Preventing and Reversing Alzheimer’s – Dr. Kat Toups

Dr. Dale Bredesen, author of The End of Alzheimer’s, in an interview podcast with Kirkland Newman, indicated that he was the theoretician oversighting the work of his team engaged in clinical trials to prevent and reverse Alzheimer’s.  He also introduced Dr. Kat Toups as the practitioner and Principal Researcher for the clinical trials.  Kat specialises in functional medicine psychiatry and in 2009 was awarded the honour of Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), the highest honour bestowed by the APA.  After researching Alzheimer’s for 20 years and working with Dementia patients in her clinic, she found in 2010 that she herself was a Dementia sufferer.  She spent the next three years researching and treating herself to the point where she was able to return to her practice after a period of incapacitation.

Kat was 50 years old at the time of her self-diagnosis of Dementia and she was acutely aware that such early onset Alzheimer’s tends to develop more rapidly than for people who are 65 years or older.  Kat described development of her symptoms as a progressive deterioration of her cognitive abilities:

  • Commencing with her inability to remember two sets of three words that she had used for 20 years in undertaking memory tests with her patients (she had to write them down to access them)
  • She found she was unable to reverse park or parallel park her car because these involved fairly complex cognitive steps
  • Her memory of how to work on her computer declined – she could not  remember how to operate this primary research tool and its particular functions; she found that her husband would get annoyed at her because she could not remember his instructions or that he had actually reminded her of the processes involved
  • Kat found she had difficulty remember phone numbers, and even worse, needed multiple attempts to dial a phone number
  • She found during a conversation at a friend’s place that she lost track of the conversation and was unable to understand what was being said in normal conversation (her cognitive ability had declined to the point where she had developed auditory processing problems)
  • She continued to deteriorate and eventually she suffered extreme fatigue, had difficulty getting out of a chair (for a year) and could not work.

Kat was very conscious of her concurrent problems including an auto-immune disease, Lyme disease, chemical sensitivity, allergy to multiple things resulting in hives and rashes all over her body and brain fog (resulting from exposure to chemicals in stores).  Because of her awareness of the many factors impacting cognitive ability – such as toxins, nutrient deficiency, lack of hormones, lifestyle challenges and stresses, inflammation and infections, and diet – she was motivated to undertake a battery of tests to determine and treat the specific factors impacting her cognitive health.  She indicated that in her clinical trials she does the same thing – isolate personal factors that can then become “treatment targets” for reversing the impact of Dementia (including Alzheimer’s).

Kat was eventually able to return to work and resume her clinical practice with the added benefit, because of her personal experience, of being able to treat her patients faster than she had treated herself.  She explains the thoroughness of her self-testing and treatment in her podcast interview with Kylene Terhune, Functional Diagnostic Nutrition (FDN) practitioner.

In her interview with Kirkland mentioned previously, Kat discussed a case study that demonstrated reversal of Dementia.  She spoke about a patient who had been tested elsewhere at the age of 60 and found to have a delayed memory score of 19, a score that should have been “way over 50”, given his education and obvious intelligence.  When he presented for a Dementia trial with Kat at age 63 (after doing nothing in the intervening period on the basis of the medical advice he had received), his cognitive test result was 7 (a decline of more than 50%).  Kat stated that she and her team were able to reverse this result after the patient spent 9 months in the clinical trial – resulting in a score of 92 at the end of that time.   

Ways to prevent and reverse Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia

Kat provides a free e-book, Decoding Dementia, in which she explains the causes of decline in memory and cognitive ability, discusses different treatment options, proposes diet and lifestyle changes and ways to test for and identify underlying causes of Dementia, including toxins (especially mould), inflammation, lack of hormones, and stress.

Kat provides what she terms a Basic Dementia Protocol which includes:

  • Identifying and correcting any underlying causes likely to contribute to cognitive problems
  • Observing her guidelines on exercise, diet and sleep
  • Brain training e.g. Brain-HQ
  • Correcting vision and hearing through testing and taking remedial action
  • Overcoming deficiencies in nutrients (e.g. Vitamin D)
  • Reducing stress by using mindfulness practices
  • Restoring hormones to the right levels and balance.

Kat is particularly conscious of the need to remove mould from homes and correct sleep apnea:

  • Mould – Kat explains that certain types of mould “can result in inflammation and destruction of the neurons” if left unattended over a reasonable period.  She advocates strongly for mold testing using home kits and external professional assessment.  Kat provides detailed instructions on how to go about dust collection and assessment (pgs. 10-11 of Decoding Dementia).
  • Sleep Apnea – Kat encourages testing and correcting Sleep Apnea where frequent snoring occurs as this condition causes a continuous loss of oxygen to both the brain and the heart.  In her words, if left untreated, “Sleep Apnea can lead to both Dementia and Congenital Heart Disease”.

In her free e-book, Decoding Dementia, Kat offers more details in relation to each of the elements of her Basic Dementia Protocol.  On mindfulness, she states that any mindfulness practice will be beneficial provided it is done on a daily basis and, ideally, for at least 20 minutes.  Kat recommends using a mindfulness practice that suits you personally and your commitments.  She encourages the use of guided meditations such as those provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Centre (MARC), UCLA.  Other options Kat proposes include Tai Chi, Gratitude practices including journalling, Meditation apps such as HeadSpace, and HeartMath Technology (focused on inner balance and stress reduction).

Reflection

We can each think of someone who could make use of the information and options provide by Kat.  The challenge is to apply her experience and research insights to ourself and undertake the testing, lifestyle changes and treatments (where necessary) that she proposes.  I find that guided mediations, mantra meditations and Tai Chi (meditation-in-action) are my favourite mindfulness practices.  Through these practices, I hope to grow in mindfulness so that I can increase my self-awareness, develop and support my brain (through improved attention and concentration) and build better understanding and compassion.  I hope to cultivate and savour my subconscious and gain greater access to my innate creativity.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Note: The Content of this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Achieving Flow through Preparation, Focus and Attention

In an earlier post, I talked about our loss of attention through the “fire hose” of continual information dissemination and the incessant temptation of social media.  I mentioned that one of the costs of this overload and overwhelm is a loss of the capacity to achieve “flow” – a state of total immersion, energizing involvement and continuous enjoyment when undertaking a meaningful endeavour.

On reflection after writing this post, I realised that I achieve flow in two arenas of my life, one resulting in the intermittent experience of flow and the other involving a sustained flow experience – also known as “being-in-the zone”.  The two arenas of my life where I achieve some degree of flow are (1) playing social tennis and (2) researching and writing this blog.

Achieving flow while playing social tennis

What I have found while playing social tennis is that I experience periods of “flow”, sometimes during a set and other times during a point. My “preparation ritual” includes Tai Chi and this enables me, among other things, to focus on my opponent hitting the ball, observing the spin and trajectory of the shot, noticing the location of other players and choosing a return shot that takes into account this focused information.  Invariably, when I make a mistake, it is because I have been distracted by what is going on at other nearby courts (e.g. coaching lessons), resulting in my losing attention. 

My experience of flow while playing social tennis is episodic – with one exception many years ago when I achieved the experience of being-in-the-zone over two complete sets.  This early experience involved a sustained sense of flow with heightened enjoyment as a result of my seemingly, easy competence with all tennis strokes – e.g. serve returns on forehand and backhand, lobs, smashes and serving (including a second serve ace which shocked me and my opponent). 

Normally, however, I experience flow during tennis when I play a particular point during a game.  It can involve a long rally, a well-placed drive or a winning volley.  Sometimes, I play a shot that my opponents/partner marvel at, e.g. a half-volley drop shot or a half-volley backhand lob diagonally across the court when both opponents are at the net.  In these circumstances, my body is reacting instinctively, not consciously, and I am playing a shot that I have neither been taught nor have practised.  This experience is often described as achieving “unconscious competence” – you don’t have to think about shot making, it just comes naturally without any conscious intervention.  I attribute this instinctive response and the episodic experience of flow to my remote preparation (many years of playing and practising tennis) and my proximate preparation ritual which involves Tai Chi.

Achieving flow while researching and writing

I can relate to Johann Hari’s experience of achieving flow when researching and writing.  Johann described this in detail in his latest book,  Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.  I started researching and writing the Grow Mindfulness Blog in July 2016.  I have now written more than 660 blog posts – on my calculation, in excess of 350,000 words.  I started out having difficulty writingmore than 400 words.  Now I find I have to discipline myself to keep each post to around 1,000 words or less (with the exception of top-of-the-head posts like this one).  I find writing my blog posts easy, enjoyable and productive (I can use some of the material in my manager development workshops).  I lose all sense of time and can easily create a blog post non-stop for 2 to 3 hours (I have to discipline myself to take a break after an hour).  This indicates that when writing my blog posts I can achieve flow or be lost “in-the-zone”.

I think two core things have contributed to my ability to achieve flow while researching and writing the blog.  Firstly, I have chosen a focus for the blog – mindfulness – that has become a massive area of development worldwide – in health, business, education, sports and community.  There is now an endless stream of podcasts, research papers, articles, blogs, online conferences/summits, and readily accessible mindfulness practices such as tradition-based meditations and mantra meditations.  My research area, growing mindfulness, is a treasure trove of ideas and practices and endlessly rewarding.  Each “upturned stone” reveals a new area for exploration.

Secondly, besides the limitless resource material available for research and developing my own practice, I have unconsciously instituted what Johann describes as the three pre-conditions for achieving flow – adopting a single focus, pursuing meaning and extending myself (through acquiring and sharing new knowledge and mindfulness practices).  I have to use discipline to maintain my particular focus for a blog post when researching because of the volume of material available ( I draw on a skill I developed when researching and writing my PhD – noting down for later research ideas or resource people that are interesting but not directly related to my focal topic). I also learnt a couple of years ago that, if I wanted to get into flow and stay in flow, I had to avoid reading my email before or during the process of writing (removing another possible source of distraction).  One think that does help my focus during writing is music, either specific Mozart music for concentration or mantra meditations by Lulu & Mischka.

Hugh Van Cuylenburg mentions a further pre-condition for achieving flow – a preparation ritual -which he describes in his book, Let Go.  I have adopted this practice for my writing endeavours (as well as my social tennis).  I often do my research – listening, reading or trying a meditation practice – as part of my preparation ritual.  This gives me a flow of ideas.  I will then “sleep on it” overnight and let my subconscious mind go to work to identify connections and expand on the ideas.  I write my blog post the following morning (I am a “morning person” – mornings are when I am most productive).  In this way, I am able to produce connections to previous posts I have written and/or researched, my past and current experiences, topical information, excerpts from novels I am reading, and conversations I have had.  These connections “just come to me”. 

Reflection

In addition to the proximate preparation rituals I adopt for playing tennis and writing my blog, I also engage in regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi and different forms of meditation (including mantra meditations).  These practices also extend to mindful eating and “mindful waiting”.   In this way, I try to develop what George Mumford describes as a “mindfulness mindset” –  achieved through adopting a variety of mindfulness practices appropriate to particular settings and time available.  These can incorporate “micro-practices”, forming part of a self-care plan.  As we adopt regular mindfulness practices, we can grow in mindfulness and achieve the realisation of flow in various arenas of our life and our different endeavours.  This can enhance our happiness and sense of who we are and contribute to achievement of our life purpose.

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Image by 춘성 강 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Life Review:  How are You Protecting Your Attention?

Previously I discussed the prospect of undertaking a personal life review by chunking up the task and focusing on some aspect of your life, e.g. self-care plan, putting yourself in other’s shoes (role reversal), reviewing your life purpose (what gives meaning to your life) or addressing the questions that arise from near-death experiences or the experiences of the dying.  Here I focus on your capacity to pay attention and ways to protect it as a part of a life review (how you spend your time and energy).

In his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari, warns us that our capacity for paying attention is being stolen from us hourly, every day.  He researched and wrote the book because he found that his attention span and that of others was diminishing rapidly.  He found, for example, that he no longer was engaged in “sustained reading’ of novels, a pastime he loved.  He pointed out that because of the pace of life and our expectations (our own and that of others), we have resorted to multitasking. Research increasingly points out that multitasking, designed for computer processing, is undermining our ability to pay attention and our capacity to focus.

Johann maintains that multitasking continuously serves up distractions (the next task before the current one is completed), causes us to “switch” and lose time restarting, and robs us of the power of immersion which enables us to gain depth of insight through recognition of connections.  I used to tell my doctoral students that they will not be able to contribute new knowledge (a basic doctoral requirement) unless they spend the time to focus and immerse themselves totally in their topic (always setting aside interesting ideas that do not relate directly to their focus).   One consequence of multitasking is that we gain only superficial knowledge, miss important insights and undermine our capacity to reflect-in-action and reflect-on-action.

A digital retreat

Johann adopted a radical solution to restore his capacity to pay attention.  He took a “digital retreat” far away in a reasonably remote place without access to the internet.  He had a phone with no internet access (for emergencies only) and a laptop that served as a word processor only (not having internet access).  He found that the three months he spent in this retreat from digital overload challenged him immensely.  He noted that he continuously sought his phone as his default when he was bored and that he could not write because of his mental disturbance through lack of access to external news and information.  He allowed himself morning newspapers which served to keep him up to date but were well within his capacity to understand and absorb (unlike the usual information overload and overwhelm that normally arrives via the internet and social media that felt like “having your mouth on water from a fire hose”).  He suggested that the speed of information flow that we are bombarded with is effectively “a constant drip-feed of anxiety provoking factoids” (information that is unreliable but treated as if it were fact).

As Johann regained his balance through spending time in nature and enjoying the surrounding waters of his beachside location, he found that he could slowly begin to focus on writing a new book which he had been planning for some time.  His capacity to pay attention returned as well as his creativity.  He found that once again he was “in the flow” –  a state that he commonly achieved earlier on when researching and/or writing.

Undermining our “flow”

Johann suggests that the continuous flow of internet-based information and habitual tendency to access it is “crippling our flow states”.  He draws on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined the phrase “flow”.  People who achieve “flow” or are “in-the-zone” tend to sustain their attention and focus (without distraction), lose track of time and achieve optimal performance in whatever endeavour they are undertaking.  Johann, drawing on the work of Mihaly maintains that to achieve flow, you need to satisfy three conditions – (1) have a single focus/goal, (2) which involves something that is meaningful, and (3) incorporates a  “stretch” element (not too easy but not way beyond your capabilities, in other words, extends your capacities.)

Johann developed a close friendship with Mihaly and, in his “Stolen Focus” book, provides a unique insight into Mihaly’s life and how he developed the concept of “flow”.  This makes interesting reading and reinforces Mihaly’s orientation to “positive psychology” and his rejection of the deterministic approach of B.F. Skinner and his processes of “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” used to train animals, especially pigeons.  Johann, like Mihaly, contends that we have a choice – we can choose “fragmentation” (continue to live a life of distraction, information overload and emotional inflammation) or adopt the practices that lead to a life of “flow”. 

Reflection

When you read Johann Hari’s research and deep reflection in his Stolen Focus book, you become increasingly aware of the denigration of our capacity to pay attention and focus.   His work prompts a number of questions that could be used as a basis for a life review:

  • How are you using mindfulness practices to develop your openness to change?
  • Do you take “pauses” amongst the busyness of life to regain focus and clarity?
  • Are you obsessed with the news?
  • Are you willing to take a “digital detox” to overcome what Hugh Van Cuylenburg describes as “addiction to social media”.

Johann undertook an extended “digital detox” through his digital retreat and his “Stolen Focus” book (with its research of over 250 scientists) provides indisputable evidence of his ability to regain his capacity to pay attention and focus, and achieve flow.

As we adopt different mindfulness practices or undertake a regular practice such as Tai Chi or Yoga we can grow in mindfulness and gain insight into our “inner landscape”, develop our courage and motivation to change and achieve increased powers of attention and focus.  This will bring more frequent incidences of flow in our lives and help us to experience a greater sense of achievement, joy and happiness.  A starting point is to review our life and explore what we are doing to protect (or undermine) our attention and focus.  Daniel Goleman reminds us in this era of chronic distractedness that Focus is the Hidden Driver of Excellence – a conclusion he reached through exploration of the science of attention.

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Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

    

Widening Awareness Through Meditation and Singing Bowls

Diana Winston introduced the use of singing bowls in meditation when she provided a guided meditation podcast with Master Tibetan musicians Michael and Jahna Perricone.  Diana called her celebration with singing bowls Glimpses of Being and provided a way of developing “varying awareness” by moving from a narrow focus to a very wide focus of attention.  She maintained that the singing bowls are conducive to meditation and can take us deeper into the meditative state.

Guided meditation to widen awareness

Diana begins her guided meditation by encouraging us to take deep breaths and employ the out-breath as a form of release from any tension spots in the body.  She suggests that, besides grounding ourselves in our body (through deep breaths and sensing the groundedness of our feet), we consciously focus on our intention for the meditation – thus grounding both body and mind. 

The next step involved mindful breathing – being aware of how our breathing affects our body.  We can focus on where in our body we most experience our breath – through our nose, the undulations of our chest, or the in and out movement of our abdomen.  Once we are grounded in the bodily sensation of breathing, we can then focus on the breath itself and its pattern – slow/fast, deep/shallow, heavy/light – without trying to control it. 

The third stage of the meditation involved tuning into the Tibetan singing bowls and allowing the vibrations to penetrate our body.  With practice we can align our bodily resonance to that of the singing bowls.  Diana forewarns us that music and singing can unearth a wide range of emotions both positive and challenging.  These emotions can range from elation, relief or joy to sadness, grief or anger.  Being with the emotions without being overcome by them is a key to gaining equanimity.  Denial leads to submerging and intensifying emotions while acceptance and openness lead to release and freedom.  Diana maintains that it is important to experience the emotion as it is at the moment.

In the final stages of the guided meditation, Diana uses nature imagery to help us widen our awareness.  She suggests that we look at the sky (or imagine it) and notice its openness and expansiveness.  We can imagine the clouds passing by – sometimes light and fluffy and, at other times, wild and stormy.  Diana encourages us to “rest in awareness” – to take in the expansiveness and unboundedness of the sky and the sounds emitted by the singing bowls and the accompanying Tibetan singing provided by Jahna Perricone.   Diana maintains that despite the turbulence of the surface, beneath the waves lies stillness and silence – an analogy for our capacity to find refuge from troubling events through meditation and to build our resilience.   Tina Turner, through her chanting, demonstrated the power of music and meditation to overcome personal adversity, develop resilience and experience happiness.

Reflection

Michael and Jahna Perricone describe their workshops as “sound baths” where Michael’s playing of the Tibetan bowls is accompanied by Jahna’s singing of Tibetan songs.  I remember experiencing a sound bath when I participated in a singing residential retreat with Chris James.  We had been formed into pods and members of each pod began toning over a volunteer participant lying on the floor, effectively soaking them in directed sound.  The experience is very profound and moving – not only the sense of the loving kindness being extended towards you but also the resonance achieved in your body as the reverberations of the chanting flow over and through you.  This is a special experience and it would be even more enhanced with singing accompanied by the skilful playing of Tibetan music bowls. 

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and tapping into the resonance of music, singing bowls, Tibetan singing or chanting, we can access the stillness and silence within – a source of resilience, insight, courage and happiness.  Once we have discovered our own inner depths and expansiveness, we can revisit it at any time.

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Image by magicbowls from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Guided Meditation to Develop the Awareness Muscle

Allyson Pimentel provided a guided meditation podcast through MARC UCLA titled, Begin Again – a process designed to develop concentration and build the “awareness muscle”.   This meditation builds increased awareness of the present moment because it requires us to pay attention as the meditation unfolds – in particular, noticing when our mind wanders away from our primary focus.  Allyson suggests that we need to be “curious about being curious” – that we approach the challenge of paying attention with openness, a sense of wonder, curiosity and exploration.

Allyson emphasises the point that our minds are designed to think, imagine, envision and dream.  It is natural for us to “wander off”, lose focus and entertain the “blur of the past” or the anticipation of the future.  She suggests that no matter what the level of our experience with meditation is, we can alternate between “wakefulness and sleepiness” – which can be interpreted both literally and metaphorically.  

Allyson reminds us that the meaning of the word “begin” is “to come into being”.  She suggests that we are so focused on “doing” that we lose sight of “being” – of appreciating and valuing our present moment experience.  Her guided meditation encourages wakefulness – being fully aware of the present moment and noticing when our attention wanders.   The process of continually returning to our focus – restoring our attention – builds our awareness muscle.  Developing this skill is particularly critical in the digital age which is becoming characterised by the “loss of attention, consciousness and awareness” through online marketing and the role of social media and social influencers.

One of the key things to be aware of during this meditation is the tendency to judge ourselves for our “failure to concentrate” or “stay in the moment”.  We can become critical of our performance, disappointed and angry with ourselves, and frustrated with our lack of progress.  Our current “performance culture” tends to cultivate this judgmental stance.  Allyson stresses the need for loving kindness towards ourselves to overcome these negative thoughts and assessments.

Guided meditation for developing the awareness muscle

Allyson’s guided meditation (which begins at 9 minutes, 20 seconds) has a number of stages that can be followed in sequence or changed to suit your situation:

  • Posture – after taking and releasing a few deep breaths, the aim is to adopt a posture that is conducive to wakefulness to the present moment.  This may entail closing your eyes (to avoid distraction) and adopting an upright posture (as Allyson suggests, as if a sturdy, straight, “big oak tree is behind your back”).  She maintains that this is a way to achieve an “embodied sense of wakefulness”, so that your body posture reflects what you are seeking to achieve in your meditation.  Noticing your posture throughout the meditation can enhance your wakefulness – and may require you to correct a slouch if that occurs.
  • Focus on sounds – one way to achieve an anchor focused on the present moment is to pay attention to sounds both internal and external to your room.  It is important to let the sounds come and go and not entertain them by trying to work out their source.  For some people, sounds themselves may be distracting and this step could be omitted.
  • Focus on breathing – here it is important to become conscious of your breathing – its strength, speed, evenness and regularity – without trying to control it.  As you drop into your breath, you can experience calmness, expansiveness and energy as you open to the life that is within you. 
  • Notice the “tone of your mind” – throughout the meditation you are encouraged to notice what is happening in your mind.  You might find yourself engaged in self-criticism for wandering off – a state that can be overcome by loving kindness and patience.  It also pays to remind yourself that having to “begin again” to re-focus, is progressively building your awareness muscle – which will enrich your life in all its spheres. No matter how many times you have to start over, you are building towards awareness and its inherent richness.

Reflection

This meditation can be challenging, especially in our early stages of adopting meditation practice or if we are feeling agitated about something that is happening to us or others who are close to us (or to others who we know are experiencing terror elsewhere).  The real benefits of this meditation can readily flow over into our daily life and help us to achieve calmness and equanimity in the face of life’s challenges.

 As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and beginning again when our minds wander, we can begin to discern patterns in our wandering – e.g., planning our day, preparing a shopping list, indulging resentment or stressing about possible, future challenges.  This increased self-awareness can help us to develop specific strategies to strengthen our capacity to concentrate and focus our energy.

Allyson suggests that we take to heart Carl Jung’s comment:

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.

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Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

The Challenge of Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teacher and creator of MBSR, recently presented a workshop during the Mindfulness & Compassion Week (June 6- 13, 2021).  Jon’s focus was on mindfulness in the digital age. He addressed both the downside and upside of digitisation and noted particularly the benefits accrued through online communication during pandemic-related lockdowns.  In this post, I want to focus on the downside of the digital age – the challenge it poses to our ability to pay attention on purpose , non-judgmentally, in the present moment.

Jon was especially concerned about the manipulation of our minds and attention through social media and other online communication channels.  He drew on the work of the Centre for Humane Technology to explore both the human costs of the digital age.  He strongly encouraged exploration of this website and its podcasts along with the film, The Social Dilemma, which he suggested should be viewed multiple times. 

The downside of the digital age – the loss of attention, consciousness, and awareness

Jon maintained that in the digital world it has become hard to discriminate between what is true and what is false, between what is fact and what is myth.  He argued that we have “lost agency” and levels of decision making through social media and related digital technologies and the embedded “surveillance capitalism”.  The language we encounter is manipulative and “propels us out of the moment” – we lose our grounding in the present moment.  We are told that a video is “a must watch”, we are warned that we will “miss out” if we do not take a particular action and we are enticed to act to gain “rewards”, some of which are spurious.  Jon points out that the incessant barrage of information/misinformation and constant attempt to capture our attention leads to dysregulation in our life, adversely affecting our breathing, eating and sleep.

He argued that the greatest need for humanity today is to address the “loss of awareness” – the lack of consciousness that we are losing control over our minds, destroying our environment, and wrecking the lives of people through perpetual, disruptive advertising that attempts to capture our attention and steel our focus.  He encouraged us to increase our awareness of the impacts of the digital age so that we can live our life more fully in the present moment and not be caught up in the mainstream culture of acquisition (vs savouring), of form (vs substance), of envy (vs gratitude), and of self-absorption (vs compassion).

Our diverted attention

The Centre for Humane Technology works tirelessly to help us to develop the awareness of the downside of the digital age, especially through their insightful podcast series, Your Undivided Attention.  One example of this powerful message is the podcast, When Attention Went on Sale, which features an interview with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads.

Tim maintained that the “commodification of our attention” actually began with the introduction of ad-supported newspapers.  The readers became the product, the focus shifted from a dissemination of the “truth model” to that of the “attention model” and we became the “puppets” of attention-grabbing advertising and media.  The content focus shifted to what shocks (death and violence), what titillates (sexualisation) and what raises curiosity (misleading headings).  The media exploited emotions of fear, scepticism, greed, and envy.   Early on, advertising posters with the work of famous artists were deployed throughout Paris as a means to invade people’s attention.  They were eventually removed when Parisians complained that they invaded their attention and were a blight on the landscape.

Commercial interests now drive the competition for our attention and television offers “precise marketing” through creating an “emotional resonance” with the viewer, heightened by the visual medium.  Human attention is being harvested in the pursuit of “economic and attention power” – attention gained by TV stations leads to higher ratings which leads to more advertising and revenue.  Wu describes this process as the “harvesting of human consciousness” in an environment that is scarily unrestrained and unregulated.  We can observe the resultant imbalance in information dissemination when we notice that a TV Program designed to provide an “alternative perspective” on the news of the day devotes more time to advertisements (reinforcing mainstream culture) than to alternative commentary during a one-hour program.  Viewers of ad-driven TV stations often engage in “channel surfing” to evade ads but this leads to what Jon calls “fragmented attention”.

Our attention is up for sale through Google ads where buyers of ad exposure in search results actually bid for the right to appear higher in the listed results.  While quality (relevance, originality, and depth of content) is an espoused determinant of ranking, price plays a major role and advertisers are encouraged to “outbid” each other for our attention. 

Social media has had a significant impact on attention distraction and distortion.  This has accelerated with the emergence of “selfies” (obsession with self over being present to the moment and location), the commodification of bodies (via private membership of TikTok for example), and “follower ads” on LinkedIn and other online advertising media.  The concept of “friends” (as per Facebook) has moved from “a bond of mutual affection” to that of a relatively disinterested follower and “friends” are purchased via online marketing organisations to boost one’s social presence. Positive product reviews by friends are harvested to build Google rankings – companies even pursue us relentlessly to gain our “review” (even when they have misled us about a product offering).

The game is all about grabbing “eyes on the page” (and Google, for example, measures pages visited, time spent on a page, and percentage of people who view only the “landing page” as they “surf”).  There is now software available to track your eyes as they view a webpage (with eye movement displayed via a heatmap).  We are becoming conditioned to providing those “eyes on the page” – “pop-ups” encourage us to register for continuous information/ad exposure and whenever we have to spend time waiting, our default action is to reach, unthinkingly, for our mobile phone.

The concept of “social influencers” has emerged to identify influential people who have the power to affect our buying decisions and who work in collaboration with brands who use their influence to persuade us to make purchases.  The source of the influencer’s power (e.g., celebrity status, expertise, sexual appeal) and the relative extent of their power (how many followers) is variable.  In consequence, influencers are viewed by brands as “social relationship assets” of variable worth.

Mobile phones are increasingly part of everyday life for people enabling constant access to the Internet, social media and to disruptive “notifications”.   Some people become obsessed with “keeping up-to-date” via social media and constantly access their phones (even sleep with them).  Others feast on the news with all its inherent biases, selective reporting and tailored reinforcement of the receiver’s views, perspectives, and politics. 

Supermarkets employ email-based rewards systems built around receipt scanning and identification of individuals’ typical shopping  basket.  They also attempt to widen purchasing choices by introducing bonus-boosted products not normally purchased by an individual.   Buyers can be “led” to purchase products they do not need or want.  The rewards system works on the principle of intermittent reinforcement employed by gambling machines where ongoing “jackpots” are given to entice the gambler to continue spending.

In summary, in a digital world there are so many mechanisms at play to capture our attention and multiple drivers such as profit, profile enhancement and social influence to sustain these constant, concerted efforts to distract us and divert our attention. This makes it increasingly difficult to be mindful in our everyday life unless we take conscious steps to develop mindfulness to counteract the adverse impact of these online media.

Reflection

Jon also discussed the many benefits of the digital age and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.  Whether we accrue these benefits or suffer the adverse effects of the digital age, comes down to our own choices and behaviour.

Jon emphasised the need to be very aware of the impact of digitisation on our behaviour.  He suggested, for instance, that we should be particularly mindful of our mobile phone use and its potential adverse effects on our quality of life and our relationships.

Jon maintained that the discipline of daily mindfulness meditation can flow over into every aspect of our lives including our use of digital media.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop increased self-awareness,  improved self-regulation, and enhanced insight into the adverse impacts of our own behaviour with respect to digital media.

Self-reflection on our use of digital media and its impacts on our relationships, on our level of personal stress and on our ability to concentrate and be productive, can provide the impetus for behaviour change.  The following reflective questions could serve as a starting point:

  • To what extent is your focus on social media reducing your span of attention?
  • How often is access to your mobile phone your default behaviour when you have to spend time waiting?
  • How often are you distracted by social media when in conversation with an individual or a group?
  • To what extent does social media determine the content of your conversations, e.g., how often do you share rumours, myths, scandals, and what “celebrities” are doing?
  • How much do you rely on social influencers for your purchase decisions?
  • To what extent does the time you spend on social media limit your time spent in nature, experiencing its numerous benefits?
  • Does your social media presence contribute to the quality of life of other people?

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.

Valuing the Present Moment

Allyson Pimentel provides a meditation podcast on the topic, The Beauty of the Present Moment.   People from around the world participated in the live, online event which was conducted and recorded via Zoom.  During the podcast, Allyson stated that mindfulness involves “paying attention with intention” to the present moment in a way that involves openness, curiosity and acceptance of what is, whether pleasure or pain, happiness or sadness, understanding or confusion.  She suggested that as we develop the capacity to attend to each moment with heightened awareness, we can develop a deeper appreciation of beauty, compassion (towards ourselves and others) and a “love for the moment”.   If we are always consumed by thoughts of the past or the future, we will miss the richness and power of now.  As Alan Watts comments, “Life exists at this moment”.

Awareness of beauty

Allyson introduces a brief process to raise our awareness of the beauty that surrounds us in the present moment.  She asks that we pay attention to something we consider beautiful, however momentarily.  If we are inside a dwelling, we could look at a pleasing painting, observe the clear sky through our window, listen to the early morning songs of birds or touch something that is smooth or rough as we appreciate its texture. 

If we are outside, we could listen to the wind rustling in the trees, smell the aroma from freshly opening flowers, feel the softness of the grass beneath our feet or admire the shape and stature of the trees in the mist.  Beauty as they say is in the “eye [and other senses] of the beholder”.

Allyson reminds us that beauty is around us all the time and by tapping into the present moment, we can learn to be aware of beauty and to increase our capacity to cope with life challenges, whether they be illness, grief, loss, confusion, or the slow decline of a parent through Alzheimer’s Disease who is becoming disconnected from the present..

A present moment meditation using body scan

One way into appreciating the present moment in all its import is to undertake a body scan meditation.  Allyson provides a guided meditation in her podcast as a way to do this.  She begins by having us take a deep breath and exhale deeply to clear any bodily tensions and to bring us more fully into the present moment.

She then provides a progressive body scan beginning with your feet and moving through all parts of your body, noting any points of tension.  As we become grounded in bodily sensations, we become more attuned to our thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously.  Allyson encourages us to accept whatever is our human condition at this point in time and to show ourselves compassion.  From this base of self-compassion, we can extend empathy to others and offer them loving-kindness.  Attunement to, and acceptance of, our current reality strengthens our connection to the world and to others.

Allyson Pimentel holds up Tina Turner as a model of present moment awareness, acceptance of her condition and the capacity to take compassionate action towards others.  In her documentary, for example, Tina reveals that in a period of five years she experienced cancer, a stroke and kidney failure.  Despite having daily dialysis for four hours, she was not depressed but appreciative of the fact that she had more time to live.   Tina encapsulated her philosophy on life in her book, Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good.

In Allyson’s view, Tina epitomises what Rumi describes as The Guest House – “being human is a guest house” for pain, meanness, joy, happiness, sorrow, and every other manifestation of the human condition.  Rumi encourages us to appreciate whatever comes our way because each experience is a “guide”.

Reflection

The challenge of the present moment is also its power.  If we can truly be with what is and accept what we cannot change, we can develop an appreciation of being alive, strength and resilience to meet life’s challenges and a deep-seated sense of ease and equanimity.  As we grow in mindfulness though meditation and awareness of the present moment, we can tap into the power of now and the richness of a life fully lived.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Building the Capacity to be in the Present Moment

Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA, offers a guided meditation podcast on the topic, Back to the Basics.  This is one of the hundreds of free weekly meditation podcasts offered by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

In the guided meditation, Diana reminds us that the fundamental purpose of meditations is to build our “capacity to be in the present moment” – in a way that is open, curious, and accepting of what is.  There are numerous forms of meditation available today but they basically aim to develop this capacity so that in the daily challenges of life, such as conflict with a spouse, colleague, or a friend, we can draw on the calmness, equanimity and wise action that is available to us through mindfulness practice.  People can choose a form of meditation that suits their interest, lifestyle, and physical capacity, e.g., transcendental meditation, movement meditations such as Tai Chi or yoga, or singing meditations such as the various forms of mantra meditation.

Diana points out that the increasing volume of research conducted by MARC and other centres around the world confirm the capacity of meditation to improve our stress response, physical health and immune system; reduce chronic pain; and overcome anxiety and depression, especially through mindfulness programs such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).  The research also confirms that meditation can help children, even those with ADHD, to improve their capacity to pay attention.  These findings have led to the explosion of mindfulness practices in schools around the world, such as the MindUP Program developed by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in America.

A guided meditation – returning to the basics

In her guided meditation, Diana revisited the basic components of a meditation practice:

  • Comfortable position – this can be sitting, lying down (on the floor, grass, or beach), standing up or some form of mindful movement (e.g., mindful walking or Tai Chi).  The aim is to achieve a position that is free from bodily stress, so that discomfort does not become a distraction in itself.
  • Controlling visual stimulation – in a still meditation, people close their eyes or look downwards to avoid visual distractions.  In a movement meditation the person’s gaze is typically unfocused but the internal focus is on body position and movement.  In a mantra meditation, the internal focus is on the sounds and meaning of the sung mantras – visual stimulation may assist both aspects such as in evidence in the stillness in motion mantra sung by Lulu & Mischka.  Natural awareness allows visual stimulation because you are opening yourself to what is around you (and doing so without a specific goal in mind).
  • Choosing an anchor – in a still meditation, the anchor can be breath, sound, or bodily sensations (e.g., tingling in the feet or hands).  In a movement meditation, the body and motion become the anchor. The aim of the anchor, whether in a still or movement meditation, is to have a specific focus to return to when distractions take us away from the purpose of our meditation (distractions such as planning, worrying, or analysing).
  • Silence – this is a common component of many forms of meditation (apart from those that involve singing, chanting, music or speaking which seek to achieve an inner silence).  Diana typically incorporates a period of stillness and silence in her guided meditations. 

Whatever the form of meditation, the primary purpose is to be-in-the-present-movement.  Diana suggests, for example, that if a really strong emotion or physical sensation intrudes, that your focus could temporarily shift to that emotion or sensation before returning to your anchor.  Normally emotions and bodily sensations exist in the background, rather than the foreground of your meditation (unless you are consciously addressing a challenging emotion such as resentment or anger).

Reflection

There are many paths to the same end – being fully in the present moment.  What is important is being able to transfer the state of mindfulness to our everyday life – what Sam Himelstein calls mindfulness-in-action.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can capture the power of the present moment, maintain calmness in challenging moments and choose wise actions to address our situation.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness, Attention and Learning

Research has consistently shown that mindfulness can build our attention and concentration.   Mindfulness, by definition, involves paying attention in a purposeful way “with openness and curiosity”.  Mindfulness helps us to reclaim our attention and strengthen our concentration.  Attention is one of the four pillars of learning, according to leading neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene.   In his book, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain, he identifies the four pillars as follows:

  1. Attention – adds amplification to the information that we choose to focus on; it brings into clearer focus the detail and implications of what we are hearing and seeing.
  2. Active engagement – through curiosity, constantly testing our internal hypotheses and models of the external world; contrasted with passive learning where we only take in what others teach us.
  3. Error feedback – helps us to correct our hypotheses/models through comparison with reality; what happens when acting in the real world serves to provide feedback – confirmation or the need for correction/change.
  4. Consolidation – moves us to a state of “unconscious competence”; where we act automatically, but appropriately, in response to external stimuli.  Making explicit our own learning and restful sleep assist this process of consolidation.

Attention’s role in learning

Stanislas highlights the fact that today we encounter multiple sources of distraction, including that of digital noise, which negatively impacts our attention and capacity to learn.  Developing our attention, according to his research and that of other researchers, has three core benefits in terms of the learning process:

  1. Alerting – changes our level of vigilance by signalling when we need to pay attention.
  2. Orientating – indicates what we need to pay attention to and, in the process, highlights the detail of what we are interested in.
  3. Executive attention – the contribution here is on the how, the way in which to respond to the stimulus/task/challenge.

The growth of the executive function, tied to self-regulation, is itself a lifetime learning process.  This function involves engaging the pre-frontal cortex of the brain  – making decisions based on analysis and timely adaption rather than habituated and inappropriate responses.  Stanislas demonstrates through sharing the results of different experiments how the pre-frontal cortex and this executive function develops from the age of 12 months and reaches a mature level around 20 years of age.  These studies are fascinating in that they highlight how the brain attempts to process information that is seemingly contradictory and/or challenging to our habituated responses learned through prior experiences and information processing.  He contends that the development of our pre-frontal cortex as we mature in age spontaneously results in the “development of attention and executive control”.

Stanislas cautions that we can still make mistakes and take inappropriate action through our selective perception as adults.  Perception of threat (real or imagined), for example, can lead to the dominance of our amygdala and disengagement of our pre-frontal cortex, leading to a fight, flight or freeze response – resulting sometimes in an inappropriate action rather than “wise action” that can be developed through mindfulness.   

However, Stanislas also emphasises that even in adulthood our brains are capable of plasticity – changing physical shape (including reducing the size of the amygdala and increasing the size of the pre-frontal cortex) and, in the process, strengthening executive control.  Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, highlights the research that demonstrates how mindfulness increases this neuroplasticity.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can enhance our attention and concentration – key components of learning identified by Stanislas.  Concurrently, we can develop our self-awareness and self-regulation, learn to overcome habituated responses, and choose wise actions.  Mindfulness improves our information processing by helping us to reclaim our attention in the face of endless distractions, including digital noise and overload.  The openness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness enriches our capacity to grow and learn. 

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Enhancing Receptivity through Mindfulness

Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell maintain from their research that mindfulness enhances our receptivity thus enabling us to reclaim our attention and sense of agency – our sense of the ability to positively influence our relationships and our external environment.  According to their research, mindfulness increases our receptivity in a number of ways – widening the “bandwidth of perception”, overcoming unhelpful habituated responses, reducing our distorted perceptions,  improving our relationships, and developing our “don’t know mind”. 

Widening the bandwidth of perception

Mindfulness increases our capacity to take in information through its emphasis on acceptance of “what is”, consciously noticing bodily sensations and heightened development of our senses.  Acceptance is a precondition for action, not inaction – if we cannot accept what is happening to us (e.g. through internal dialogue such as “Why me?”, “What have I done to deserve this?” or “This can’t be happening to me”), then we cannot move forward and take constructive action to redress our situation. 

Mindfulness meditation often focuses on our bodily sensations – we are encouraged to notice what is happening in us bodily when we experience difficult emotions.  By noticing our bodily sensations, we are better able to name our emotions and tame them. Our bodies are windows to our feelings – by paying attention to them we widen the bandwidth of our perception and gain better access to our inner landscape.

Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, Coming to Our Senses, shows us how to access all our senses – e.g., our seeing,  touchscape, soundscape, smellscape, tastescape – to enable us to heal ourselves and act positively on our world.  Being open to our senses enhances the depth and width of our perception and increases our sense of connection with nature – developing a sense of empowerment and resulting in healing ourselves.

Overcoming unhelpful habituated responses

As we come to understand our inner landscape through mindfulness, we gain insight into our negative triggers and their origins. This leads to awareness of our reactivity and habituated responses.  Often, we are triggered by our distorted perceptions that arise because of our bias, projections, prejudice, and unfounded assumptions.  As we unearth these distortions in perception through mindfulness meditation, we are better able to understand their influence over us and what we perceive, and to exercise control over our reactions.

Improving our relationships

Through mindfulness, we not only reduce our perceptual distortions but also emotional baggage that can destroy relationships.  We are able to bring to the relationship increased self-awareness and self-regulation.  For example, by reflecting on any resentment we carry towards another person, we can come to see their side of the story, understand where they are coming from and reduce our self-absorption and hurt – thus healing our relationship.  Through mindfulness we can also bring to the relationship an increased consciousness of our inner landscape, a sense of personal empowerment (not disabling dependence) and a growing capacity to feel and express empathy.  We are better able to engage in active listening because we can be present in the moment of the conversation, attentive to non-verbal cues and less defensive and self-protective.  Mantra meditations, as one form of mindfulness, can increase our capacity for deep listening.

Developing our “don’t know mind”

Jamie and Rosie write about the “beginner’s mind” developed through openness and curiosity  – which are hallmarks of mindfulness according to the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).  In discussing the lessons from death and dying, Frank Ostaseski encourages us to develop what he calls, the “don’t know mind” which has the same characteristics of openness and curiosity and he suggests that these characteristics can be developed through mindfulness meditation.  The result is that we are able to enter conversations with others not trying to be “interesting” but demonstrating being “interested in” the other person – a stance that enhances trust and relationships.  Mindfulness enables us to listen for understanding rather than attempting to always persuade others to our point of view – in the process, developing our influence and strengthening our relationships.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can strengthen our sense of agency by developing our receptivity – to information and to others.  We can gain better awareness of our distorted perceptions and their impacts, develop greater self-control over our reactions to negative triggers, improve our relationships and grow our influence through our curiosity and openness.  Our enhanced perceptual bandwidth developed through paying attention to our senses gives us uncluttered access to our inner landscape and the healing power and sense of empowerment of our natural landscape.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.