Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ambition with or without an 'I'

Living in America can be quite stressful, especially being the type-A
personality that I am. I feel being driven is a very good thing, it
allows one to accomplish a lot. And yet, there are always chances to
get burned out and over-exhausted. So what is it that makes the
difference? Tsoknyi Rinpoche
has given some amazing teachings that address these issues. The core
of it (from my perspective) is that what makes ambition pathological is
when it is driven by ego, and by a constant need for recognition. One can
also be ambitious by ones motivation to help beings, but not be so
dependent on whether one is recognized or not. When functioning from
that perspective, you are much more closely connected to yourself, and
there is a lot more peace. Frustration cannot get a handle on you
because there is this deep courage. The courage to keep working for
the benefit of beings, in whatever way one happens to do it, no matter
what happens. Whenever you feel this sense of rushing, this impatience
that is the sign of ego, come, you can remind yourself that it is not
about 'me', and take a few deep, slow breaths, and a sense of quiet
will arise. It is quite remarkable, really.

Of course this will be quite a learning process, but even just to
recognize that there is a way out of our learned competitiveness and
judgmentalness, while still retaining our drive and dedication is
quite an insight. It is a tool on the way to becoming more of a
modern-day bodhisattva, as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche likes to call it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

the circle is round

Yesterday I went to see Nacho Duato's Compagnie Nacional de Danca (CND). The ballets were very beautiful and so sensual! The dancers were completely embodying the music. What was even more interesting was that about 2 years ago, I went to a ballet workshop by CND, and this is where I broke my ankle. So I never got to see the performance, but now two years ago, the circle is round. When I went to the bathroom during the first intermission, coincidentally (?) I ran into the person who gave that workshop two years ago, and he recognized me and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was back to dancing, and even back on pointe, but that it had taken a long time. He said that he thought of me as they were in Philadelphia a few days ago. I am so happy we met and now it is as if this issue has finally found its peace. What an experience!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

With your mind you make the world...

Recently, I heard a lecture from Elizabeth Loftus
about false memory. She presented evidence for claims that it is
possible to implant false memory in people--in fact, it is very
easy. For example, people can be convinced very easily that they have
gotten sick of a particular food, and will subsequently avoid it. This
is an effect that persists for even months! What is quite shocking
about these studies is that what we think of as us is really a
construction, and very easily altered. On the other hand, it also
gives us hope. We are not stuck with our psychological make-up: we can
change it fairly easily. That is probably the whole ground of Buddhist
practice. We convince ourselves every day on our cushion of the
importance of caring for others, and of the relativity of our own
perspective. This can make our minds much more flexible.

A few weeks later, I heard a lecture by Michael Kane about
mindwandering. It is actually quite easy to induce mindwandering in
people: give them a boring task, and off they go. What is interesting,
is that the amount of mind-wandering people do is related to their
working memory capacity. In general, people with a higher working
memory capacity tend to mind-wander less; although on easy tasks they
sometimes mind-wander more than people with low working memory
capacity. Of course in meditation we are trying to train not to
mind-wander. This begs the question: can meditation increase our
working memory capacity? There is some very preliminary evidence that
it can, although it is not sure by how much and for how long.

The final example comes from my own research, which shows that
intensive shamatha meditation training might actually change how you
perceive the world, and make it more precise. In a paper presented at
the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in San Francisco, I argued that
after a month-long intensive shamatha retreat, participants were able
to remember face stimuli with less mental noise than before. There are
surely problems with my study, for example that the first time they
were tested, some participants had just had a long journey to get
there with a lot of stress. Nevertheless, all of these research
studies seem to point in the direction that we can change our mind,
and we can affect how we perceive the world.