Archive for November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving: A Way of Life


Thanksgiving is very favorite American Holiday as it serves as a souvenir of the significance of gratitude. Since 1621, Americans in the United States have been rejoicing Thanksgiving. In times gone by, throughout Europe, celebrations were held after the harvest to give thanks and rejoice jointly as a community. Native Americans also commemorated the harvest season. We carry on the custom today nearly 400 years later, but for most of us, when we listen to the word Thanksgiving, we more often than not feel of turkey and stuffing, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, football and gatherings with family and friends. We all know that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but yet many times in the commotion of everyday life, we overlook the significance of gratitude, not just on Thanksgiving, but every other day as well.

It’s not shocking that the most successful and happiest people on the planet are also the ones who observe gratitude on a customary basis. However, what might give one pause; is that the most grateful people are also the most successful and the happiest. Which came first, the gratitude or the success? Are these people grateful because they’re successful or successful because they’re grateful? Consistent with hundreds of successful luminaries, all starts with gratitude. Gratitude can turn fear into trust and has the clout to turn ordinary into extraordinary. There is no better way to alter our attitude than through the practice of gratitude. Knowing that what we focus on today grows into our reality tomorrow, let our hearts and our minds flood with gratitude.

For no matter where we are in life, there is always a reason to be grateful. When we practice gratitude, everything else lines up for us almost mysteriously. However, you choose to celebrate Thanksgiving today, consider starting a new tradition in your family. As you sit together with your loved ones, go around the table and share out loud something that you are profoundly grateful for in your life at this very moment. Feel the joy that it brings to you in just thinking about it. This practice alone will transfer your energy from where you are to where you want to be. There is nothing more influential, or nothing more efficient at bringing happiness into our world, than to start by being thankful for where we are right now.

As we enter into this beautiful holiday season and into the New Year, let us remember to observe gratitude every day, not just on Thanksgiving. Let gratitude be the first thing on your mind when you wake in the morning, and the last thought you have as you drift off to sleep each night. Talk about it, share it with your loved ones, celebrate it and you will be blessed with even more good things in your life. Make this the first day of a daily practice and watch what happens. After all, we can all learn something from the most successful and happiest people in the world – and that is to remember that it all starts with being grateful for the many blessings that we have right here, right now.

As you celebrate this beautiful day, may you remember that we have so very much to be grateful for and may your blessings be abundant throughout the coming year! It all starts with simply taking the time to practice gratitude as a way of life.


Simple is Hard

Simple is Hard

The other day, I posed this somewhat trick-laden question on Twitter – “Is making something easier to understand is deliberate diminishment of the intellectual level of the content of literature or smartening it up?” The answers I got were mixed. Some obviously saw that I was suggesting it’s actually harder to make some easy to understand. Others clearly felt that it somewhat of a disservice to try to make things that were complicated seem simple.

That, in a nutshell, is why simple is so hard. As any regular Twitter user will tell you, you have to work sometimes to get your point across in 140 characters, but the real demon is that we feel the need to make things sound more important than they are or to demonstrate in verbose ways how much, in fact, we know about something that others don’t. I can’t tell you how many times the editor of my thesis suggested that I needed to utilize use simpler language. The problem with simple is that it actually takes more work. I often quote Mark Twain here – “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” The most successful companies I know have been able to boil down what they do, what they stand for, what they are trying to do, how they are unique, or the innovation that will rock your world into one succinct and memorable phrase, and that’s the magic. Earnest Hemingway is considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of all time. It is widely known that one of his most famous traits was the use of short sentences. I’ll defer to Copyblogger’s Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well to act as a resource for this idea.

When I was writing my thesis for my Internal Medicine Residency and Fellowship Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that is committed to providing outstanding clinical training, individualized career mentoring, and a fertile academic environment with cutting-edge research and state-of-the-art clinical care. This extraordinarily rich setting, combined with support for each physician’s individual and personal development, provide the ingredients for training future leaders in Internal Medicine. I started off with something that was far denser than the 7 simple steps that exist today. The paring down was all done by my fellow internists that wanted something simple and doable. That lesson is a central filter for everything I do, but it’s still a challenge. Open your profession up and ask yourself how you could land on one easy to understand and communicate thing that you stand for. One simple, single purpose for doing what you do. One audacious innovation that takes people’s breath away. Don’t complicate it, no matter how trivial it feels. Turn to a 6 year old and ask them what you do and pay close attention to the answer because it’s probably not draped in the mask of importance that we so seem to cling to. Simple has far more value than complex, try it on and see how it feels to practice Zen way of life by Eightfold Path:

Eightfold Path was discovered by Buddha Himself, the eightfold path is the only way to Nirvana. It avoids the extreme of self-torture that weakens one’s intellect and the extreme of self-indulgence that retards spiritual progress. It consists of the following eight factors:

Right understanding is the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths. In other words, it is the understanding of oneself as one really is. The keynote of Buddhism is this Right Understanding. Buddhism, as such, is based on knowledge and not on unreasonable belief.

Right thoughts are threefold. They are: The thoughts of renunciation which are opposed to sense-pleasures, kind thoughts which are opposed to ill will, and thoughts of harmlessness which are opposed to cruelty. These tend to purify the mind.

Right speech deals with refraining from falsehood, stealing, slandering, harsh words and frivolous talks.

Right action deals with refraining from killing, stealing and lack of chastity. It helps one to develop a character that is self-controlled and mindful of rights of others.

Right livelihood deals with the five kinds of trades that should be avoided by a lay disciple. They are: trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, trade in intoxicants, and trade in poisons. Right livelihood means earning one’s living in a way that is not harmful to others.

Right effort is fourfold, namely: The endeavor to discard evil that has already arisen, endeavor to prevent the arising of evil, endeavor to develop that good which has already arisen, and endeavor to promote that good which has not already arisen. Effort is needed to cultivate Good Conduct or develop one’s mind, because we are often distracted or tempted to take the easy way out of things. The Buddha teaches that attaining happiness and Enlightenment depends upon one’s own efforts. Effort is the root of all achievement. If one wants to get to the top of a mountain, just sitting at the foot thinking about it will not bring one there. It is by making the effort of climbing up the mountain, step by step, that eventually the summit is reached. Thus, no matter how great the Buddha’s achievement may be or how excellent His Teaching is, one must put the teaching into practice before desired results can be obtained.

Right Mindfulness is also fourfold: mindfulness with regard to body, to feeling, to mind, and mental objects. Right mindfulness is the awareness of one’s deeds, words and thoughts.

Right Meditation means the gradual process of training the mind to focus on a single object and to remain fixed upon the object without wavering. The constant practice of meditation helps to develop a calm and concentrated mind and helps to prepare for the ultimate attainment of Wisdom and Enlightenment.

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.

Cosmic Web


In the current, observationally successful picture of how the Universe developed, there is an origami analogy that is helpful in understanding the formation of the "cosmic web" arrangement of galaxies. The cosmic web is the cellular, foam-like arrangement of galaxies in the Universe; they line the edges of vast voids. In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravity comes about through the distortion that matter and energy produce in a four-dimensional spacetime "sheet." Gravity also causes another kind of sheet that pervades space to distort and fold: the three-dimensional cosmological "origami" sheet of dark matter.

As we know from observations of the microwave sky, just after the Big Bang, the dark-matter sheet was very evenly laid out, i.e., the density varied little from point to point in space. However, there were tiny density fluctuations, ripples imprinted on this sheet (quantum fluctuations that "inflated" to macroscopic size in the first instant of time, we suspect, but that’s another story). In dense regions where the sheet has contracted a bit, the sheet contracts and bunches up, eventually forming structures like galaxies. Likewise, less-dense regions get evacuated; there, the sheet stretches out, to form voids between galaxies. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. This process is shown in the first figure, an animated sheet of particles from a computer simulation. The colors correspond to the initial, tiny density fluctuations imprinted on the sheet initially, which tell it where to stretch out (blue), and where to bunch together and fold (red). Here, to clarify the motions, the expansion of the Universe has been subtracted out.



The stretching and bunching-together that gravity produces in the dark-matter sheet, drawn from a computer simulation of dark-matter clustering in the Universe. The physical size of the sheet here is huge, about a billion light-years and one of the smaller clumps that forms would correspond to our Milky Way galaxy.

There is another important piece of physics here: the "collisionless" property that dark-matter particles have. That is, they can blithely pass right through each other. Ordinary matter does care if it hits other bits of matter; a falling apple stops if it hits the ground (or Newton’s head). But a dark-matter apple would pass right through. (Never mind that dark matter cannot interact electromagnetically to make things like apples.)

The origami analogy may or may not make a bit more sense if we view the 3D sheet of dark-matter in a six-dimensional, position-velocity "phase" space. In this space, each particle of matter is plotted with its usual three position coordinates, but also additionally the three coordinates of its velocity. In this 6D phase space, dark matter’s collisionlessness ensures that its sheet can never cross itself, or tear, just like a 2D paper-origami sheet is not allowed to cross itself or tear when it folds up. We know that dark matter is collisionless because otherwise, the Universe would not be able to construct structures with nearly as much richness as we observe around us. The creases, folds, or "caustics," as they are called in cosmology, are physically important because they mark the edges of structures like galaxies; technically, the dark matter "halos" around them, and filaments of galaxies. The analogy to origami only goes so far, though. First, the cosmological origami sheet is stretchy, unlike in paper origami. Second, the cosmological sheet is three-dimensional, folding up in six dimensions, unlike 2D paper-origami sheets that fold up in 3D.

In the below, very schematic illustration of galaxy formation, the left panels depict the folding up of a single galaxy. On the right, we see a hexagonal network of six galaxies folding up. The result is a design that is squashed flat in 2 dimensions, just as a folded-up dark-matter sheet is more easily visualized after it is flattened back down to the 3 position dimensions.


Schematic, fold-your-own paper galaxies

This origami viewpoint helps to explain why galaxies tend to form with filaments poking out of them. Without stretching the paper, in fact it is impossible to form a compact knot in paper origami without producing filamentary folds at the same time. Such an origami viewpoint also helps to understand the growth of complexity; the complexity of a structure increases with the amount of "origami paper" that gets folded up to construct it. This complexity, or entropy, may have physical significance. Gravitational entropy could be related to the mystery of "dark energy," the puzzling increasing expansion rate of the universe. The so-called "coincidence problem" is this: why is the acceleration of the universe turning on roughly now, and not say 10 billion years ago or 10 billion years in the future? A speculative answer is that the complexity in the universe has to reach a certain threshold before acceleration can turn on. On astronomical timescales, humans have also come to sentience just when the Universe has reached this level of complexity.

This study of complexity will be a major part of a Templeton Foundation New Frontiers in Astronomy & Cosmology grant that author was awarded last month, along with his colleague, Dr. Miguel Aragón-Calvo. Along with doing cutting-edge cosmology and cosmic-web research, Dr. Miguel Aragón-Calvo is at the very forefront of scientific visualizations, for example, winning last year’s National Science Foundation International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge with his cosmic-web poster. They are both assistant research scientists in the Institute for Data-Intensive Engineering and Science (IDIES), led by Director Alex Szalay, and in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Johns Hopkins University.

Twitter Is a Powerful Tool for Quality Healthcare


Amid snarky comments and links to cat videos, some Twitter users turn to the social network to find and post information on health issues like cardiac arrest and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, according to a U.S. study. Over a month, researchers found 15,234 messages on Twitter that included specific information about resuscitation and cardiac arrest, said the study published in the journal Resuscitation. From a science standpoint, we wanted to know if we can reliably find information on a public health topic, or is (Twitter) just a place where people describe what they ate that day said the study’s lead author and a professor at the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the researchers, they found people using Twitter to send and receive a wide variety of information on cardiopulmonary resuscitation and cardiac arrest, including their personal experiences, questions and current events. Some researchers and organizations already use Twitter for public health matters, including tracking the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic and finding the source of the Haitian cholera outbreak, the researchers said. For the study, the researchers created a Twitter search for key terms, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, automatic external defibrillators, resuscitation and sudden death.

Between April and May 2011, their search returned 62,163 tweets, which were whittled down to 15,324 messages that contained specific information about cardiac arrest and resuscitation.

Only 7 percent of the tweets were about specific cardiac arrest events, such as a user saying they just saw a man being resuscitated, or a user asking for prayers for a sick family member.

About 44 percent of the tweets were about performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and using automatic external defibrillators. Those types of tweets included information on rules about keeping automatic external defibrillators in businesses and questions about how to resuscitate a person. The rest of the tweets were about education, research and news events, such as links to articles about celebrities going into cardiac arrest.

The vast majority of the Twitter users send fewer than three tweets about cardiac arrest or cardiopulmonary resuscitation throughout the month. Users that sent more tweets typically had more followers; people who subscribe to their messages – and often worked in a health-care related field. About 13 percent of the tweets were re-sent, or re-tweeted, by other users. The most popular re-tweeted messages were about celebrity-related cardiac arrest news, such as an automatic external defibrillators being used to revive a fan at a Lady Gaga concert.

I think the study illustrated that there is an opportunity to potentially provide research and information for people in real time about cardiac arrest and resuscitation. I can imagine in the future, we will see systems that would automatically respond to tweets of individual users. Twitter is a really powerful tool, and we’re just beginning to understand its abilities.

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