What is the bigger purpose?

PeopleSilhouettes

 

This is a small piece of a larger question, and I share it tonight because it hit me about an hour ago

There is this old tale of a monk, who is traveling the lands when he comes across a rock quarry.  A tired, frustrated man is chipping away at a large boulder with less than no enthusiasm, all the while cursing the lot he has been given.

Curious, the monk approaches him and asks him what he is sculpting.

Annoyed, and staring in disbelief at the audacity of someone asking him such a silly question, the man snaps “what does it look like? A boulder!”. He stares coldly at the monk, then continues his stone chipping.

The monk turns and continues to walk, slowly realizing he is in a rock quarry, and that there are many more stone workers like the first, all around him.  They too, are cursing their lots, looking tired and irritated, all chipping away at boulders.

As the monk slowly walks through the quarry, he sees the large rocks at various stages of completion.  It seems that they are being shaped into large cylinders.  But for what?  Every time the monk asks a sculptor what they’re for, he gets a snappy remark, or ignored altogether.  No one seems happy with their work.  No one is satisfied.

It is on his way out of the quarry that the monk notices someone a little different.  This man is sculpting the rock, same as all the others; but there is something different about his manner.  He is smiling, and humming to himself.  He is playing with his chisel, and, focused yet easy, striking with purpose.  He seems light.

The monk approaches this scupltor, and again asks him what he is doing

“Me, well I am building a temple! It will be the most beautiful work of art you have ever seen!”

What’s the point? I thought of this tonight, while I was slowly scratching some adhesive off of a surfboard I am finishing. (note, do not use cheap tape!)

After 2 hours of slowly scratching the tape off, and taking care not to damage the top deck, I had become so largely annoyed with the detail and tediousness of this task, that I had forgotten the goal of the task: that I was building something custom, one of a kind, and beautiful.  It was then that I remembered the story of the monk, and concurrently realized that it is too easy to get lost in the details of our lives and our self importance.  We often forget that we are here for the great good of making a difference for other people in our lives, and shut ourselves off from the joy and the passion of the greater world we are contributing to.

Take a moment to step back, and think about the difference you have made to someone’s life, through a smile, contribution, or kind comment.  Even how your job, as tedious and fruitless as it may sometimes seem, is contributing to a larger cathedral in the world, which brings opportunities and prosperity to those associated with it.

The Happiest Man in the World

Buddha

Matthieu Ricard isn’t your ordinary person. An ex-geneticist who earned his PhD at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1972, he renounced the academic life and spent more than three decades training his mind so that we can better understand how to cultivate happiness.

And the results from the latest study of Ricard’s brain are staggering.

Looking at the intrinsic brain activity while meditating on compassion, scientists at the University of Wisconsin have observed the highest levels of gamma waves ever recorded in the neuroscience literature from Ricard’s brain. The study also looked at brain activity of over 100 advanced meditators, many of whom had more than 50,000 rounds of meditation experience. But none were able to reach the level produced by Ricard.

Gamma waves play a vital role in cognitive functioning. Their propagation through the brain acts as a type of neuronal synchronizer, binding together distributed networks and focusing them towards an object of attention. Scientist have proposed that gamma waves are able to resolve the ‘binding problem’ of neuroscience – how sensory information processed in sensory-specific areas of the brain are unified into a single conscious experience. Their role in consciousness is so critical, that if gamma waves stop emitting from an area of the brain called the thalamus, conscious awareness is lost and the person slips into a deep coma.

For Ricard, this implies that he is able to focus and coordinate the endogenous signals of his brain towards a single concept, percept or conscious experience. Whether concentrating on compassion or happiness, it is hard to imagine that in such a state anything but the object of focus is able to enter Ricard’s awareness.

The study also found an extreme asymmetry between brain activity originating from his left prefrontal cortex compared to his right. This asymmetry has been shown to correlate with positive emotions, while it’s counterpart – stronger activity in the right prefrontal cortex – is related to negative emotions. Putting this finding together with the high levels of gamma waves, it suggests that Ricard is able to generate such a focused state of compassion that his brain responds by producing an extreme level of positive emotions.

Despite these results, Ricard says that he is not unique. He teaches that similar levels of compassion can be obtained by anyone willing to take the time and effort. Ricard attributes his incredible abilities to neuroplasticity due to meditation training and is working with scientists around the globe to show how the brain changes its structure and function in response to meditation.

While Ricard’s place as the world’s happiest man is fascinating, the bigger take away from the University of Wisconsin study is that long-term experience with meditation is not necessary to induce neuroplasticity. The scientists found that as little as twenty minutes a day for three weeks can start to reshape the patterns of the brain and increase levels of positive emotions.

The question is – what are you going to do with the next twenty minutes of your day?

Surfer spirit in a world of surf rage

LifeIsBetter

Summer in Tofino is a strange place to be.  The local industry is heavily dependant on tourism, infusing surf schools and local businesses with dollars, which people are thankful for.  Yet, the warm summer days and easier paddles out draw the same beginners out to sit side by side with people who live and die by the shortboard.  I was out in the back lineup two weekends ago, waiting for the next set to come in.  There was another guy in the lineup, a face I have seen over the years, but didn’t know by name.  We’ll call him Steve, and the next wave was his.

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Shabkar on Impermanence

Nineteenth-century Tibetan yogi Shabkar sees the impermanence of all things when his mother dies.  Never forget we are here for a limited time only, to be washed away like footprints on a beach.

Footprints Wash Away... Like us!

“When they placed in my hands my mother’s bones, I thought, “A ho! Things of this world really are nothing. In the past, my old mother, overwhelmed by affection and thinking of her only son, used to weep bitterly and send me messages and letters begging, ‘Son, come back once again.’ But still I did not interrupt my practice. I still thought of my mother as being young, and thought that, even if I did not see her for a few years, she wouldn’t die.”

“Thus, believing in the permanence of things, I kept putting off my return. I purposely deceived her by continuing to write, saying, ‘Next year…I’ll come to see you next year.’ And, in the end, she died without my ever having seen her again.

“Thinking of my mother, I, her bad son, had just set out on my way back to her from a distant place, pack on my back, staff in my hand. I did not have anything of value to bring for her, but I was coming back to her with many comforting words already in mind that would have brought peace to her mind.

“But my merit was insufficient. My mother had already set out on the infamous road called Death. She is no longer in a place where, if I looked, I could see her, or that, if I spoke, she could hear me. She has gone on to the distant land that is the next life.

“Even if, by virtue of having practiced the Dharma, we meet again in our next lives, we did not have the opportunity to meet once again in this life in order to say a few things to one another that would have warmed our hearts.” […]

Disconsolate, my sadness was fathomless. Weeping, I sang this song of mourning:

Lord guru, enlightened one,
Please remain on the crown of my head.
With compassion look upon all sentient beings,
Each one of whom was once my mother,
Especially, look upon my mother of this life,
Whose fate is now in your hands.

I went off, thinking I’d meet
My mother one more time.
I did not meet her–
I met her bones.

Considering, reflecting,
The memory of my mother
Comes to mind. […]

“I have no need to meditate any further on impermanence and death. My mother gave me these teachings, and vanished. Now, if I don’t practice the Dharma–what else is there?”

Shabkar, The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiographie of a Tibetan Yogin

About our Upcoming Book

Final Turtle

Hello and thank you for visiting Dharma in Every Wave! Allow us to tell you about the book we are creating:

We are creating an interactive ebook about surfing, buddhism, and modern neuroscience. It will explore the links between meditation and surfing that people achieve while they’re in the zone, and explain how modern neuroscience parallels insights from Buddhism and the experience of surfing.

The interactive portion will be for tablet computers like the iPad. It will allow readers to watch interviews with Buddhist practitioners, surf videos, play with images and graphs, similar to Al Gores’ iPad application named “Our Choice”. We will also publish a softcover and hardcover version of the book that will include access to an online website or DVD where people can interact with the same content as the digital version.

Here’s a video we put together, originally for a Rockethub fundraising exercise. Though the fundraising is over, the information in the video still applies. Please take a look!

We aim to share the excitement and connections that we see throughout our lives. The connection of surfing, spirituality and the neuroscience behind the commonalities is something that fascinates us. By using each as a metaphor for our own life and development, we believe a richer, more aware state of being can be achieved.

Square Breathing

In the caffeine infused madness of the work day, it’s easy to forget to stop and take a moment to breathe. Here is a simple one minute technique to reset your mind and fuel creativity.

The Square Breath

  1. Sit in a quiet environment (or at your desk if you can’t get away)
  2. Inhale while slowly counting to four
  3. Hold your breath for the same count of four
  4. 
Exhale, again slowing counting to four
  5. Hold your lungs empty for a count of four
  6. Repeat as many times as you like


In essence, you want to create a square with your breath. As you do this, try to focus as much attention as possible on the act of breathing. Afterwards, thank yourself for taking a minute to reorient yourself to your body and the present.

If you liked this post, please sign up to our newsletter and get our free ebook The Dharma on Accomplishing Anything.

Decisions, choice, and the 4 Noble Truths

Just go straight to happiness

 

The 4 Noble Truths were introduced by the Buddha at what is considered to be the first sermon he ever gave after his enlightenment. What made the 4 Noble Truths so fundamentally important that he would discuss them at his first sermon?

I will explain this importance now, by relating the 4 Noble Truths to our experiences as human beings, and the everyday occurrences of our lives.

Put aside your current notions for a moment and try on a new perspective.

Imagine that at our core, we all desire to be happy, and conversely, we all desire to avoid suffering.  Sounds good, right?  It sounds good, because you can feel that this is true.

We can take this idea a small step further.  We could state that every decision we make in life is done so to gain more happiness, and to avoid suffering.

Let me state that again:
“Every decision we make is made to bring us closer to what we BELIEVE will make us happier.”

The important point to note here, however, is that most of us in the group of humanity do not know what will bring us happiness.  We believe we know, and we base our decisions on this belief, which, as will be discussed, is fundamentally flawed.  It is at this point that we make decisions that bring us unhappiness.Our fundamentally flawed awareness affects our decision-making.

And this brings us to the 4 Noble truths.  I will state the more modern composition here, as a basis of discussion.

1.    There is suffering.
2.    There is a cause to the suffering.
3.    There is an end to the suffering.
4.    There is a path that leads out of the suffering.

Simple really.  If you look at it in their most basic forms, these are nothing but two distinct cause and effect scenarios, one bringing about suffering, and one bringing about happiness.

In the first scenario:
1.    There is suffering.
2.     This is a cause to the suffering.

This first cause and effect scenario could be envisioned in a circular fashion.  A vicious circle, so to speak. The causes of suffering lead to suffering, and this suffering leads to more causes, which lead to more suffering, and on and on and on.

In the second scenario:
1.    There is an end to the suffering.
2.    There is a cause to end the suffering, and that is the path that leads out of the suffering.

This second cause and effect scenario could be envisioned as an ever-growing spiral.  By recognizing that there can be an end to suffering, and moving in a path that moves away from suffering, the circle of suffering breaks, and new possibilities open up to us, moving us ever outwards with a positive, generative force.

In ancient India, the concept of the 4 Noble Truths was aligned nicely to the four stages of curing an illness. This analogy still applies today:
1.    There is a sickness
2.    There is a cause to the sickness.
3.    There is a cure to the sickness available.
4.    The sickness is relieved by taking the cure.

We could also align the 4 Noble Truths with any myriad of day-to-day sufferings.
In my mind, I have aligned it with a problem I was having with my surf technique.

No matter what I did, I could not reliably take the drop on larger waves. I could not figure it out.  It was not my positioning in the lineup, or on the board.  I was paddling hard, and giving it all I could.  But no matter what, I was only getting about 25% of the drops, and the rest of the time I would eat it sideways off of the board.  This was frustrating me so much, and as soon as I started feeling the frustration, it seemed that even that 25% success rate dropped to an all time low of… no waves whatsoever.  I just circled around and around in this space of catching little to no waves.

One day, I showed my friend D. what I was doing, and to my relief, she saw it immediately.  ”Your hands are too far apart on the board.  You need to place them closer to the centre of your chest.  And then breathe.”  I didn’t believe that it could be so simple.  Hands, just a couple inches closer, and taking a breath before the drop?

Nonsense!

I lined up for the wave, and paddled as I usually do.  As I felt the board get lifted ahead, I very consciously breathed deep, and pushed down as she had recommended, to my intense, over joyous sense of relief as I dropped down and caught a right for a seemingly endless time.  I spent the rest of the day, and the day after, catching way more waves than I ever had in any single session of the past, and recognized the importance of mindful learning.

In summary, the 4 Noble Truths occurred to me as this:
1.    The was bad technique.
2.    There was a cause to the bad technique, which was poor hand placement.
3.    There was a way to better technique, which consisted of placing my hands closer together, and breathing before popping up.
4.    I applied the recommendations, and my technique immediately improved, along with it, my surfing skills.

Learn to see what really causes your strife, maybe with the help of friends, family, or even a professional teacher!  Then search out your true salvation with vigilance. There definitely is a cure for what ails you, out there, or inside yourself, as the case may be.

Combinatorial Knowledge and Reading in Spheres

Girl reading

Knowledge expresses itself as a fusion of pre-existing ideas. Much like a 26 character alphabet allows us to write the sonnets of Shakespeare or the lyrics to Stupid Hoe (thanks Nicki Minaj…), our own thinking involves permutations of basic elements into fascinating combinations.

We are experts in synthesizing our exposure and experiences in the world into new forms of expression – true artists realize this and embrace it as part of the creative process. Picasso said ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. This wasn’t a proclamation of intellectual theft, but rather an acknowledgement that ideas develop through collisions with one another.

This is the essence of our remix culture and a trending motif behind art and science as we enter the 21st century.

Once acknowledged, how can we capitalize on this feature of our mind in order to facilitate growth?

A strategy that I’ve developed recently (and recommend here) is to outline tiered reading structures that embrace the synthetic nature of our thoughts to streamline creative insight.

This reading structure involves defining key spheres of knowledge that you’re interested in. Then, you devote a portion of your reading time each day to exposing yourself to something in each sphere. This allows your mind to blend the ideas and words together, and give new perspectives to your life and the world around you.

For me as a cognitive neuroscientist working on spatial cognition, I’ve identified the following three areas –

The specialized sphere. This is where I list readings that are specific to my work. It mainly involves peer-reviewed articles covering novel research experiments in spatial cognition and neuro-imaging. Anything that deals with methodology and the operationalization of spatial concepts in cognitive psychology.

The adjacent sphere. This is where I list any readings that are not directly related to my topic of interest, but that are related ideas or meta-structures for my thinking. Books on network theory, general systems philosophy, embodied cognition all find home here. The point of this sphere is to give some adjacent context to my specialized readings, allowing the ideas within to find new synthetic frames to develop. Steven Johnson in his book Where Ideas Come From has an excellent discussion on the necessity of adjacency in the emergence of ideas.

The remote (but interesting) sphere. This is my bucket list of books. Novels, ideas, anything that I want to be exposed to before I die. Currently, it’s filled with books on sci-fi civilizations, the secrets of happiness, stock market & investing and novels about parallel universes. The key here is to follow your interests, acknowledging that highly importance and influential ideas often emerge by following hunches, interests and everything that you love.

The amazing thing about this reading strategy isn’t that creativity is accelerated (although it is), but that you start to see just how connected and networked every idea is in our world.

Eudaemonia and the Happiness of Reasons

For much of history, the idea of happiness was construed as a thing to be obtained – a platonic ideal to be sought through a life in accordance with various philosophical views.

Happiness was to be pursued, rather than experienced.

This view reached is pinnacle in western culture, when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that happiness (for them, hedonism) could be understood quantitatively through a Hedonic Calculus that maximized the hedonism obtained from actions. People could derive the experiences that are likely to lead to happiness and engineer their lives towards seeking them.

Pause for a second and think about this. How good are you at predicting happiness?

For most of us, we are startlingly unable to accurately predict what will make us happy. This has led Daniel Gilbert, a renown Harvard psychologist, to propose that happiness shouldn’t be pursued. Rather, it should be stumbled upon.

Sure, we may be able to approximate the likelihood of us experiencing an event in a happy state, but this is little more than a post-hoc attempt to predict the future based on past experiences. This goes again the role of novelty in happiness: the idea that we are biologically wired to seek growth and new experiences in our world.
So perhaps a better question to ask is: how can you engineer your life to increase the likelihood of stumbling on happiness?

The answer comes in almost direct opposition to Bentham’s and Mill’s Hedonic Calculus. It’s called eudaemonic well-being and is one of the most important concepts in modern psychology.

The core tenant of eudaemonic well-being is summarized nicely in Neitzsche’s aphorism He who has a why can survive any how.

Through structuring your life around meaningful goals, purpose and personal desire, we are able to reframe almost any experience into a positive interpretation – experiences are seen as being necessary to achieve our goal. While Neitzsche structured his aphorism to emphasize how purpose can help people persist in the face of adversity, it has the corresponding effect of generating experiences that lead to greater happiness.

Each moment of our life is seem as being a progression, a necessary stepping stone to further growth and self actualization.

Research in positive psychology has supported this view, showing that people who organize their life around developing eudaemonic well-being (that is, have both long and short term life goals) are more autonomous, healthy and perhaps most important, happy.