Monday, April 22, 2019

Trying to look into the empty nature of stress

As evidenced by the lack of blogs, I have been pretty busy in the past months. It's already Easter! Although I am still insanely busy, preparing and teaching a new course for first-year Artificial Intelligence students, I think it is time for a new blog, and a meditation retreat over Easter inspired me to write this blog.

I have had a few months to contemplate this slogan: "Seeing confusion as the four kayas is unsurpassable shunyata protection." That involves quite a few Buddhist technical terms! In my own very free translation, it concerns seeing wisdom in the midst of confusion and chaos. Quite appropriate for the last months...

view from the retreat in the Amsterdam Rigpa centre
So let's get going with the Buddhist terms. Shunyata is a term often translated as emptiness, but that translation is quite tricky, because it gives a nihilist connotation. During one of my recent travels I met a person who claimed to understand emptiness and explained his lack of productivity by his focusing on emptiness: if nothing exists, then why doing anything? I think this is the wrong understanding of the word. The way I have learnt it, shunyata refers to the idea that while things appear as quite solid, in fact they are impermanent, they depend on many causes and conditions, and while they appear to be completely distinct from other things, they can be decomposed into many other factors. So this means that while this delicious chocolate easter egg in front of me seems quite real and I really want it, it is actually quite impermanent (I became acutely aware of that fact this morning when my hot tea bottle was on top of a bag with Easter eggs--who ended up in a molten chocolate mess). Even our attachment to these Easter eggs is quite impermanent because if we eat too many of them, we no longer want them.

The four kayas are a term that refers to the different aspects of an enlightened being, the nirmanakaya being the physical level (the body of the Buddha), samboghakaya something like energy, dharmakaya the mind of the Buddha, and svabhavikakaya the union of all three. In other words, if confusion is the four kayas, it refers to recognizing enlightenment in confusion. One way to interpret this is that in all situations you can look at it with a confused perspective and with an enlightened perspective. For example, while anger is often harmful, it also has a quality of cutting through that is helpful.

Now how can shunyata be a protection in the confusion associated with stressful situations? Stress is tends to feel like a massive thing weighing down on you (at least, that's how it feels like to me). I often paralyzed by stress because there seems to be no place to breathe, let alone do something to regain my sanity, such as meditation. Now here there is good news, because many teachers actually say that the more confusion you have, the more chance there is to practice. So the more stress, the more you can just mediate on the stress: feel how it affects your body and mind, but crucially, try to not reject it. If you carefully think about it, while related to the massive amount of things to do, the stress is mostly a product of our minds. We can also decide to use the stress as an invitation to practise seeing how our feelings make the experience of having much to do massively worse.

And I know for a fact that however I feel, this too shall pass. Moreover, the stress is not a solid thing because it depends on so many causes and conditions: the state of my mind, the work that piles up, the reactions of other people and much more. So what and where is this thing called "stress" when you look for it? It is actually quite elusive, and realizing this creates space. It is sometimes even possible to see how the stress is just a manifestation of my cognizing mind that goes in overdrive when worring about the future. Every moment you can work with this feeling of stress is a great exercise, because anyone can be relaxed in calm situations, but can you also be calm in stressful situations? Anyone can see the empty nature of phenomena on their meditation cushion, but can you also have that humor in the midst of a stressful situation? I am working on it!

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Dancing into the new year

As in several previous years, I spent the new year's eve at a moving meditation retreat, this time somehow as one of its facilitators. The latter fact also filled me with quite a bit of trepidation because I definitely did not feel ready to do this. But of course that is a great thing to dance with as well, because the idea of moving meditation is to dance with your habits. So what is moving meditation? Why move during your meditation? Let me give a try explaining a little.
image from Aarhus--on the way to the retreat venue

Moving meditation is a form of meditation in which you don't sit still while meditating, but instead you a moving. Moving can take place individually, but also in a dyad, or in a larger group. Just like sitting meditation can move through phases from being focused on an object, to simply being aware of everything, to letting go of even the idea of meditation, so can moving meditation. If you pay attention to it, you will find that there is always movement in your body, and instead of remaining silent you can just let this flow and move the body where it decides to go. And just like you have habits of thought that keep coming back, you also have habits of movement that you keep rolling back into when there is music on. When you become aware of these habits, you suddenly have the choice to not follow these habits and to instead take a different path. Then there is suddenly a lot more freedom! During the retreat I gave the participants a brief introduction to ballet movements as a way to expand their movement vocabulary. During the music, the meditators could then use these movements as well to follow the natural flow of the body.


What is interesting is that movements can be a different way to listen into our mind and our ideas and the external world. When we go into auto-pilot, we can become quite bored during moving meditation, but if instead we just flow what is, there is always inspiration, and there is always something happening. It is quite a wonderful exercise in just letting the movement and meditation arise out of itself. I found that I did not need to be scared about leading the retreat, because when I was simply there to listen, the retreat magically emerged out of itself.

In addition to the general process of moving meditation, we also went through a special new year's process, in which we first thought about what habit we wanted to dance a lovingly goodbye to, and what we wanted to welcome in the new year. We then entered into silence for a day or so (until new year's eve). During the silent period, we enacted the process of being born: from the appearance of matter out of space, to simple single-cell animals such as amoeba, to more complex animals that can crawl, all the way to elegant swans and birds, and finally to humans. While it may sound silly, this whole process of giving birth metaphorically is a wonderful way to reach a state of wonderment about life, and to give space to new ideas and new habits to arise for the new year. I mostly worked with the idea that I would like to simplify my life (I am also starting to work with the Simple Living calendar, the Simpel leven agenda in Dutch). Over time, the insight emerged that maybe I should plan more time to simply sit quietly with my project and listen to what project can dissolve to give more space to other projects.

A final remarkable thing about moving meditation is that it is a very beautiful way to be with other people, because we all practise being together in a very non-judgmental way. It was so moving to see everyone dancing together on New Year's eve: everyone with their own unique moves, no-one being ignored, everyone sharing joy and wonder with one another. These qualities are also cultivated in the moving meditation practices, for example a practice in which we listen into each other's being and use that to move together. As we listen into each other, we become more and more open to the unique texture of every individual, and their unique beauty. I hope that I will be able to keep some of that non-judgmentalness and wonder in the new year!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Broadening our perspective on success and other thoughts about leadership

A few weeks ago I attended the Pump Your Career meeting--a day of workshops organized for female academics to give them a platform to meet and work on professionalization. While the title of the event is a bit stereotypical, the content is usually very good.

The event started by a keynote by Pravini Baboeram which drew everyone's attention to the theme of diversity. While it is known that diversity tends to increase quality of work output, still there is a challenge in making workplaces friendly to a diverse audience. The speaker encouraged us to move from being colour-blind to being colour-brave. One important thing to keep in mind is that equal opportunity does not just involve providing the same opportunities for everyone, but more to provide circumstances such that everyone can make use of these opportunities. For example, having a network is great, but if someone does not know how to network, the network is of no use. In a sense, we need to think from not just our own perspective but from the other person's perspective.
Pravini Baboeram




Rana Dajani
This time I attended a workshop by Roel Breuls from the Centre for Academic Leadership which I enjoyed a lot. The workshop talked about the complicated feelings involved in taking a position of a leader, which I recognized quite well. For example: a leader cannot satisfy all. A very painful conclusion, but very recognizable. An inspiring quote that was shared was by Philip Massinger (1623): "Those who govern others first should be masters of themselves." Consequently, Roel introduced the concept of Personal Leadership, which means that to effectively lead others, you first need to be able to govern yourself, and realize your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you are strong on vision, you may be weaker on implementing practical details, and if you have a tendency to control others, you find it difficult to go with the flow. Yet leadership tends to require us to go beyond the strong preferences and tendencies we have to endure the discomfort of working with our dominant tendencies such that they are reduced and balanced out by their opposites. It is quite helpful to reflect on your dominant tendencies and to think about which ones need work. Leadership is also a lonely position, because you have to do this work mostly by yourself: your team is not going to do it. However, friends and colleagues can help you power through this.

the leaky pipeline
We also talked about the complicated meaning of a team in academia. Usually a team is a group with a common goal, a common leader, and interdepency. While the common leader and interdependency are satisfied. the common goal is more rare with many different projects happening at any point in time. An insight from this discussion was that the tasks of a leader are to set boundaries and to protect her people. When there is too little nurturing or too little boundaries, disturbances can arise in teams. Leaders should strive to still create some coherence, such as creating a culture for working together. I realized I should probably create such a vision statement for my lab as well, following some wonderful examples from Candice Morey and Maryam Aly.

Other interesting factoids were that females tend to deal with uncertainty in different ways than men (in general, of course). While males tend to resort to hierarchy and competition in the face of uncertainty, females tend to resort to a lack of hierarchy. And guess what the academic world looks like? Pretty male in my book!

Finally, I also found the overview of leadership tasks very helpful. A leader is to endure loneliness, otherwise you cannot set boundaries. Moreover, they have to use power, using language such as "I want you to...", "I don't want you to...". I notice how I find that quite challenging. Also, the leader should leave the fate of the employee with the employee, and not do their work for them. Finally, the leader should be an example of success, which includes the ability to take criticism, which can inspire others to also dare more. While this is challenging, a good message was that "there is nothing great about making yourself too small." Good point.
Presentation of the LNVH monitor on females in senior academic
positions and salary gaps

The day ended with a keynote by a very inspiring woman: Rana Dajani, who presented herself as someone wearing five scarves, after a book she wrote. The five scarves represent her roles as mother, academic, advocate, and more. She mentioned that interestingly, in the middle east and India, there are more women than men in STEM. Why is this? Why is there na absence of leading females in STEM in the Western world? She proposed that this could be because success is defined mostly in male terms: fame and money. What if we redefine the criteria pf success? Maybe we can then have a much more creative and diverse workforce. I resonate quite a bit with those ideas. She encouraged us to persist, because the world needs us, and we can be role models for others. Yet, we also need support, and recommended mentoring. I highly agree--mentoring is incrdibly helpful. She also mentioned a website with resources of mentoring support: the three circles of Alemat. In short, a very inspiring day in which I learnt a lot!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Finding gratitude in happiness and suffering

The thirteenth lojong slogan is "Be grateful to everyone." I think this holiday time is therefore a great time to blog about this in the #lojongchallenge, since I feel the Christmas period is always a time to reflect on what I can be grateful about. As the year draws to a close, I always think about what happened in the past year, and so much has happened. Although I never feel I have enough time to accomplish what I want to, nevertheless stuff happens and papers do get published, data gets collected, and grants get submitted. In this past year, my lab doubled in size, which is quite sobering.
Grateful for the delicious food on the Christmas table (a vegan roast, gravy, loads of veggies...). Picture by Maya Thierens.


Being grateful is a one of the easiest way to enhance your happiness. There is even some research that shows that being grateful is a great way to enhance satisfaction with life and self esteem. I often forget to be grateful for what I have in the mad rush to get stuff done. When things slow down towards the end of the year, gratefulness gets a chance to re-emerge. When you think about it, there is a lot to be grateful about: having a (somewhat) healthy body, having a roof over your head, food to eat, friends and family, a sense of purpose in life...
Image of my injured knee

Some of the aspects of gratefulness that are emphasized in Lojong are also worth a mention: we usually have the habit to think that all the good things that befall us are our own merits. But actually when you think about it, a lot of the good things that happen are due to many causes and conditions that make those emerge. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche writes in The Intelligent Heart:"it is a gift from other sentient beings". Without the care of your parents, you would not be able to grow up into a functioning adult. Without the care of colleagues, you would be able to succeed and get promotion in your job. Without food to eat you would not be able to be healthy and survive. In this way, contemplating the kindness of others in acquiring what we enjoy can open our hearts to these others, instead of being oblivious to them. One thing that I was particularly grateful for in the past days is a chance to be a dancing angel in a Christmas mass/celebration for patients in the hospital. Such a gift to be able to give something to those suffering with my dancing!
Grateful for the chance to be a dancing angel for patients in the hospital

But there is more: we can even be grateful for the challenges provided by others. An example I got to work with this month was that another bicyclist hit me one morning as I was cycling to work. I fell on the pavement and my whole left side was scraped, blue and bloody (see picture for an impression). Even now, my knee is still a bit swollen, although it does not hurt anymore. While I was definitely not happy (especially about the fact that I had to skip several ballet classes because of my injured knee), this was my chance to practise "being grateful to everyone." I was definitely not very successful at appreciating this, but every so often I managed to use my injury as a tool to develop compassion for everyone else who was suffering as well. Feeling the pain in my own body somehow made other's suffering much more real, and I did the healing practices of Vajrasattva for both myself and others. So, in the end, there was benefit in the suffering, and looking back upon it, I can be grateful to the bicyclist who hit me. I feel that for every bit of suffering that I can transform, I become a bit less fearful, and acquire some wisdom that no-one will be able to take away from me.

Finally, for another reflection on gratitude, see this article by Salmaan Sana.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Finding freedom from criticism


Another #lojongchallenge slogan is "drive all blames into one". That sounds pretty scary, doesn't it? However, actually I found that here too the counter-intuitive slogan could help me find some freedom. The slogan refers to the ego, which according to the Buddhist teachings is the source of all suffering. How does this work? Well, in my understanding the ego is this part of yourself that tends to easily feel a victim when criticized, and the part of yourself that continually seeks praise. Neither of these things feels particularly good, does it? In the last weeks, I have been experimenting with my response to criticism. My normal reaction when someone criticises me is to go all in defensive mode, or to hide away. Basically I try to do everything to avoid feeling the criticism. However, Sogyal Rinpoche would always say that "a haircut is not a skin cut". In our minds the criticism may feel like a skin cut, but it's just someone trying to tell you something. In fact, very often the person is simply trying to teach you something. So can you approach the criticism with an attitude of curiosity and appreciation for the things they are trying to teach you rather than one of fear or defensiveness? One of my friends says that people who are very critical are actually very good because they keep you on your toes, where otherwise you may have gone into a comfortable lull and overlooked important issues. Moreover, the people who criticise you also help you with a bit of self-control. By being afraid of criticism we behave better. I found that when I am able to remember these things and simply face criticism as an opportunity to learn then it feels so much better (and probably is more useful too).

Picture by Dubravka Knezic
The other context where ego plays up is that it seeks continuous praise. However, if there is one thing true about life, then it is that you won't be praised all the time. And probably if you were, you would become a very arrogant and ill-tempered person. So, what to do? A very smart approach is to realize that all praise is not really that helpful: it makes you feel good on the short term, but then it does not teach you so much. Of course it teaches you a little about what behaviors should be cultivated, but probably people's opinions are quite biased. So, looking for praise is not really the recipe for becoming happy. I must confess that I am quite terrible at this, but I think that by contemplating this over and over may make me less dependent on praise, and less fearful of criticism. And in the end, that will most certainly make me happier.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Viewing monastic debate through the lens of Western psychology and neuroscience: what can we learn?

I recently submitted a paper co-authored with probably more Tibetan monks than any paper in history (you can read a preprint here). The main point of the paper is to explain that while meditation research in the West has mostly focused on a narrow range of meditation practices such as mindfulness, there are many more practices out there, one of which is analytical meditation and debate. Why are analytical meditation and debate so interesting? As the Dalai Lama pointed out a few weeks ago in his talk in the Netherlands, reasoning and study, of which analytical meditation is the method, may be the best way for Westerners to engage with the Buddhist teachings. Even for a secular ethics that would be available for people from all religions, such analytical meditation could be useful.

So what is analytical meditation and what is debate? Analytical meditation is a practice of studying a text and contemplating it, asking questions such as "do I really understand what it means? How does that relate to other things I know? What follows from this statement? What is it consistent with? What is it inconsistent with?". In debate, you ask these questions to another person. In the tradition, such debates have a very distinct physical manifestation. You can find some videos and pictures from monastic debates a the website of the project.

In our paper, we describe what cognitive mechanisms we think are involved in the practice of debating. First you need to keep track of all the things that have been discussed so far, and this requires working memory. As the debate goes on, cognitive load increases. This may reflect in increasing engagement of a neural network called the fronto-parietal attention network, and this may also be associated with increasing inwardly-turned attention. In EEG measurements, such inwardly-turned attention is likely to be reflected in increasing brain waves in mid-frontal areas. Debating may also increase your speed of processing information, because if debaters do not respond quickly enough, then they are made fun of by their opponents. Furthermore, debate may promote mental flexibility, since winning a debate requires you to look at things from many different angles, and try to find an angle that your opponent has not yet found. Experienced debaters also say this is the most satisfying aspect of debating: it is a kind of research that may give you more insight into the topic when you consider the implications of looking at it in a particular way. This suggests to me as a neuroscientist that debate may require strong engagement of areas such as the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex. Debating also is a strong motivator for memory training, since you can not go back to your textbook in the debate courtyard. Indeed we found that during a type of debate called "counting debate", in which the debaters review the texts and definitions, it happened more often that one of the debaters had "difficulty remembering" than during the logic debates, but even there difficulty-remembering could occur. Since debate uses logical reasoning as a foundation, it may also train this cognitive skill. We are now measuring that with reasoning tasks (stay tuned for results!). But debating is not just a cognitive practice: it also requires resilience to strong emotions such as anger, anxiety and more. Once you lose your cool, you are likely to lose the debate. Especially during logic debates, the debaters face many self-reported difficulties. Nevertheless, in some preliminary data from a questionnaire, we found that more experienced monks reported fewer difficulties in regulating their emotions (also stay tuned for this). Finally, debate is a highly social form of meditation, and in another paper we report how inter-brain synchrony, thought to reflect mentally tuning into each other, changes over the different phases of the debate.

So why is all of this interesting? Maybe some of the techniques that the debaters use can also be helpful in our education system. For example, the movement aspect could be used to make the students more physically active. The technique of continually questioning everything that is being put forward and carefully examining its logical consequences could help to cultivate critical thinking. However, a significant challenge in this is that our education system in the West relies on covering a large amount of material cursorily and learning skills for managing information rather than really knowing a detailed area by heart. This makes it much more difficult to apply the techniques learnt in debate. But I continue to think about this idea. If you have any suggestions, let me know!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Facing the ever-growing todo list with compassion

The next slogan in the #lojongchallenge is "turn all suffering into the path of awakening." While usually we want suffering to go away, and feel like it distracts us from the spiritual path, or whatever other goals we seek to accomplish, this slogan encourages us to instead use the suffering as fuel to progress on the spiritual path. How would that be possible? In contemplating this slogan, I realized that my particular and most pervasive suffering is the todo-list that keeps on growing, and makes me feel really stressed (you can tell I am pretty spoilt). I suspect I am not alone in this, since stress and feeling overworked are rampant in our modern society. But how can we work with the ever-growing todo list?

I felt that just realizing that the ever-growing todo-list was making me feel stressed was already quite an accomplishment. Such a realization is the moment of awareness. Suddenly the stress is not the thing that defines me, but instead is linked to something outside me--I am not the stress. In fact, I can kindly look at the stress and become friends with it. Instead of hating my endless todo list, I can also ask what it can teach me. What does an endless todo-list say about your priorities? Maybe my ego thinks I am so important that I need to do all those things? Do I really need to do them? And even if there is such a long todo list, I can also just get started, dedicate all my efforts to the benefit of beings, and not worry so much about all the other stuff that still needs to be done. In some of his teachings, Tsoknyi Rinpoche explains very well how sometimes we let ourselves become really stressed because when we are doing one thing, our mind is already onto the next thing and starts worrying about that. in fact, the moment we do nothing, our mind is so restless that it wants to do something--anything. This is one moment when we may create more stuff to do.
Random picture taken by my brother Floris van Vugt

What I found very helpful is just to sit for a moment with my todo list. Not to let myself get distracted by it, but just simply to feel my feelings. Suddenly the todo list was not so daunting--really my stories and catastrophizing were what made it so bad. So whenever I feel this stress about the growing todo list creep in, I try to kindly observe it, and let it dissolve on its own accord. It definitely has helped me be a little bit more calm and happy.

Another important observation is that sometimes I use my todo-list as an excuse for not being able to do my meditation practice. But in fact, the todo list (or any other problem or stress) is exactly when you should practise says Khandro Rinpoche. Practice is not about feeling good; it is about confronting the neurotic aspects of ourselves that make us aggrandize things, go after the things we want and run away from the things we don't want, and ignoring everyone else. So when we feel like a martyr who has to work so hard when looking at our todo list, when we want to run away from it and be in some different place, this is our chance to work with that. Of course that doesn't mean we have to always accept such a todo list and not change the outer circumstances as well. But given that we are now in this situation, why not relate to it in a more sane way?