Wednesday, December 07, 2016

when you really need to dance... resources for doing ballet class/fitness at home

The holidays are coming up, which means that a lot of ballet classes are sadly not happening. Where can I still get my fix? For those occasions, I like to do ballet classes or workouts at home.
This is me doing a ballet class in the fitness centre of a hotel.
Since several people asked me about it, here is an overview of resources I really like for that:

  • Lazy Dancer tips is a youtube channel with a lot of nice workouts, including this ballet barre for fitness and some 5-minute-beach-abs workouts. Good for dancers but also suitable for non-dancers
  • For $15 you can buy a download of the barre and the centre this class by Kat Wildish, a ballet teacher from New York City specialising in adults. Her style is very easy to follow and focuses a lot on correct placement.
  • Another youtube channel is Kathryn Morgan, who has some good workouts such as a pointe barre workout and a workout to strengthen your feet. She also holds online ballet classes, of which I really like the free stretch and strength class
  • If you would like to improve your core and your form, floor barre is excellent. Yumiko sells a wonderful DVD
  • On youtube, you can also easily dance along with Pacific northwest ballet school's Balanchine-style class
  • Another DVD that I like a lot is one with Andrey Klemm, which is quite easy to follow, a good workout, and gorgeous dancers
  • If you would like to improve your turns, then Finis Jhung has some good DVDs, although those are pretty pricy. I like the intermediate-advanced turning class, which unfortunately is no longer available
And of course, sometimes the most fun thing to do is just to put on some music that moves you and dance! 

does mindfulness mean we have no judgment whatsoever?

In a video on the bodhi Facebook page, Kimberly Poppe asks an important question here: can we suspend our judgment for a moment? What does this feel like? There has been a lot of controversy on mindfulness promoting non-judgmentalness and thereby condoning injustice, bigotry and violence in the world. I think what is shown here is that it is not about getting rid of judgments altogether, but rather taking a moment to first perceive what is, in a way that is as unbiased as possible, and then engaging in a way that is usually a lot more sane because you had a chance to think it over.

In this way, mindfulness can allow you to not become a zombie, but in fact allow you to see injustice more clearly and act in a more skilful way. By reducing the reliance on forming an opinion before you have had a chance to actually see, you can potentially go beyond your habits of thinking, especially those habits that are quite "sticky", i.e., those that involve your hopes and fears. Instead of running through patterns such as "I am a worthless..." or "s/he probably thinks I am a loser" or "these people are really stupid" again, and thereby making them stronger, we can also have a fresh look at what presents itself. Then we may be able to see different sides of a situation, and choose to do something different than the thing we usually do. So we can still have a strong opinion, and a strong commitment to act on an unjust situation, but now it is founded in a bit more of a grounded response.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

review of the Society for Neuroscience conference

A few weeks ago I went to the big Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. This yearly conference usually draws around 30,000 neuroscientists. I was quite actively live-tweeting the conference, so for an impression of the current research on brain oscillations, decision making and mind-wandering, check out my storify:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

One trick for slowing down: study Tibetan monks in India

I previously blogged about my study of monastic debate in Tibetan monks in India. Last July I returned for another research visit. It was very exciting to get to go back to these wonderful, cheery individuals. While the purpose of our first visit was just to try things out and come up with a model of what the monastic debate that these monks do might be, this time it was a matter of getting down to business and actually collecting data.

I spent the first few days of this trip in Bangalore, networking with scientific colleagues. One of the places I visited was NIMHANS, a premier mental health institution and research facility. What was very notable was that unlike in institutions in the West, here the care was not just taking into account the patient, but also his/her family. This meant that the complex had big parks and gardens where whole families could just hang out with the patient. Moreover, conventional scientific approaches to mental health were sisterly placed next to ayurvedic approaches. Similar to in the West, there was substantial interest in meditation interventions, and scientists with labs studying the basic science of, for example, decision making, often also have a research program on meditation. It was really interesting to see how things that we in the West tend to think of as separate are here were much more integrated.

Once my American colleagues arrived, we drove to Bylakuppe, the Tibetan settlement where Sera Jey monastery is. We stayed in the very quiet guest house, which has a lovely garden with tea stall. Unlike our previous visit, nothing was going on at this time, and the place looked deserted. The only thing that was busy! I had made an ambitious schedule for running behavioral studies, EEG studies, and discussions. Due to some poor preparation, I was still finishing programming tasks on a tablet (it's really cool that OpenSesame allows you to program tasks that just run on a tablet!). Consequently, I was totally absorbed in my laptop, instead of hanging out with the monks. And actually, for doing research in India... this is the most crucial thing! Research in India does not primarily proceed by making a tight schedule and squeezing in as much as possible, but rather by hanging out and being in touch with what happens. Only then can you see what is really happening, and can the monks feel comfortable to approach you and share their wisdom and ideas. So, once we realized this, we actually consciously slowed down.

In the West, we are used to just showing an undergrad into a cubicle with a testing computer, letting them do the task, pay them, and get them out again. With the monks, we actually first leisurely introduced ourselves, explained why we thought their method of debating was interesting, then started with an experiment, showing how the experiment worked slowly, and afterwards had a nice chat about science, monk life, consciousness, world peace, and more. We learnt a lot, and I think the monks did so too. One important lesson was that what we find simple in using a computer may not be as simple for a monk who rarely uses one. Tasks that we administered on a tablet seemed much easier than tasks administered on a laptop. And the younger monks seemed to find the computer tasks much easier than the older monks. Something to think about in our next studies...

On the last day we were once again reminded of slowing down. While we were walking to a place to have lunch, one of the dogs that was following us around got hit by a car, ran off howling to the side of the road and died. One of those moments that brings the reality of life and death quite up close. Somehow it really touched our hearts very deeply as we watched but could not do anything. A precious reminder that life is much too short to squander it being busy doing lots of things without being present to what is.
(also posted on

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trying to make sense of Tibetan Buddhism: how devotion helped me gain self-confidence

I have been thinking about this blog for a while. As a modern-day Western practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, the role of devotion to a teacher is always a difficult thing to grapple wih. Very often there are stories of people uncritically submitting to a teacher, and the first association is that those people become nothing more than weak vegetables or uncritical robots. However, in my experience it works a little differently, and actually I found that in the practice of devotion I became more self-confident instead of a little vegetable. Why? As I explain below I think the crucial thing is that by focusing on the teacher (or the Buddha, for that matter), you let go of your worries about me (thinking too many self-related thoughts is associated with several forms of psychopathology), and connect to something that is much larger than you, and that is completely positive.
photo by Gerard Nikken

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many meditative practices in which you invoke a teacher or a Buddha, you call out for help, and imagine that they grant their blessing and you become one with them (for a better explanation, see chapter 9 of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Over the years that I have been practicing this path, it has become a habit to call out to the Buddhas whenever I face difficulty, or whenever I for example have to teach, give a talk or have an important conversation. In those moments I imagine that I am empowered with the wisdom, and I try to let go of my own wants and concerns.

Interestingly, I feel this practice has really helped me acquire self-confidence. How would that work? I think that a lack of self-confidence arises when you feel you can never satisfy the expectations you have of yourself, and thereby you are continually sucked into cycles of thoughts centred around "what about me?". You have these expectations so you feel others can think you are amazing. But actually this need for recognition is very much the problem. If we think about it, we can actually never be happy if you continuously look for other's approval. Now in this act of letting go of all expectations and dedicating whatever you achieve to this other person of being, it is no longer about you. You don't have to worry you cannot do it, because you surrender it to this higher being that certainly will be able to accomplish. In focusing on this being instead of your hopes and fears, they can then dissolve by themselves.
refuge tree thangka, which is one of the objects of devotion of Buddhists

One recent event in my life showed me the power of this practice quite clearly. Just before I had a meeting with my dean in which he told me he was going to fire me (see this blog for the whole story), I did this practice in which I invoked the buddhas and imagined their wisdom and power was transferred into me. Then when this bad news came, the practice I had done, and the focus on "not-me" enabled me to stay very calm and friendly. A few weeks after this difficult conversation (and after he had receversed his decision), the dean told me he was impressed by how I was able to communicate kindly and yet full of confidence. I think this is what devotion is about: by letting go of the hopes and fears of your small self, you can find a confidence that is much bigger than you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Minding and finding the gap

I recently went on a retreat in Lerab Ling, a Tibetan style Retreat Center with an authentic Buddhist temple in the south of France. A retreat is a period that you step away from your ordinary life and focus intensely on spiritual practice, instead of the mundane concerns of ordinary life. For me one of the most important themes of this particular retreat was "the gap." While the gap has a very specific connotation in the teachings, metaphorically it is a very important concept.
First of all, a retreat in itself is a gap--a gap between our ordinary ways of thinking, completely reactive and preoccupied with whatever is at hand. Because a retreat is a place where you are in a completely different context, it allows you to take a step away from your ordinary thinking patterns and take a more bird's eye perspective. Sometimes you need a full retreat to remind you that there is actually the possibility of a gap, but of course the gap is always there. There is always a space to take a step away from your ordinary thinking. Just take a breath, and drop all your concepts and preoccupations, and there is a gap. It is so easy to forget that! In fact, I think it takes a lot of courage to break through our ordinary thinking and take the space to just be for a moment. And even if you try, sometimes you may feel as if it just doesn't work to drop your preoccupation. That is fine too. You can even let go of the concept of letting go. This may seem paradoxical, but sometimes when trying it out, this can just work. Why is engaging with a gap so important? Very often we keep ourselves busy from early morning to late at night (at least I do!), and there is no space to think about why and what we are doing. We are just following our mental habits. Making a little gap allows you to step outside these habits for a moment, which may provide you with a new perspective. Moreover, I find that I feel less stressed when I make a moment to stop and observe the gap. Another thing a "gap" can do is to consolidate our knowledge and understanding. A traditional Buddhist method for contemplation is to alternate periods of analytical thinking about a philosophical issue with periods of just resting. The idea is that when you rest, the knowledge becomes more embodied. Wouldn't it be an interesting experiment to try that out with things that we are analyzing and thinking about in our work? It may lead to interesting new insights, or maybe to a stronger memory of the material you are thinking about. I am definitely going to try this. So: it may be worth it to not forget the gaps, but to try to cultivate them. This blog is also posted on

Monday, June 06, 2016

Finding the place that is all good

While my previous blog talked about mostly misery, this blog shows that there is always a way out. This past weekend I attended a retreat by my Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche in Amsterdam. The event was notable in that there were about 500 people--some his students, some completely new, all there to learn about the Buddhist teachings, or some ancient wisdom for the modern world. The weekend went from teachings about transforming the mind, to giving us a glimpse of what we find when we transform this mind, to showing us how to consolidate that glimpse by contemplating on emptiness and practicing noticing our moments of distraction. Evidently, all these topics passed by at break-neck speed, but I will try to gather a few tidbits that I found really helpful.
impression of the final teaching

joyful imitation of work frustration in the office, preparing the Notes Archive (picture by Jeroen Top)

The most important lesson I gathered was that actually I always take refuge in my work, which may not be very smart, because we never know how long we still have work. Actually real happiness can only be found by looking inward, and being content with what is. Obviously this does not mean that you should totally abandon all worldly activity, and all drive to be successful, but it's important to not put your whole being in those pursuits.

At the same time, it is really important to cultivate patience. This is an important lesson for me, because I always want to do things too fast, and too many things at the same time. Sogyal Rinpoche taught us that actually when you are patient, you are ready to receive the greatest gift when it comes. Patience in some sense also comes from a confidence that whatever needs to come, will come. When you don't waste all your energy trying to move faster than light you also have much more space to be aware of what is happening and therefore make fewer mistakes. This is a big habit I need to work on, so it was good to be reminded of that. I could already practise that a little bit in my retreat job, in which I took care of the archive with quotes and needed to both quickly and spaciously be able to find the right quotes when they came up in the teaching.

Another lesson was that when you take the time and space look inward, and look at where the thoughts come from, surprisingly there is a tremendous stillness and OK-ness in there. Then there is somehow nothing to worry about, all the hope and fear dissolve. This is such an important thing to keep in mind when going through the job-related anxiety I have been going through in the past months. Obviously the problem is that it is quite easy to forget this, so it is important to keep reminding yourself of this space inside you--as many times a day as possible. I think it is really worth trying to remind myself of that space when I have lots of meetings, lots of conversations, and a lot of thinking. I always feel I have no time to do that, but probably doing that can really help me to become more aware of what is going on (and potentially even where I am dropping the ball).

The final big idea that came up was seeing how a lot of our thinking and our habits are empty. A student of Sogyal Rinpoche said "having a (emotional) reaction (or judgment) is much more exhausting than letting go." We could practise with this extensively when Rinpoche provoked people in various ways. When you see that you reaction never really lasts, and actually completely dissolves if you don't feed it, that gives a glimpse of its emptiness. And when we practise seeing this more often, then things that originally look really intimidating (like someone else's judgment about you) lose a lot of their power. Many wise life lessons. Now on to trying to embody these!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What I learnt about samsara through getting tenure

The good news is: I got tenure at the University of Groningen (for those not in academia: this means I got a permanent job). The bad news is: I don't feel that happy about it. Why? I got a permanent job, but not the promotion to associate professor, and it feels like failure. Let me tell you what happened.

The tenure evaluation process took almost half a year and was a beautiful insight into what Buddhists call "samsara." Samsara is the cycle of existence, birth and death, characterized by suffering, continuing until one reaches nirvana. It is mostly driven by our habitual hopes and fears, which are the things that generate suffering. And surely that was what the process of tenure evaluation was like. I felt myself continuously oscillating between hoping I would "make the cut" and fearing I was not good enough. Hope to have job security, fearing for the loss of my job. Hope generated by a job offer from another university, but still... It made me aware how much I take a stable situation for granted, and how I become uncomfortable in the prospect of change. Only the thought of losing my job really filled me with fear. To console myself, I have often thought of a saying of my Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche: you have to give up your job when you die. So there is life after a job. Nevertheless, it's easier to logically recognize this truth than to live it.

After the meeting with the tenure committee that would make the decision about my fate cames months of waiting--not being sure what the future would bring, checking my mailbox every day for a letter. Then finally, about a month ago came the meeting with the dean, who told me that while the tenure committee had judged positively about my case, he could not give the tenure because basically I had not brought in enough grant money and not supervised enough PhD students. The PhD student supervision is also related to money, because every graduated PhD student gives the university a promotion bonus of tens of thousands of euros. I was devastated. It felt like all the hard work of the last 5 years had been sort of meaningless, and I was just ditched by the organization. And that too, is samsara: we work all we want, but things just don't work out. Very often when we work, we think that if we just work hard enough, then things will work out. But in fact, there are many things beyond our control. And of course grant money is a particularly strong case of being outside our control.

The next episode in this journey was that after this quite depressing meeting I received a message from the dean asking for more information about some things I said, and eventually (after also several of my supervisors sent letters to the dean and university board) I ended up sitting in front of him once again. This time I was told that I would receive tenure, but without promotion to associate professor (and the chance to try again after 5 years). And that was it: five years of blood, sweat, and tears, and I got a permanent position, but somehow I could not feel happy. That is yet another aspect of samsara: you can never really be happy, because it is never good enough, and things never work out the way you want it. Because seen from another perspective, I have been able to get a permanent position at a university where I have the freedom to do the research I want, get to meet wonderful people, and get to shape new generations of students. And I even have a choice, because I could also take up another position at a wonderful university where people really care about my research. And more importantly: I am more than my job. While it generates lots of hopes and fears, I can also choose to respond differently to the situation. I can choose to see the hopes and fears are just hopes and fears, and there are always lots of possibilities beyond that.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

How can we get students actively engaged in learning? (report from a workshop I attended)

A few days ago I attended a symposium about promoting active learning organized by my university. Here are some of the things I learnt. There is a lot of interest currently in "flipping the classroom". We learnt that a new tool that is available to make flipping the classroom a little easier is Perusall. When you add your PDF to this system, students can annotate it collaboratively and ask questions. You will then be provided with a report, so you can adjust your teaching to the student's questions. With some magical algorithm, the system is also able to grade the quality of the students' comments, although I am a little suspicious of that, I must say.

Luckily there are also quite a few non-electronic ideas to "wake up" your students, which I picked up in a workshop by Jasmijn Bloemert. A good start of a lesson is to ask students what they hope to get out of it, and to write it down. Asking the student to think about their objective directs their attention away from the preceding events and towards the learning that will take place in the classroom. Moreover, it creates a sort of contract that they can go back to, to check whether they are getting out of the class what they want to. Writing things down is helpful because it makes the intentions more real than just holding them in your mind.

Lectures often consist of a lot of dense material. To help the student navigate that, it is often useful to give them a question that they need to find the answer to. In that way, they have a target to keep track of. You can alternatively ask them to come up with question about what they just heard, or simply to compare notes with a fellow classmate.
here I am attending a different workshop on teaching, a few years ago, at the UOGC (University of Groningen Teachers Education Centre)

Frequently students don't speak up for fear of making mistakes. To get them to speak up, you can ask them questions that do not have right or wrong answers, such as "how do you feel about this? Is it positive or negative for you? Another good trick to draw out people's interest is to show them a puzzling picture (or quote, or other type of material) and ask them to guess what it is or what it means. In a similar vein, you could show two "things" (e.g., pictures) on the screen and ask students to find the differences.I guess this will be hard for the course Research Methods that I will soon be teaching, but it may work well for courses that involve more concrete "things."

Teaching the reading of difficult material can also be made more social by asking students to underline the most important sentences of a passage, and then asking them to compare notes on what was underlined, and finally to come up with a summary of the text in one sentence. Doing this really helps you to find the essence of a text. I may try this out with research papers in one class where I read the primary literature with students. It is often difficult for them to draw out the essence of a paper, and this exercise may help them to develop this "helicopter view" of the material.

Finally, there was an interesting method used often in America called "teachers teach." At some random moment in the lecture, the lecturer claps their hands three times, and students have to immediately teach each other what they just heard. It is a very high energy method, but kind of fun, and encourages students to think on their feet (if they are willing to do it, of course). Altogether, I acquired some fun ideas in this workshop. I will definitely try out some of these in my upcoming classes.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A cross-cultural collaborative study of monastic debate (aka my India adventure)

Last December I got on the plane with an exciting destination: Bylakuppe, India. It was probably the most mind-blowing journey I have made for work thus far. The primary goal of this journey was to collect pilot data for a research project on debating practices engaged in by TIbetan Buddhist monks. For those who have ever watched debate, it is quite a spectacle (see for example here). When my collaborators (David Fresco, Marcel Bonn-Miller, and Josh Pollock) and I left, we knew very little about debate (except for having read parts of this phenomenal book by Georges Dreyfus), and our objective was to learn as much as we could and collect pilot data for future studies.
picture by David Fresco

What made our study so unique is that--inspired by our work with Science for Monks last year, we wanted to make the research really a two-way street. We went to learn about debate, but also to teach our monastic collaborators about how to conduct science. To accomplish this, we had a meeting every evening with the monastics, and chatted about what debate brought them, showed our EEG equipment, while they showed us their debating practice. The first evening after our arrival we were still fairly hung-over from our flights, but nevertheless learnt a tremendous amount about debate while having a nice dinner with the monastics. They told us for example that debating is not just a dyadic practice, but involves a continuously changing group of people. As the debate heats up and interesting arguments are being made, more people may join in. Informal meetings such as this dinner turned out to be a well-spring of information for us curious scientists.

our puppy team member (picture by Marcel Bonn-Miller)
In the following days we would meet our monastic friends in the evenings in the Sera Jay science centre, a place where the monks learn about science and where we had put up our camp (i.e., the EEG that we had brought along in a suitcase). The first night we just showed our EEG equipment (we were amazed it even worked in India!), but before we knew it the monks were already playing around with the equipment, fascinated by seeing their own brain waves. Because the monks did not seem to have too many problems with the EEG equipment, we could move onto the more exciting stage the next evening: wiring up two monks, and then having them debate while they wore the caps. We were particularly curious about what would happen to the synchronization between their brains over the course of their debate. Inter-brain synchronization is a very new field, but it is thought that it reflects some sense of social connectedness. For example, it has been shown that in a prisoner's dilemma, between brain synchronization is larger when players cooperate than when they defect. Nevertheless, given that this was a very new tool, we had no idea whether this was going to work. Another challenge was that we observed this practice, but since the monks debated in Tibetan, we had little idea of what was going on. For that reason, we developed a new technology. We asked one of the monks to set at one of our computers and press a button whenever he thought and event of interest (e.g., the debaters are now getting in synch, or the debate is heating up, or there is a large amount of disagreement). I sat next to that monk and wrote down his description. What I really liked about this method--as crude as it is--was that it really included the monk's judgments and perspectives into our data analyses. The next day we would spend analyzing the just-collected data, thinking about what we found, and coming up with a plan for that evening.

One of the interesting things we learned from the monks was that debate is not only a method to sharpen your intellect (they quoted a Tibetan saying that says "don't bang your head against the wall, and don't argue with a Geshe", which means that both are not a good idea, since a Geshe will always outwit you). Debate is also a way to train emotion regulation. When the monks start debating, they can be very angry with each other. In debate, they learn to quickly move into and out of the anger, and thereby the emotion loses its intensity. They also told us that debate can help create self-confidence, because they learn how to argue well (interestingly Daniel Perdue argued the same in a book he wrote on applying debate in the Western classroom).

attending the Mind & Life meeting. Picture by David Vago
the dangerous bee nests
debate with EEG hyperscanning in course - picture by David Fresco

While every day was an amazing adventure during this visit because we learnt so many new things (and we also got to attend the Mind & Life meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, doing research in India was not without challenges. Several times we wondered whether we were going to survive the auto-rickshaw ride. As a reminder of impermanence, we saw a little puppy being hit by one such autorickshaw on one of our first days in India. He was adopted by Marcel Bonn-Miller and slowly became a new member of the research team as he was nursed back to health. On one of the last days of our trip, one of the killer bee colonies that was hanging alongside the monastery broke out and preyed on several monks, as well as my colleague Marcel, who suffered 30 bee stings and had to be brought to the clinic. Thankfully he was able to get the appropriate treatment and survived, but it surely brought back the precariousness of life in India. Despite these less-pleasant adventures, I think this visit to India taught us a phenomenal amount, and I am already looking forward to the next trip!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Moving your meditation - exploring meditating while moving

During new year's eve, I attended a Moving Meditation retreat. As a dancer and meditator myself, it was quite interesting to bring those two together. So what is moving meditation? In many forms of meditation you focus on an object, frequently the breath. Moving meditation is similar, but now the object of your focus is the movement. We mostly danced with music, and the "game" was to be aware where in your body a movement arose, to just let it happen, and not lose focus. Whenever you lost focus, you could stand still, observe, and start to move again, with awareness. What I found interesting was that this movement led to a very fluid state. I had practised modern dance techniques before in which you are also taught to let the movement arise from the body, without commentary, everything is good (e.g., movement research by Edan Gorlicki). What was different in this case was the emphasis on awareness--using the movement as an anchor of your attention.

What was also different from previous classes I have done was the use of relational techniques. We spent a decent amount of time dancing together--feeling the movement not just of ourselves but also of the others. It may well be a very interesting way to cultivate empathy and awareness of how we relate to others. I found it also allowed me to develop a sense of non-judgmentalness towards people, because we practiced interacting with other people from within the space of meditation. In this meditation, I could see my reactions and judgments arise, but I was reminded that I could simply let them dissolve again as well.

Now what are the effects of these practices? I think movement meditation is a beautiful way to bring movement into meditation, and meditation into movement. Very useful for those like me, who cannot sit still. it also opened the door for me to bring meditation in other dance I do, like ballet. Such cases are substantially more difficult, because there is a lot more outward focus and direction by others, but it is a nice challenge. More generally, I feel that movement meditation can make it easier to bring the awareness of meditation into daily life because most of our daily life we're not sitting on a cushion, but moving about.