Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cultivating Empathy with Neurofeedback

Real time fMRI feedback, apparently to the pre-frontal and temporo-parietal junction, helped increase empathy in subjects.

"From a clinical perspective, these methods could be applied to “re-wire” cognitive networks of individuals who have pathologies associated with a lack of empathy."

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Dharma Talk 009: "Cheating" on Breath Meditation

I rarely do breath meditation these days.  Lately, if I do it at all, I focus on the breath at the so called anapana spot, specifically the subtle sensation of the breath as it touches the outermost part of the nostril, or sometimes just the overall sensation of the breath as a whole while remaining focused on that one area.

On the nostril, the way I sense it, there is a surface sensation, and then there is a little bit of a more diffuse sensation that spreads out underneath that.  That's just a small pointer that there is a lot of detail there, some subtlety that someone might gloss over or not notice right away.  Don't assume that the sensations of your body are what you theorize they are, be curious and find out what's actually there.  There might be more than you think.

A few years back I would occasionally do breath counting.  There are many variations, but I would typically count the outbreath until I got to 10, and then start over from 1.

Anyway, one time I did that for 40 minutes without losing the count.  Maybe that's impressive, maybe not.  The fact is, I cheated.  Kind of.

What I did was to come up with a kind of visualization to help me keep track of where I was in the count.  I visualized something like a telephone keypad, but only 9 numbers, or actually just the spaces or locations, a nice little 3 x 3 matrix.

When the count was one, I oriented my visual attention to the upper left.  When the count was two, I oriented to that middle upper location, and so on until I was at the bottom right.

When the count was 10, I would visualize the entire "keypad" area, which was bigger and different, and that would help clue me in to the next move, the most important move in the whole sequence, the change to go back to one, to the upper left.

So I was cheating in the sense that I was using a technique, a device.  But I was thinking about it today, and it struck me as something fairly useful.  As someone with perhaps a decently strong visual orientation, I translated the problem into a purely visual device, a relatively simple visual pattern rather than the arbitrary numerical symbolic sequence.  The numeric sequence makes the problem much harder, because we are so terribly overtrained on counting numerical sequences.  The numerical counting becomes automatic, and it is very easy to go on autopilot and go beyond the count of ten.

It also struck me in hindsight that I had changed the problem, in some little ways, into a slightly more nondual friendly format.  I literally didn't have to even use numbers, although I did.  It could be done with just those locations and sizes.  In this way, the sequence could be grokked in a slightly more direct way.  Although it is still conceptual.

Again, in hindsight, I like the idea of taking this particular problem away from the left brain a bit, I think this is the direction that meditation of all types needs to lean towards.

ABC does Psilocybin

Thursday (I think), the ABC show Black Box will air an episode containing an instance of the use of psilocybin for the palliative/psychological care of a terminal cancer patient, mimicking the Johns Hopkins studies.

I watched the episode on demand.  The doc and her friend also end up tripping, because we  have all made that mistake of reaching into a friend's purse, taking out a unknown small packet and assuming the strange light brown powdered substance inside must be cinnamon for sprinkling on our lattes.  Right.

Diffuse Optical Tomography

Mainly, I liked the photo.  But yeah, there's this optical imaging with LEDs and fiber optics that "compares favorably to other approaches but avoids the radiation exposure and bulky magnets."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dharma Talk 008: Thought-ism and Thought-aholics

In Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, it is said that the great perfection is non-conceptual awareness.  That's a really good pointer.

By nature of language, symbolic communication, education, and civilization itself, we have become prejudiced towards thought.  We overdo thought.  We have become thought-ists, thought-aholics, spending our days excessively absorbed in dreams of the future and rehashings of the past.

The original mind, say the mind of a newborn baby, does not have thoughts, at least not like we do.  It cannot have discursive thoughts because it lacks the building blocks of language and symbols for conceptual thought.  In the original mind there is just the bare sensory experience.

The remedy to thought-ism is a combination of things.  On the one hand, we need to stop being thought-ists.  We need to stop indulging and feeding the thought machine when possible.  When you are aware of an attachment to thoughts, could you simply let it drop?  We don't want to resist thought or push it away, but to simply stop at the first noticing of craving or desire for thought.  Let it fall, without worrying about it or experiencing aversion towards thought.

The other side of the coin is to simultaneously develop a kind of affirmative action towards non-thought as an antidote to thought-ism.  In terms of Mahasi style noting, we want to be emphasizing the sense doors of seeing, hearing, and feeling.  We create a new super-preference for all the basic sensory experiential stuff.  In a sense, we are returning the organism back to factory specifications, back to the original default settings.  This is enlightenment.

I once came up with a metaphor of the mind as something like an untrained dog on a leash, always pulling the owner around.  With meditation, we can not only train that dog to be much more calm, but we can also learn to drop the leash.  With a well trained dog and no leash, who cares what the dog does?

The dropping of the leash represents a certain detachment, a distance from the thoughts that are merely happening "over there."  Extending the metaphor a bit, I am reminded of the Dog Whisperer and his teachings about calm, assertive leadership.  The pack leader is unconcerned about a new dog walking into their territory.  The pack leader is king, the king doesn't bow down to some newcomer, doesn't even glance at the new dog.  The pack leader just keeps on doing whatever they were doing.

Similarly, thoughts are like that.  It's just a new dog walking into your territory.  You notice it in your peripheral vision.  That's it, done.  No need to investigate the content of thought or wonder about where it came from or whatever.  Just back to what you were doing.  Just this.

Psilocybin and Depression

"In a new study, researchers from the Psychiatric University Hospital of Zurich have shown that even small amounts of psilocybin can weaken the way our brains process negative emotions and provide a positive mood lift" from the article Compound in Magic Mushrooms Could Treat Depression.

The results are similar to a few other studies along these lines.  The dosage was listed as 0.16 mg/kg in the abstract, equivalent to about 2 or so grams of magic mushrooms.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Kenneth Folk's Book

Kenneth Folk's book, Contemplative Fitness, is now available online as a work-in-progress.

It makes for a good addition to the Pragmatic Dharma ground covered by Daniel Ingram in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

Alpha Waves screw up Visual Processing

In the article "Controlling brain waves to stay visually aware"
"researchers at Beckman Institute have used a novel technique to determine how the brain processes external stimuli that reach (or don’t reach) our awareness."

We found that the same brain regions known to control our attention are involved in suppressing the alpha waves and improving our ability to detect hard-to-see targets,” said Diane Beck, a member of the Beckman’s Cognitive Neuroscience Group, and one of the study’s authors.

Meditation Sucks

Researcher Willoughby Britton, in the article Meditation Nation, points out that one of the recent large meta-studies shows meditation isn’t any better than any other kind of therapy.

My comment about the lack of the earth-shattering results would be to not expect much out of 8 week studies on mindfulness.   If you could follow some people until they got a few paths under their belt, maybe that would be a bit more interesting.

She also goes into a lot of good stuff about experimental design and biases, finishing with a need to be open about the downsides of meditation (de-repression of traumatic memories and the dukkha nanas) and a need to get to the bottom of what techniques do what.

Friday, May 2, 2014

PTSD, Mindfulness and Psilocybin

From the article Psilocybin and meditation have same effect on posterior cingulate cortex (that effect being a massive decrease in activity in the PCC):
  •  decreased coupling between the PCC and mPFC with psilocybin corresponds with the subjective experience of a less egoic state, or less “self.” 

In a patient whose PCC was resected,
The surgeons reported "the patient reported experiencing no rumination for almost a month after the surgery and to be in a contemplative state with a subjective feeling of absolute happiness and timelessness."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dharma Talk 007: A couple of talks about NonDuality

Ananta Kranti spent a long time at the Osho commune in India, and apparently awakened to her true nature while in a Japanese prison for a drug charge.  She does satsang in Thailand.  Here is a really nice bit of guided meditation - open awareness - direct pointing called Resting at the Source.

Fred Davis is a nondual teacher with a southern drawl and his distinctive down-to-earth wisdom.  Standing as Nondual Awareness is one of his better youtube talks.

Sam Harris on Meditation

Unbeknownst to most, famed atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris had a few experiences with psychedelics early on and ended up spending a couple of years in India on some long vipassana retreats.

He has a couple of guided meditations that are quite good.

In the article Taming the Mind, he has a conversation with Dan Harris (no relation?), anchorman and author of the new book 10% Happier.
"you can have great friends and live pretty high on the socioeconomic ladder—your life can be a long string of pleasurable meals, vacations, and encounters with books and interesting people—and, yes, you can still have what Eckhart Tolle describes as a background static of perpetual discontent."

"this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience."
this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. - See more at: