Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Why Listening is the Most Radical Act

Pain and suffering may often seem to be calling us to jump in and fix things, but perhaps they are asking us first to be still enough to hear what can really help, what can truly get to the cause of this suffering, what will not only eliminate it now but prevent it from returning. So, before we act, we need to listen. When we do become quiet enough and “listen up,” the way opens, and we see the possibilities for action.

We give very little attention to learning to listen, learning to really hear another person or situation. Yet think back to the moments with other people when our hearts were engaged and we felt fed by being together. In those moments, weren’t we hearing one another? In times like those, when we have listened to and heard one another, we have felt life arising from a shared perspective.

Why We Miss New Opportunities

Each situation, each moment of life, is new. We and this other person or group of people have never been here before. Oh, we’ve been in moments like it, but the present moment is new even if we have performed the same action with the same person hundreds of times before. Of course, it’s easy to think, “Well, it’s just like the last time, so I’ll do what I did last time,” and then not have to listen to the new moment. But if we do that, our lives become boring replications of what we have always done before, and we miss the possibilities of surprise, of new and more creative solutions, of mystery.

For our often humdrum lives to retain the taste of living truth, we have to listen freshly—again and again.

For our often humdrum lives to retain the taste of living truth, we have to listen freshly—again and again. A human interaction includes both the uniqueness of each being and the unity of the two, which transcends the separateness. For our minds to take such a subtle process and trivialize it to “just this again” or “nothing but that” is to reduce us to automatons, to objects for one another. And for action to be compassionate, we need to eliminate the idea of object, we need to be here together doing exactly what needs to be done in the simplest way we can. We need to listen.

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The Amazing Effects of Gratitude

The majority of us are familiar with the idea of being grateful for something—we learn from an early age to say “thank you” when we receive birthday gifts, or someone holds the door open for us. But what does gratitude itself really mean?

Unlike anger, sadness, or happiness, there’s no “universal expression” or firm definition for gratitude, says Vanessa Hill. In this video from PBS science series Braincraft, she explores how we can express gratitude, and all the benefits that come with it:

What Is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, psychology professor and gratitude researcher at the University of California, Davis, explains that there are two key components of practicing gratitude:

We affirm the good things we’ve receivedWe acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness

It’s only in the past few decades that researchers have started to investigate how we benefit from expressing gratitude and paying it forward. In one study, researchers examined the brains of participants who were asked how grateful they would feel in hypothetical scenarios where complete strangers saved their lives.

Practicing gratitude can potentially have a positive impact on our mental health over time.

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How Mindful Breathing Trains Your Brain to Focus

Your brain is actually shaped by your thoughts and your behaviors, which is why stress can take a toll on brain function over time. While some studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can help boost attention and keep the brain sharp as we age, we’ve yet to understand why that happens. Now, a new study published in the journal Progress in Brain Research, suggests that the answer to that question can be found by simply paying attention to the breath.

The study centered on mindful breath awareness training (M-BAT). Mindful breath awareness involves paying attention to the breath and observing thoughts, feelings, sensations and other experiences that arise without becoming fixated on them. No breath control or manipulation is required. For this study, 21 healthy adults received four hours of mindful breath awareness training and then were asked to practice breath awareness for 10 minutes per day, at least five days per week, for three weeks. 

Participants in this study were told to either pay attention to the movement of the diaphragm and abdomen while breathing, or to focus on the airflow around their nostrils. They were provided with an audio CD with a guided meditation and a booklet with written instructions, and asked to log their meditation practice in a diary. After three weeks, their performance on a mental exercise was compared to results from 15 adults with no prior meditation experience.

Meditators also showed an increase in brain activity related to monitoring conflict and inhibiting their responses. The more they meditated, the better the results.

Previous research suggests that mindfulness meditation can increase awareness of our thoughts, or meta-cognitive awareness, as well as regulate emotion, enhance attention and reduce stress. These changes can also be detected in the brain. Scientists often use a “go/no go” task to test some of these skills. The task requires participants to respond (“go”) by pressing a button when they see one stimulus – say a green dot – and not respond (“no go”) when another object – like a red dot — appears. Accurate and speedy responses suggest greater attention, inhibition, and mental efficiency. Impulsivity can also be examined by looking at brain waves activity when a person performs the go/no go task, to see how quickly the brain responds when a mistake is made. 

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A Meditation to Recharge Your Mind

Anytime a piece of technology is giving us problems, what’s the first thing we do? We turn it off, and then turn it back on. It’s amazing the variety of issues that this simple trick can solve.

Mindfulness teaches us that the same idea can apply to our minds as well. If we’re in some kind of emotional funk, or if the solution to a problem eludes us, we can learn how to unplug our mind—even for just a minute—and watch how many issues have disappeared when we plug back in.

1. Stop. The first step to unplugging your mind is to stop everything you’re doing. This begins by stopping your body, and giving yourself permission to do nothing for at least a minute or so. You might try saying to yourself, “Just for this one minute, I don’t have to accomplish or change anything.”

2. Let the mind wind down. Now imagine that each of your five senses is like a door that lets information into your mind. Close each of these doors and offer yourself the gift of quiet. Your mind takes in so many sights, sounds, etc., all day long. For just a minute or so, let it rest. Close your eyes, turn off anything you were listening to, stop distracting yourself in any way. Then, see if you can quiet your thoughts by telling your mind, “You can rest now. Nowhere to go, and nothing to do.”

3. Come home. Now that you’ve stopped and quieted your senses, come home to yourself in the present moment. Pay attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body without trying to do or change anything. Say to yourself, “The present moment is my true home, and I have arrived.”

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How Mindfulness Improves Strategic Thinking

Over the course of a couple of decades, meditation has migrated from Himalayan hilltops and Japanese Zendos to corporate boardrooms and corridors of power, including GoogleAppleAetnathe Pentagon, and the U.S. House of Representatives.

On a personal level, leaders are taking note of empirical research documenting meditation’s potential for reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation—the practice of cultivating deliberate focused attention on the present moment—has caught on as a way to bring focus, authenticity, and intention to the practice of leadership. Daniel Goleman and Bill George have described mindfulness as a means to listen more deeply and guide actions through clear intention rather than emotional whims or reactive patterns.

In an age in which corporations and public organizations are increasingly under attack for short-term thinking, a dearth of vision, and perfunctory reactions to quick stimuli, it’s worth posing the question: Can mindfulness help organizations—not just individual leaders—behave more intentionally? Practically speaking, can organizational leaders integrate mindfulness practices into strategic planning processes?

How Mindfulness Creates Space to Innovate

Seventy years ago, Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who had just emerged from years as a prisoner at Auschwitz, shed some light on the question with a now-classic teaching. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he wrote in 1946. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Mindfulness—the practice of watching one’s breath and noticing thoughts and sensations—is, at its core, a practice of cultivating this kind of space. It’s about becoming aware of how the diverse internal and external stimuli we face can provoke automatic, immediate, unthinking responses in our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

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