Archive for the ‘Old age’ Tag

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.

The Neuroscience of Regret

Fluttering Monarchs



We often associate regret with old age – the tragic image of an elderly person feeling regretful over opportunities forever missed. Now, groundbreaking new brain research shows how this stereotype may be true, at least for a portion of the elderly who are depressed. On the other hand, healthy aging may involve the ability to regulate regret in the brain, and move on emotionally when there is nothing more that can be done. If we can teach depressed, older people to think like their more optimistic peers, we may be able to help them let go of regret. 

How Our Brains Process Regret? 

Studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brain in real time while participants performed computer tasks that asked them to choose between different options for investing money. When participants were shown how they could have done better with alternative strategies (to prime regret), there was decreased activity in the ventral striatum, an area associated with processing rewards. There was also increased activity in the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system that generates immediate emotional response to threat. Interestingly, when the experiment was done with a computer making all the choices, these regret patterns were not found, suggesting that a sense of personal accountability is necessary for regret. 

Do Age and Depression Affect Regret? 

A new study conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center – Hamburg, in Germany provides an exciting demonstration of how healthy older people may actively disengage from regret when nothing can be done. Young people, who, presumably have more life opportunities for change and depressed elderly, who, presumably, have a deficit in emotional processing, were more regretful when confronted with missed chances for financial gain. 

There were substantial differences in brain functioning between the healthy elderly and the other groups. The young and depressed elderly showed decreased neural activity in the ventral striatum, the area associated with reward processing. The healthy elderly did not, however, show this regretful pattern when they were shown how far they could have gone; only when they actually lost all their money. Instead, when faced with their missed alternatives, healthy elderly actually showed increased neural firing in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, an area involved in emotional regulation and control. This is a new discovery, and suggests that their brains were actively working to successfully regulate the pain of regret. 

Behavioral strategies differed between the groups in a way that was consistent with the brain findings. Whereas the young and depressed elderly took more risks on subsequent rounds, the healthy elderly did not change their strategies across 80 rounds on average. When participants’ physiological functioning was assessed in another similar study using the same conditions, the healthy elderly showed less increase in blood pressure and skin conductance (a measure of sweating) than the other groups. Overall, the riskier strategy did not lead to more money, suggesting that the young and depressed elderly took on extra stress for no gain. 

Can Our Brains Actually Improve Their Emotional Processing With Age? 

An exciting implication of this study is that brain functioning does not merely deteriorate in old age, but that aging can result in better emotion-regulation and stress management. This is consistent with other research showing old people have less intense negative emotions and are happier than middle-aged people on average. 

Can Mindfulness Help? 

The researchers are now working on developing interventions to help depressed people regulate regret by showing them how much chance or outside factors played a role in their choices, versus their own actions. This should result in decreased self-blame and regret. 

Research on Mindfulness has also shown that Mindfulness-based interventions can increase activity and even change brain structure in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and other midbrain regions involved in emotional processing and regulation. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is one of the few treatments shown to be effective at treating chronic, intractable depression. Mindfulness training emphasizing keeping one’s focus on the present moment and reducing self-judgment and reactivity may be an alternative and potentially even more effective way of helping depressed elderly let go of destructive and chronic regret. 

In summary, regret is a negative emotion that may be adaptive if it motivates action to learn from mistakes and become a smarter or better person. However, getting stuck in regret where there is nothing that can be done to change the situation can be damaging to mind and body.  For the elderly, the developmental task may be to learn to live with and accept the life they have had, focusing on the positive aspects and forgiving themselves both for mistakes made and opportunities not taken. Feeling that one has done the best one can, given the circumstances and letting go of regret can lead to self-compassion and peace.

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