Archive for the ‘insight’ Tag

Mind’s Hidden Potential

What makes for a genius? This question has motivated the work of countless scientists and philosophers throughout history. When reading the fascinating biographies of individuals with seemingly unparalleled talent, many of us cannot help but wonder how our lives might have been different had we received their gift? Historically, the term ‘genius’ has been attributed primarily to those who have made a significant contribution to the sciences or the arts that appears to originate in intellectual abilities remarkably different from those of the average individual. An ingenious mind is not achievable but given. This typical understanding of ‘genius’ is too restrictive, however, as it excludes many people with extraordinary mental ability.

Daniel Kish is one such genius. Despite being completely blind since childhood, he lives a relatively normal life mountain biking and camping alongside sighted people. Daniel is fortunate to have developed a skill many believe impossible—Human Echolocation. Much like bats and dolphins, human echolocators are able to use the sounds reflected from objects in their environment to navigate in real time. He has no memories of seeing with his eyes, but has always “seen” through his ears. Daniel believes he acquired this skill because his parents often left him to fend for himself, forcing him to use the tools he had in order to survive.

Though Daniel’s skill and insight are remarkable, they are not beyond reach. Daniel actually teaches other blind people to echolocate. With a little determination, over 500 blind children now successfully echolocate thanks to a teaching organization that Daniel runs. A developmental psychologist, Daniel has constructed a curriculum that focuses on differentiating objects from one another and their background. His method works so well that it can even be used to teach sighted people the skill of echolocation.

Other cases show that genius can come with practice. Take for example Mark Nissen, who is ranked internationally for reciting Pi past its 22,000th decimal point. Nissen developed his own way of helping him recite long numbers from memory. According to Nissen, the complex tactics he uses are quite common throughout the community of those who take part in memory competitions. Still, these tasks are so difficult that developing the appropriate skills require serious dedication.

In other cases of extraordinary mental talent, the acumen is acquired through accidental events later in life. After a brutal attack that left Jason Padgett with a severe concussion, he awoke to see the world very differently than before. He noticed that the character of his perceptual experience had changed significantly. Instead of fluid motion, movement appeared as a series of frozen pictures almost like a flipbook cartoon. If the moving object were curved, spiraling or non-solid, complex geometrical patterns would appear around them. When he viewed curved objects statically, he saw coarse tangent and secant line boundaries instead of smooth curvature.

Though he had no prior training in mathematics, Jason became obsessed with drawing remarkable geometrical images using only a pencil and straightedge. This sort of brilliance originating in brain abnormalities is also known as ‘Savant Syndrome.’ After struggling with his obsession, Jason enrolled in mathematics classes at a local community college. He found himself catching onto the meaning of formulas via associated visual imagery similar to what he had been seeing in the concrete world. One drawing, which he calls “hf = mc2," looked much like a picture of electron interference patterns that researchers came across several years later. It turned out that Jason had acquired a unique type of Synesthesia, a condition in which people involuntarily experience or visualize things as having unusual sensory features. For example, Color-Grapheme Synesthetes can’t help but see numbers or letters as colored. Jason since then has shared much of his amazing geometric artwork with people around the world.

Derek Amato is another intriguing case of acquired Savant Syndrome. After striking the bottom of a pool he experienced the sudden urge to play the piano despite no more than very minimal experimentation with the guitar years earlier. He arrived at his friend’s house the next day and immediately went upstairs to the music room, where he sat down and played the piano. His fingers just “knew where to go.” After five hours of playing beautifully, his friends were moved to tears. “We didn’t know if God was in the room. We didn’t know what to think,” he tells us.

Like Jason, Derek also acquired Synesthesia, but instead of seeing mathematics, Derek sees little black and white squares that correspond to keys on the piano. If he follows the squares with his hands, he plays as though he has been a musician his whole life and this talent is more than a mere gratuitous change to Derek’s life, it is his life. Derek has no control over the composition process. It is literally happening all the time and that can be Anxiety-Provoking for Derek. If he spends an extended period of time away from the piano, he becomes extremely stressed out. He must play out what his mind is composing to stay sane. Derek copes with this Obsession by regularly performing at music venues all over the country.

These cases show us that genius needn’t be a "gift" received at birth. In cases like those of Daniel and Mark, a fantastic skill can emerge as a response to a particularly difficult task or after hard practice and dedication. Cases like those of Jason and Derek exemplify more traditional marks of genius insofar as their conscious intentions have little influence on their abilities. But such cases deviate from more traditional cases in involving ordinary people who acquire an Extraordinary Mind in quite accidental ways. The traditional story paints a picture in which genius is something only to be inherited. As researchers look at a broader range of cases, as researchers have been doing in the research in the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab, scientists learn that fantastic abilities may lie dormant in all of us, waiting to be exposed.

Go Beyond Comfort Zone



Comfort Zone

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Determination is pursuing a goal with energy and focus. It keeps us firmly centered on a chosen purpose. It is the tool we use to keep defeat from becoming permanent. Sometimes we find ourselves distracted from our central goal by other desires. We get overwhelmed by obstacles, isolation, pain or fatigue. At these times, determination pushes onward and gives us the energy to triumph. By keeping us on a path, determination helps us to make our dreams into realities and to live by our highest values.

Persistence means continuing to work toward a goal even when it takes a long time or things get tough. Without persistence, obstacles stop us; with persistence we learn from our failures – we work with them and use them as stepping stones instead of barriers. Persistence allows us to succeed where otherwise we might fail, because much of what matters in life requires sustained efforts and repeated attempts. The greater the accomplishment we seek, the more likely this is to be true.

Focus is the ability to devote our full attention and concentration to a person or process. Focus lends clarity and direction to our day to day activities. It lets us maximize our progress and productivity by directing our energies toward one priority at a time. By honing our focus we can reach new levels of insight, knowledge and quality.

Aspiration is a hunger to fulfill our dreams and visions. When we aspire to a goal, any goal, that aspiration guides our decisions and directs our energy. Quite often it also rallies others to the same goal, and then becomes the focus of shared efforts and satisfactions. One of the wonders of being human is our ability to conjure from our imaginations a better self or a better world and to set off on a path, however crooked or obscure, from here to there. Some of our dreams are small and personal; others encompass the whole of humanity. Each gives us a sense of purpose, an answer to the question, "Why?" When we give our undivided focus to another person, they feel valued by us. We can connect with them in more meaningful ways, increasing the potential for understanding and empathy.

Persistence in the service of a higher goal calls out many other virtues in us, because in order to persist we have to push ourselves beyond what is comfortable.

Struggling With Never-Ending Emptiness

Shunyata, usually translated as "emptiness," is a Buddhist term that people often struggle with. I was fascinated to discover that it has always been difficult for people to understand, and that it was intended to be that way from the beginning. The basic formula that all dharmas are marked by emptiness points right at existence, at experience, and past it at the same time, a brilliant feat. The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines is a Mahayana Sutra; an ultimate text on this teaching, along with the Diamond and Heart Sutras. Stories about how and why an insight occurred are particularly useful in opening doors for others, and I hope they may be useful here. This post does not have catchy title. I have come up with my own descriptive titles for it, and I hope the readers will forgive me for that.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to better understand depression, its causes, and how it can best be alleviated. It’s not that I’m depressed–in fact I’m happy to report that I’m rarely blue since I started a regular meditation practice some years ago. But due to current circumstances I’m in a position where it makes sense to take a deeper look at this incredibly powerful mind state because it has an incredibly strong hold over several important people in my life. While goggling “Recurrent Major Depression;” a diagnosis that a close friend of mine recently received, I stumbled upon the DSM IV criteria for this condition as well as another that often goes along with it “Borderline Personality Disorder.”

One of the symptoms listed under the “Cognitive” category caught my eye immediately “Chronic Emptiness.” It’s fitting that a word like “emptiness” is devoid of any one inherent meaning. Of course the emptiness being described in the DSM IV is the “I feel like nothing matters…life has no meaning…I don’t want to do anything…everything is too hard…” sort of emptiness. Then there’s the Buddhist version of emptiness, which isn’t quite as easy and straightforward to define. Emptiness as described in Buddhism is often mistaken for nihilism which couldn’t be further from the truth. Usually, it’s best to refer to it in its original Sanskrit form “Sunyata” but for the purposes of this article I’m going to use the standard “emptiness.”

From a Buddhist perspective, having an experiential and intellectual understanding of emptiness is answer to relieving our constant dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the distorted way we go about experiencing ourselves, other people, and the world around us. I wish psychiatrists and psychologists would start to promote chronic emptiness as a remedy for emotional distress rather than just a symptom, and we could all benefit from cultivating a borderline personality instead of our customary solid one.

If we all truly experienced chronic emptiness we wouldn’t feel the need to crap all over our daily experience with the habitual narrowness that results from our fixed thinking. There would be no solid “I” that would have to be at odds with “you” and “them” and “the world outside” of Myself. By experiencing chronic emptiness, we could gain more insight into the nature of our minds and realize that all of our emotional states are temporary and fluid and based on a constantly evolving set of circumstances and conditions. By stressing the inherent interconnectedness of all things we can gain an insight into our emotional maladies and eventually have more openness and space in which they can run there course without having to take us over and paralyze us with fear and anxiety.

There are some severe forms of depression that absolutely need medication in order to be dealt with appropriately: meditation and understanding emptiness aren’t one-size-fits all answer to every issue in every instance. But we can meditate on emptiness and eventually realize how amazingly liberating it is once we get a glimpse of what it truly means.

True Nature Of Reality

Nature of Reality

I have forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste. Don’t think you understand It. On the other hand, don’t think you don’t understand It. It? What is It, a pronoun capitalized this way? What is It, pronounced with the kind of emphasis that communicates great significance? Alternatively, it is called the Great Matter, Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness. These are ways we refer to different aspects of It. When I write these words, what do you think to yourself? You probably think to yourself either that you don’t understand these things, “Wow, I wish I understood those things, maybe I will someday.” Or, perhaps, “I will probably never understand,” or when you hear these words you have a sense that you do understand these things, at least to some degree; the words conjure up for you a memory of an experience, a mind-state, an insight, or you think of images or sensations that you find comforting or inspiring. It is difficult to say which of these – a sense that we don’t understand, or a sense that we do understand – is more detrimental to spiritual practice.

Buddhist understanding – prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom – is completely different from ordinary understanding. It is so different that even though it is here under our noses all the time, we miss It. Even though this Understanding is free and available, we revere Shakyamuni Buddha as a once-in-a-universe amazing person because he came to It without even having a teacher who pointed it out to him. This is the central teaching of Buddhism – that there is a kind of wisdom, a kind of insight, “which removes all suffering, and is true, not false.” The Buddha studied suffering – old age, disease, death, loss, dissatisfactions – and asked whether there was any way out of it. He was not the first to ask this question by any means. Almost every religion and social movement has tried to offer people a remedy, a way out, at least a mitigation of this human experience of suffering.

What the Buddha realized was, in a sense, its all how you relate to it. It’s all how you see it and understand your place in it. However, this is not about adopting some arbitrary positive outlook! Well, you could look at things that way and suffer, but if you adopt this philosophy or view things don’t look so bad…This is about seeing the true nature of reality. What is it that we see? A textbook answer would be something like, “we see that we, and all beings and things, are empty of inherent, enduring self-nature.” But this description is so inadequate to convey what we end up understanding. We could also say “we see that things-just-as-they-are, without the filter of our self-concern, are precious.” Or we could say “we see that there is only this moment, and this moment is free from suffering.”

Intellectual understanding of these descriptions or faithful belief in these descriptions, do not convey the release from suffering that the Buddha found. They must be personally and directly experienced for that to occur and once they are personally and directly experienced we are forever changed, but no experience in the past conveys lasting release from suffering either. Perhaps when you hear It – the Great Matter, Prajna Paramita (Transcendental Wisdom), Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness – you recall the spacious, unself-conscious feeling you experience in the wilderness. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of the “zone” you get into while doing a body practice or artistic activity. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how vast space is, or how we are made up mostly of space, between our tiny atomic particles. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how everything changes, so you can’t really draw a boundary around who you are. That’s not It. Perhaps you think of how it is impossible to trace all the causes and conditions and beings that brought you the meal you eat, and how dependent you are on all these different aspects of the universe. That’s not It.

Now, it would be good for all of us, myself included, if I left you with that message and shut up. But in the West, especially in Soto Zen, they explain things. It is the gentle way. It is so easy to be satisfied with just an intellectual understanding. It is so easy to fool ourselves that ours is not just an intellectual understanding – after all, if it is associated with emotions, it’s not just intellectual, right? It is so easy to allow what was once a real experience to devolve into a mere memory, a mere view. Most of us walk around with a largely intellectual understanding of It. As Dogen would say, we are “playing in the entrance way.” This is why Zen Masters through the ages have pulled out all the stops and done all kinds of strange things to try and wake their students up from their dreams. They yanked their students’ noses, offered riddles, put slippers on their heads. What is that about? Some kind of ridiculous code? A contest to see who was least inhibited? No. It says Right Here, Right Now, Do You See? In a sense it doesn’t matter what is said or done to express it; if both people can experience It, the arrows have met in mid-air. This is extremely important. There is no god in Buddhism that is going to condemn us or even be disappointed in us because we just play in the entrance way. But what a shame.

But thinking you do not understand is just as bad. When I think like that, I am here, and understanding is over there – in that [other person’s] head, or in the past, or in the future. This can be one of the most painful beliefs. It can also be one of the biggest obstacles. We are intimate with It every moment of every day. It is never anywhere else. We experience the perfection of wisdom when we stop looking anywhere else. When the Zen Master comes and challenges us, we answer her in kind. Perhaps we say, “Yes! Buddha caught the pillow!” Perhaps we throw the pillow back. Perhaps we laugh. But the challenge does not send us off in our minds to abstractions or memories, concepts, images, metaphors or teachings. We know the Buddha is nowhere else, and have dropped the self-concern that wonders how “I” relate to Buddha.

Being at home with oneself like that is an immense relief from suffering. We must struggle to understand, unfortunately there are no shortcuts. But what we do in that struggle is exhaust all of our dreams until finally there is no place left to go. Then we see It is something we have understood all along. We just didn’t know what kind of understanding to look for. And a final note – having answered the Zen master’s challenge one day does not mean we will be able to do so the next. This is not an understanding that is of any use to us in the past.

Accept What You Are With Yearning To Be Better

Everyone can be more like their ideal self through conscious effort.  How many times have you heard, uttered, or thought the words ‘That's Just How I Am?”  At times, when one is confronted because of behavior another finds off-putting, he or she might reply or think, “It’s just how I am.” We can get focused on becoming more conscious.  The reason we are how we are is explained by numerous, often conflicting, theories.  There are well over twenty major theories of personality development.  Whether you are who you are because of genetics, your caregivers attitude toward potty training, the fashion in which you internalized objects, drives toward self preservation and/or self-actualization, simply because certain behaviors have been reinforced or not over the course of your life, or a combination of everything, you might want to begin to delve into what has led to being who you are. The goal of therapy is insight; to understand oneself, according to many philosophers, is the goal of life.  But is having the understanding sufficient, or even necessary? Understanding why you do certain things is certainly helpful. Explanations or terms explaining why one behaves in certain ways are comforting. It is nice to know that people put thought into explaining human behavior. However, simply understanding others are like you, and that you are this way for a particular reason doesn’t solve the issue. Is the way you are behaving how you want to be? 

There is a lot to be said for self-acceptance.  Recently I was with my brother’s grown children and their friends.  While discussing something in line I mentioned I was trying to talk less.  The little brother of one of the friends asked why I don’t just accept myself as I am.  This is beautiful and sound advice.  Often in therapy a goal is self-acceptance.  One would be hard pressed to find a self-help book that doesn’t advocate self-acceptance, if not loving oneself.  Again, self-acceptance is a worthy goal.  When someone says, “this is just how I am”, what is really being said? It could be posited that it is an excuse.  These words have even been prefaced by, “I can’t help it…” Some might view it as a cop-out.  In other words one might be saying, “I don’t have the motivation to change this aspect of myself.” Or, perhaps, one has attained some level of self-acceptance and simply knows he or she is this way, and accepts it even if others don’t.  Any and all of these explanations are fine, if there is sincerely no desire to change. 

My focus is on how automatic we behave most of the time.  It is estimated by neuroscience that 95% of human brain activity is adaptive unconscious.  To demonstrate this, simply consider how automatically you do most of your activity, including having a conversation.  Much of what is said in casual conversation comes automatically.  How many times have you wished you hadn’t said something? Or started to say something, got into the sentence, and realized it a bad idea? Much of what we say is simply triggered by our current interaction tapping into our historical interactions. This is our conditioning.  Everyone has been conditioned throughout life through interactions with others.  Even when a conversation is initiated it is done so out of conditioning.  How often do we consider the origins of what we are saying? Or whether it is necessary? Or what purpose it serves? Any of these questions would bring about further understanding of oneself and one’s conditioning. 

One of the goals of existential therapy is to overcome conditioning, and what most call their history.  This is more than simply resolving feelings from the past.  It is also the understanding that everyone has the ability to choose in every minute.  If acting out of conditioning, you are responsible for that.  But if you want to begin to overcome it, to be truly whom you choose to be, you have that power.  Becoming self-created takes a great deal of effort.  To the best of my exposure, short of monks or clerics no one will expend this type of energy around the clock.  But progress, not perfection, is a worthy goal.  Likely a balance of self-acceptance with wanting to be a better person is the healthiest mindset. 

To begin this endeavor one needs to become more conscious, and to act more consciously.  This is easier said than done. Everyone has a default setting which is returned to when a mindful, thoughtful, deliberate state is forgotten. The normal response to life is more automatically than deliberate.  So the first step is to become more conscious, and becoming more conscious can be done in several ways. A patient recently used an analogy he read when studying Zen: meditate with the same level of concentration if your hair were on fire.  This mindset can be brought into daily awareness.  One can simply engage in each activity as if his hair were on fire, not literally of course, that would simply be horror. Simply attempt to have the same level of attentiveness to the moment you would in a dire situation.  When the mind wanders from deliberate action, be reminiscent to be conscious. 

Another way to begin making progress in this area is to pick an aspect of personality you want to change, and remind yourself multiple times a day to be the change.  For example, perhaps you want to be more serene.  Before acting consider how you want to present.  Breathe and remind yourself to “be peace”.  Regulate breathing and contemplate more than react.  Combining these two interventions can lead to a more serene feeling and presentation. 

It needs to be kept in mind that the goal is progress, and it can be slow.  By being more conscious of who one wants to be, one is better able, through concerted effort, to be that person.  It is a worthy cause.  As George Bernard Shaw said, “Life is not about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”  It is also important to remember to accept yourself along with the desire to be better. The two are not mutually exclusive.


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