About Affirmations

“Affirmations are simply the practice of repeating to yourself what you want to achieve while imagining the outcome you want.” – Scott Adams

For a long time, the word “affirmation” brought to mind, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” When you see it in print like that, it’s hard to believe and easy to dismiss. The phrase was created by Emile Coué (1857-1926), a French psychologist and pharmacist who developed a method of psychotherapy based on autosuggestion.

Later, when I studied the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, I found a broader concept of affirmations and why certain types of suggestions work for certain types of people.  In Scientific Healing Affirmations, (1925), Yogananda wrote:

“Imagination, reason, faith, emotion, will, or exertion may be used according to the specific nature of he individual – whether imaginative, intellectual, aspiring, emotional, volitional, or striving. Few people know this. Coué stressed the value of autosuggestion, but an intellectual type of person is not susceptible to suggestion, and is influenced only by a metaphysical discussion of the power of consciousness over the body. He needs to understand the whys and wherefores of mental powers. If he can realize, for instance, that blisters may be produced by hypnosis…he can understand the power of the mind to cure disease. If the mind can produce ill health, it can also produce good health.”

Recently, I found an even simpler testimonial to the power of affirmations in Scott Adam’s book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Discussing affirmations in an earlier book, Adams drew negative email from people who claimed he believed in magic. In two chapters of his latest work, Adams lays out the principles of affirmations without venturing any guesses on why they have worked for him, with the exception of one simple principle:

“The pattern I have noticed is that the affirmations only worked when I had a 100 percent unambiguous desire for success.”

He then summarizes his experience with affirmations, leading up to the big one in his life: “I, Scott Adams, will be a famous cartoonist.”  As the book makes clear, he was already working in the field and committed when he practiced this suggestion.

I recommended How to Fail when I reviewed it, and the chapters on affirmation alone are worthy of another recommendation.

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TED Talks on happiness

Last Friday, August 15, the theme of National Public Radio’s “TED Radio Hour” was “Simply Happy,” and carried the message that “finding happiness may be simpler than you think.” Narrator Guy Raz reviewed the ideas of five speakers whose TED presentations focused on happiness as something that can be cultivated.

Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at UC San Francisco, gathered real-time input from 35,000 people via a simple smart phone app one can register for at trackyourhappiness.org. Several times during the day, volunteers receive three questions on their phones:

1) How do you feel right now?  (on a scale from very good to very bad).
2) What are you doing? (check one of 22 choices).
3) Are you thinking about what you are doing? (as opposed to “mind wandering”).

Killingsworth discovered that 47% of the time, people are thinking of something other than what they are doing (ranging from a high of 65% when taking a shower, to an interesting 10% whose minds wander while having sex).  His finding, across all activities is that “people are substantially less happy when their minds are wandering.”  This includes even unpopular tasks like commuting to work.  He concludes that mind wandering is a cause rather than a consequence of unhappiness.”

Though he doesn’t cite the growing interest in mindfulness meditation practice, it’s significant that recent articles in Scientific American have mentioned studies of this practice, including Is Mindfulness Good Medicine, which appeared on the Scientific American blog the day before NPR posted Killingsworth’s findings.

Carl Honore is a journalist and the author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (2005). He claims our world is “addicted to speed” and living “the fast life rather than the good life.” He says his wakeup moment came when he realized he was speed-reading bedtime stories to his young son, compulsively rushing through one of the richest times of his day.

Honore says we are “so marinated in the culture of speed that we almost fail to notice the toll it takes on every aspect of our lives – on our health, our work, our relationships and our community.” For one thing, speed and adrenaline can be exciting. For another there is a strong cultural bias that equates slowing down with being a slacker. One common meaning of “slow” is “not very bright.”

Honore says he still enjoys the fast pace of life as a journalist in London, but he is now “in touch with his inner tortoise,” and doesn’t unconsciously overload himself. “I feel like I’m living my life rather than actually just racing through it. So is it possible? That’s really the main question before us today. Is it possible to slow down? And I’m happy to be able to say to you that the answer is a resounding yes.”

Graham Hill was an early ’90’s internet millionaire by the age of 30. He sold the company he had built with friends, and then filled “the void” he felt inside with stuff:  “I bought a 3,600 square foot home, Volvo sedan, tons of furniture, gizmos, technology, stereos, probably had one of the first MP3 players. You can’t believe how much stuff.”

Unlike most of his wealthy peers, Hill realized his stuff wasn’t making him happy so he got rid of most of it. He now lives in a custom designed, 420 square foot New York City apartment that is wonder of space efficiency:

Hill notes that Americans use three times as much space as we did 50 years ago, yet we have still spawned a $22 billion dollar, 2.2 billion square foot self-storage industry. Other consequences include, “Lots of credit card debt, huge environmental footprints, and perhaps not coincidentally, our happiness levels flatlined over the same 50 years. Well, I’m here to suggest there’s a better way – that less might actually equal more.”

Dan Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness (2007), spoke in his talk of the many ways in which our happiness does not depend on circumstances or getting what we want. Humans are resilient enough, he says, to recover from serious trauma, though imagination generally tells us otherwise. Gilbert cited three cases, drawn from a single edition of the New York Times.

Jim Wright, Speaker of the House of Representatives before Newt Gingrich, resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving “a shady book deal.” He lost his position, reputation, and money, but now says, “I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally and almost every other way.”

Pete Best, The Beatles’ first drummer, was replaced by Ringo Starr just before the band became world famous. Still a drummer and studio musician, Best says, “I’m happier than I would’ve been with The Beatles.”

And most dramatic to me was Moreese Bickham, 78, released from prison because of DNA evidence after serving 37 years for a crime he did not commit. Upon release, Bickham said, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”

Baring “extraordinary” people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, we can hardly imagine prison as being worthwhile, let alone “glorious,” but Gilbert uses these and other examples to underline the power that “reframing” events has on our outlook. The stories we tell and the meaning we find in experience are critical. “It is wrong to say that we have no control over our happiness. It is wrong to say that we have complete control over our happiness. We have some input into how happy we will be…We can learn to see events in a constructive and positive way.”

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has devoted himself to interfaith dialog and the interaction of religion and science. His TED topic was gratitude, as one might expect of a man whose home page is gratefullness.org. He says most people think we are grateful when we are happy, but the opposite is true: gratitude leads to happiness.

He outlines a simple way to cultivate gratitude, beginning with stopping our minds and our busyness to reflect that “You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you. And yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us. We say opportunity knocks only once. Well, think again – every moment is a new gift, over and over again, and if you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment. We can avail ourselves of this opportunity or we can miss it. And if we avail ourselves of the opportunity, it is the key to happiness.”

Such a simple step, repeated, carries great weight, for Steindl-Rast reflects that grateful people are not fearful, and if we are not fearful, we will not be violent.  “If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not from a sense of scarcity, and you’re willing to share.If you’re grateful, you’re enjoying the differences between people and you’re respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid on which we live. And it doesn’t make for equality, but it makes for equal respect, and that is the important thing. A grateful world is a world of joyful people, grateful people are joyful people. And that is what I hope for us.”

***

The question of attitudes and habits that lead to wellbeing has emerged as the key theme of theFirstGates this year. I’ve posted ideas from Carl Jung, the Dalai Lama, and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert. Here are five more voices (and more to come) saying that happiness is not an accident, not given to a few select or fortunate people. It is a choice we can all make, a direction we can aim for at any given moment

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Awakening Joy by James Baraz: a book review

Awakening Joy cover

In March, I reviewed Scott Adams’ latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It has much in common with the book I’m reviewing today: both focus on the myriad, day-to-day choices we make and how they can steer us toward or away from the lives we want to live.

Though one of the numerous “failures” Adams recounts was a book on meditation, he wrote How to Fail in purely secular terms. Baraz, who took up the study of mindfulness meditation in 1974, writes from a Buddhist perspective, but says, “many people, including myself, consider Buddhism to be more a philosophy than a religion, a way to live a harmonious life.” This tone should make Awakening Joy accessible to people of any faith or no faith.

Baraz, a founding member of Spirit Rock, first taught an Awakening Joy class in his living room in 2003. In working with initially interested but skeptical students, who didn’t just want to sit around singing Kumbaya, Baraz honed the presentation that is encompassed in his book and a five month online class.

The book has ten chapters or “Steps,”  which center on topics like mindfulness, compassion, forgiving oneself, and letting go. In some ways the first step is most challenging – figuring out what “joy” means personally and accepting that we want it and deserve it, now and not at some future time when we will have “earned” the right to feel good.

Baraz quotes the Buddha who said, “Whatever the practitioner frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of the mind.” Can it really be that simple? Anyone who has ever tried to meditate knows that working with the “inclination of the mind” may be simple but isn’t easy.

Awakening Joy is written with simple concepts, personal stories, and exercises designed to cut through our suspicion that feeling good means becoming Pollyanna. We’ve all seen small children manifest joy. What happened to us along the way? Baraz presents a series of simple steps designed to help us turn back toward the direction we’d rather travel.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Books, Buddhism, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Bell Tolls

Sometime during the first semester of graduate work in psychology, our clinical practice professor made an interesting observation. “The funniest people I know,” she said, “have all deeply experienced sorrow.” Her words came back when I heard we had lost Robin Williams.

They say he suffered from alcoholism and depression, both progressive, fatal diseases that  can be arrested. Interestingly, the media has done much to remove the stigma from both conditions. Ted Danson, as bartender, Sam Malone on Cheers, helped normalize an alcoholic abstaining and going to meetings. And the constant din of TV antidepressant commercials has probably primed millions to “Ask their doctor” about this oh so modern affliction.

Untreated depression, like untreated alcoholism, puts a person at risk for suicide, accidents, and poor health choices that end too many lives far too early. It’s futile to speculate on why some people reach out for help and others do not, but no individual, not you nor I, is a statistic. We are not bound by any kind of odds.

In this world where information is so easy to come by, it is my hope than anyone who sees in themselves the conditions that took Robin Williams from us may hit google and check out the mountains of information on what they may have and what can be done about it.

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Young Jimmy in Flanders

This day began on a solemn note. Personal business had taken me to the city where my parents are buried. I stopped by the cemetery on my way out, pulled some dandelions and left some flowers. Such a visit puts me in a reflective mood, but even seeing my dad’s WWII veteran headstone didn’t jog my memory and remind me of what a solemn day this is for the whole world.

Only during my ride home, with my iPod playing music at random, did I recall the importance of August 2 when I heard Andy Stewart’s song, “Young Jimmy in Flanders.” World War I began one hundred years ago today.

Andy Stewart

Andy Stewart was frontman for “Silly Wizard,” a Scottish folk-rock group. He also released four solo albums. Fire in the Glen, 1985, features a song about his grandfather, Jamie, who served as piper with a Scottish regiment in the first world war, and somehow survived.

There’s poignancy at the very thought of bagpipers versus machine guns, and Stewart pulls no punches in condemning the blindness and stupidity that embroiled the world in slaughter:

Jimmy went to Flanders so many years ago,
To the Somme, to Ypres, and Arras, not so many years ago.
He played his pipes to battle,
And the laddies died like cattle,
And the brandy was drunk in Whitehall,
A million miles away.

This week, by choice and circumstance, I was on a media fast except for CNN during the time it took to eat in the motel breakfast. That was time enough. Eggs and toast and chaos in Gaza for breakfast nook; war as reality TV; we’ll be right back after this message. Today, I reflected that “The Middle East,” as it exists today, is a direct result of the first world war.

On August 2, 1914, German cavalry crossed into Luxembourg to seize control of railway lines. In a very real sense, one could say there is no end in sight to the conflict that was ignited that day.

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All trees must pass

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison memorial tree, 2010 by Al Pavongkanan. Creative Commons

George Harrison spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles. In 2004, three years after his passing, a memorial pine tree was planted in his memory in Griffith Park. Harrison, an avid gardener, would probably have enjoyed the irony – the tree was destroyed by beetles. Harrison once said his biggest break was getting into the Beatles, and his second biggest break was getting out.

A new tree will be planted beside the plaque which reads, “In memory of a great humanitarian, who touched the world as an artist, musician, and gardener.”

It is also an appropriate time to appreciate one of the great truths his music told:

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The more things change…

As I looked at the front page of a recent local paper, featuring yet another account of the lurid sex/murder scandal du jour, I thought of the striking parallels to the situation in France 100 years ago.

By mid-July, 1914 the crisis building in the wake of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination was roiling Berlin, Moscow, London, Vienna, and Sarajevo, but the French remained focused on the murder trial of Henriette Caillaux, second wife of former premiere, Joseph Caillaux. Madame Caillaux was accused of shooting a newspaper editor antagonistic to her husband. The trial was a full blown media circus, the O.J. trial of the day, for then as now, it is much easier to gawk at messy personal lives than messy international conflicts.

Public domain

Public domain

Henriette’s husband, Joseph Caillaux, had lost the previous election to conservatives, and was running for re-election in 1914, insisting that France roll back its aggressive militarism. In addition, as a former accountant, he was convinced that an income tax was essential to run a modern state. The campaign grew vicious. The editor of the conservative paper, Le Figaro, obtained and published a letter Caillaux had written to his first wife, when she was his mistress and married to another man.

Henriette, who cared deeply about her position in society, was terrified at the prospect of publication of letters she and Joseph had exchanged when both were married to others. On the afternoon of March 16, Henriette rode in a chauffeured car to a gun dealer, bought a Browning automatic pistol, and had the dealer take her to a basement firing range to teach her how to use it. She then demanded to see the editor of Le Figaro, with the gun hidden in her muff. She fired six bullets, hit the editor four times and killed him.

At her trial, Henriette claimed she only intended to frighten the man. She closed her eyes, she said, and aimed at the floor, but missed and hit the editor. Her defense team must have been stellar, for as G.J Meyer put it, on July 29, “A chivalrous jury found Madame Caillaux not guilty, and France’s newspapers awoke from their trance to discover that Europe was on the brink of war.”

By July 29, there was probably only one man in Europe who could have averted war. Jean Jaures’ ideas paralleled those of Joseph Caillaux. As a socialist, he was beyond the pale of “repeatable” politics, but I think of him as the Jimmy Carter of his day. Meyer writes, As a leader, a thinker, and simply as a human being, Jaures stood out like a giant in the summer of 1914. Like Caillaux he was widely hated, but only for the most honorable of reasons: he had dedicated his life to the achievement of democracy and genuine peace not only in France but across the continent.”

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jean Jaures, 1904, by Nadar. Public domain.

Jaures was the greatest orator of his time, and clearly saw that a European war would be a disaster with no winners, only losers. In his last newspaper column, published on July 31, he wrote, “The danger is great but not insuperable if we keep our clearness of mind and strength of will.  If we show the heroism of patience as well as the heroism of action.”

That day he went to Brussels to speak to an emergency gathering of socialists, including a delegation from Germany. He and a group of colleagues spoke to Abel Ferry of the French foreign ministry, demanding action to stop Russia from mobilizing. Ferry said it was too late.  “Everything is finished, there is nothing left to do.”  When Jaures protested, Ferry said, “You won’t be able to continue. You will be assassinated on the nearest street corner.”

Two hours later, Jaures and a friend entered a cafe on the Rue Montmartre where an unemployed 29 year old named Raoul Villain recognized him.  Villain, though well educated, was aimless and confused. He had a gun and a plan to travel to Germany to kill the kaiser. Seeing Jaures take a seat with his back to an open window, he changed his mind. A few moments later he fired two shots into Jaures’ head. The next day, France and Germany mobilized and the following day, World War I began.

_______________________________

The first world war was a tragedy that no one wanted to happen. Accounts of the run-up to war read like a Thomas Hardy novel, where the smallest “innocent” action leads to a huge tragedy. More than any other historical event, the first world war haunts me with a sense of evil pervading human affairs. To be sure, in the next war, in the holocaust, evil is more obvious. We can point to a small group of bad men and believe, or at least hope, that we are different from them. That’s not so easy to do with world war I.

None of the heads of state wanted this kind of war, but they consistently made wrong decisions, which pushed the world over the brink. The litany of “if only’s” is haunting as well. If only someone had told the Archduke’s driver of the change of route, the “inciting incident” might not have happened. And what if some dark karma or twist of fate had not brought Raoul Villain to the Rue Monmartre at the same time as Jaures?

History gives a perspective missing from the present moment, but the history of July 1914 poses a fearful question – what sinister future may be coiling behind the scenes while we distract ourselves with this year’s latest scandal?

 

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Notes on the Mind – Body connection

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

Subtle body from 1899 yoga manuscript. Public domain.

One of the key themes emerging for me this year, both in living and blogging, involves mental hygiene, in particular, watching what ideas and thoughts I dwell on. I tried to express it in posts like Guarding the Mind and The Wishing Tree Revisited. Cheri Huber a Zen teacher, sums it up like this: “The quality of your life depends on the focus of your attention.”

As I check out things online, I bookmark articles that look like they might lead to interesting posts. Several recent posts center on a parallel theme,  the intimate connection of mind and body.

The first comes from Julieanne Victoria’s blog, Through the Peacock’s Eyes. In a post called, Effect of Thought on Health and the Body, she describes a small book by James Allen, amazing because of its visionary nature – it was written in 1902 and published in 1920.

Nowadays we’re used to seeing people practice Tai Chi in parks. We find yoga classes at local gyms and hear of corporate executives learning mindfulness meditation. A discussion of the ends and means for lifting such practices out of traditional contexts is a topic for another time. The point is, general awareness of the mind-body connection snowballed in the west in the latter half of the 20th century. I think it’s just beginning, which makes James Allen’s conclusions, penned 112 years ago, all the more unique.  Check out Julieanne Victoria’s post. It is inspiring to read these words of a man who understood these truths before almost anyone else in our culture.

One manifestation of the mind-body connection that everyone knows about involves stress. Stress is bad and A-Types have it worst, right? What if you learned, as I did in a recent NPR article, that almost all of the studies that created “stress” and “A-Type” as modern words and concepts were funded by big tobacco companies, seeking to prove that stress and not cigarettes, cause heart problems and cancer? This article is an eye opener, and not because of this single topic. It’s illuminating to see how far money can go in creating the “truths” we try to live by.

The final post that caught my attention comes from the Scientific American BlogWhat does Mindfulness Meditation do for your brain. Leaving aside all questions of what might be lost in separating mindfulness practice from it’s Buddhist context, the benefits appear to be compelling:

“It’s been accepted as a useful therapy for anxiety and depression for around a decade…It’s being explored by schools, pro sports teams and military units to enhance performance, and is showing promise as a way of helping sufferers of chronic pain, addiction and tinnitus, too. There is even some evidence that mindfulness can help with the symptoms of certain physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.”

Beyond these experiential findings, the Scientific American post presents a powerful physiological finding. MRI scans of people after an eight week mindfulness meditation course show the amygdala shrinking. This is the brain’s fight or flight center, associated with emotion and fear. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, “associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making,” becomes thicker. In addition, brain links are altered: “The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.”

These few posts are just the barest notes on a huge topic, but one I find fascinating. I’ll be posting more as I see more interesting stories along these lines.

Posted in Health, Psychology, Science, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments