mind Illuminated, and it was written by one of my meditation teachers, John Yates, Ph.D. I’m excited about this book because it’s simply the best resource on the topic. Please check it out for yourself. Reading this book will totally jumpstart your practice. Also, please share this post with anyone and everyone who is interested in learning to meditate for the purpose of self-change and/or healing.
Last week, I had the great pleasure of teaching alongside Karen Putnam PhD., a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development and parenting. We spoke to an engaged group of parents interested in implementing evidence-based strategies for promoting health and happiness within their families. Karen suggested something simple, but profound: being intentional and setting agreements for family behaviors. Simple yes, but who among us has been so proactive? As intentional as Lynda and I believe we are, we’ve not taken this step. That’s going to change! We’ve already begun to craft our own family agreements document and intend to enact it. Family harmony seems to stem from cooperation, kindness, skillful communication and emotional self-regulation. As a result, we wove these attributes into the fabric of our agreements. Our document is still a work in progress, but here’s what we have so far:
Pirtle Family Mission: to consciously wish for, and actively support, the health, happiness, growth, and success of each family member
In the spirit of this intention, we each endeavor to live by the following agreements:
1. We agree we each play a part in the well-functioning of the family
2. We agree to mindfully contribute to the well-functioning of the family, both emotionally and materially
3. We agree to give our full attention when communicating with one another
4. We agree to speak kindly and listen to each other without judgment or interruption
5. We agree to be honest with each other
6. We agree to acknowledge, accept, and tolerate the feelings of others
7. We agree to share our feelings openly, but in a respectful and kind way–we don’t dump or dramatize
8. We know we can ask for support, yet we each agree to be responsible for ourselves and our feelings
9. We agree to try to understand one another, and ask clarifying questions
10. In every way, we aim to be kind, cultivating empathy and compassion in all our relations
That’s it so far. Let me know what you think. I’m open for suggestions.
Also, for those of you who live in Tucson, Karen and I are going to teach a parenting workshop on Saturday, April 18th. Here’s a link to a flier for more information. To register, call: 520-981-9911. Given the positive response to the short talk we did last week, the workshop promises to be well-attended. Seats are limited. Hope to see you there.
If you don’t live in Tucson, but you’d like Karen and I to come to you, just contact us through the website. We’re eager to share simple techniques that may positively transform your family dynamics.
Hi all, I wanted to share an example of a back and forth Q&A between myself and a client with whom I’m working. He’s learning how to use meditation and mindfulness to heal anxiety and depression. Here’s our email string from today:
Client: “Hey Mark, good morning. I just wanted to ask you a question. So I am reading the book “The Path of Individual Liberation” by Chogyam Trungpa. He stresses the importance of focusing on nothing besides the out breath. So now when I meditate I get very anxious and doubt myself, thinking I am doing it wrong. I was thinking maybe it would be better for me not to read any more meditation books because they just mess with my mind, and stick to our practice. Do you have any advice/thoughts?”
Me: “Great question. Reading good Dharma is always a good idea, and Trungpa is good Dharma. If you have questions, just ask. Daily spiritual reading will take you far, so keep going! The advice to watch the out breath is given because it’s so subtle. It’s a “doorway to emptiness.” But the truth is, so are all meditation objects. It’s strange, but the more carefully you observe them, the more ambiguous they become. May I suggest that you do the same with what you think is your anxiety, depression, or a strong emotion or urge. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “what is this?” but don’t answer. Go looking for it. Is it a thought? If you think so, then ask: “what is a thought?” Keep probing. Is it a sensation? What’s that? There’s a saying, “everything dissolves in awareness.” And it’s true. You’ll never actually find the thing you’re looking for. All that exists is experience, which is ephemeral, fleeting, or as the Tibetans say, “empty”. Sit with that, and let me know what you find. Your practice will reveal the truth and that’s where you’ll find your healing.”
So if this type of back and forth support is what you want, and you’d like to learn to use meditation and mindfulness to change and or heal, join us. For a limited time, I’m running a holiday and New Year’s special. Until December 31st, receive $100 off both the Skillfully Aware Meditation Program for Stress Relief, and or the 6-Weeks to overcoming Stress, Pain, Strong Emotions and Urges (Tucson residents only). This offer is not available on the website. To take advantage of it, please call 520-981-9911, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is a follow up to last week’s “Stress, the social crisis of our time.” As most of you know, I work in rehab. The facility I contract with, Sierra Tucson, has five separate programs—chemical dependency (addictions), mood and eating disorders, trauma and chronic pain. As mentioned before, I regard all of these as stress related illnesses. If you recall, the reason I lump them all together is because I believe, at the root of each lies a common mechanism, what I call attentional fixation.
Attentional fixation is where a person’s attention gets stuck on something: like an obsession. Behind all situational stress is an obsessive, fixated attention. The reasoning behind my assertion is simple to understand. One’s attention is naturally drawn to objects one craves or hates. No one fixates on neutral objects. Attentional fixation therefore lies at the heart of emotion—intense liking or disliking. Emotions then release stress chemicals into our bodies—serotonin and dopamine on the liking side, cortisol and adrenaline on the disliking side. If the stress chemicals persist in a person’s body for too long, and in too high a concentration, biochemical “dysregulation ” occurs. In other words, we’re not born with our habits, we learn, or evolve our way into them. Downwardly spiraling mental and physical feedback is what eventually causes stress illnesses to arise.
The mind and body are therefore interdependently connected through one’s emotional fixations. The whole of Buddhist psychology is based on this concept, i.e., people suffer because of uncontrolled cravings and aversions. Additionally, Buddhist philosophy teaches that psychology directly influences cosmology. In other words, ‘it is your mind that creates your world.’ The way I read it, Buddhism offers a more substantive and rational exposition for interdependence than does the “New Age” version of this same concept, what is now popularly referred to as the Law of Attraction. The pith Buddhist teaching on this subject is the 12-Links of Dependent Origination, or Dependent Arising. Let me list the 12-links and then offer an explanation.
Name and Form
6 Sense Bases
Aging and Death
Every being wants to be happy and to avoid suffering. This is referred to as the Universal Aspiration because it is universally true. What mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as the “full catastrophe” boils down to the sum of one’s effort to achieve this goal. But just like a blind man, we cannot unerringly walk a straight path towards happiness. ‘We stumble from the right road to the wrong road without a correct understanding of what we are doing.’ This is ignorance (1). It’s not our fault, we’re looking for happiness in the wrong places; we just can’t see clearly. But ignorance does not stop us from trying. In our efforts, we perform intentional actions. Such striving leaves imprints or memories on our nervous systems, which then feed back into the system to incline us to perform the same actions (2). Therefore, conditioned by ignorance, we create formations. The entirety of these conditioned tendencies then persist and condition our present moment consciousness (3). Consciousness, or a mind, so conditioned, gives rise to our mind-body and all of its tendencies (4). This habituated mind-body determines where our attention goes and what it fixates on (5 and 6). Attentional fixation creates emotion (7). Emotion left unchecked, intensifies (8) until one reacts reflexively (9) out of the emotion. Repeating these conditioned actions causes “becoming” (10) i.e., one becomes a smoker by smoking. A future moment conditioned by these past actions occurs (11). The endless process continues to evolve us (12).
Even modern scientists can be pressed to agree on this point; the universe we live in is absolutely, interdependently connected. Everything shows up in some way as a ‘chicken and egg’ dependency. The same can be said for addictions of all kinds—a person becomes addicted to nicotine by smoking, to alcohol by drinking and to cocaine by using. An addiction, no matter the kind, can’t arise before a set of actions. So I ask you, is addiction a disease of a conditioned flow of actions?
As explained deftly by the 12-links, one’s biology does change as a result of what one does. Neuroscience agrees on this point. This is an unassailable fact. And altered biology does affect one’s thinking—what and how we think depends on our brain activity. Said another way, we must think what our brain cells think. Thus a conditioned brain creates a patterned way of thinking, which in turn further changes the brain. This is called neuroplasticity, and is the self-reinforcing feedback loop I referenced earlier. Yet, all this being true, does it preclude one from making a different choice? Does the fact of neuroplastic interdependency leave no room for free will?
I ask these important questions because it is widely accepted, both by the public and the medical establishment, that addiction is a disease. Alcoholism and obesity are listed as diseases in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. But is this so, and can thinking of addiction this way actually make it worse? There is evidence that defining addiction this way does indeed make it worse. In informal conversations with hundreds of addicts, I’ve never encountered a person who did not answer, “yes” to this question: “Did you still know right from wrong the moment before your relapse?” The truth is, we know better. Maybe behavioral health professionals think that the disease concept helps people understand the seriousness of their problem. To me, the misunderstood idea of powerlessness instead engenders a victim mentality, which only increases the likelihood of relapse and chronicity.
I believe it’s important to teach the truth of both neuroplasticity and interdependent arising. From those perspectives, we are indeed powerless over our current imprints. Meaning, they’re there, and they do condition our present moment thoughts and feelings. But these teaching prove that powerless is not complete. We remain empowered make different choices, grow and evolve. Where most recovery programming falls short is not teaching this subtle distinction. When life gets tough as it inevitably does, and a person believes in the inevitability of “powerlessness over the disease,” that misinformed belief can then incline him to give up more quickly. And then the idea of “powerlessness” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The ancient teaching of the 12-links of Dependent Origination and the modern science of neuroplasticity agree: our intentional actions create imprints that change us and from those changes emerge our habits of thought and behavior. But it works both ways; we can think and act our way into destructive patterns or healthy happy ones. The end result depends on where we allow our attention to go, and onto what we allow it to fixate.
Let me offer to teach you a daily mindfulness practice, one that will train you to watch your attention and regain your health and happiness. Please visit my website for more information on my guided meditation programs for healing stress related illnesses, retreats, and other recovery services. I want you to be happy.
 Gethin, R., 1998, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, New York: Vibhanga-atthakatha, 150.
 The proportion of substance abusers in the population has slowly increased since the inception of 12-step programming.