Transcript of the Video
Hello and welcome to DhammaTime. You can learn about five things here: How to live life more fully, how to improve mental health, how to become a happier person, how to systematically explore the nature of being and how to stop suffering. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It also sounds like one big advertisement, so let me try and make this a bit more tangible.
By living life more fully I mean packing more conscious experience into the same amount of time. You can do that by learning to look at the world as if seeing it for the first time again, fully aware and endowed with child-like curiosity. You see, consciousness is only ever activated when our unconscious mind can’t readily deal with a given situation, or in other words, when we experience something new. This is the reason why when you go on a trip the way back always seems shorter and also why the older we get, the quicker time seems to pass by.
In order to improve mental health, you can train yourself to be more aware of your state of mind and also learn to focus on one thing at a time in a relaxed way. If you do this regularly, you will find that you can do anything more efficiently, while at the same time granting yourself the rest breaks you require not to get sick from stress. You will also find it easier to free yourself from the circular thinking involved in anxiety and depression and may experience a positive effect on various other mental disorders.
The key to being a happier person is learning to enjoy in the small things in life. On DhammaTime, we take small to a whole new level. Imagine how good you would feel if you would be happy just to breathe in and out. And if you then included pleasure and happiness themselves as part of the small things you would generate a feedback loop leading you to new heights of pleasure and happiness that are completely independent of outside conditions.
Now, what is this about exploring the nature of being? It means closely observing your own experience with a sense of openness and equanimity. Did you know that there is a blind spot in the field of vision of each of your eyes? All humans have it but we can’t see it because as it turns out we don’t see that we don’t see. Humbled by such insight, we may let go of the rigid views and opinions we have accumulated over the years, and instead be open to new impressions. By remaining equanimous, we reduce what is known as the attentional blink, the phenomenon that reacting to an experience makes the mind blink, as it were, unable to see what happens right after. You can think of the attentional blink as the little sibling of being blinded by love or rage. The combination of an open mind and an equanimous attitude allows you to make truly fascinating discoveries.
Some of these discoveries are about the nature of suffering and how to stop it. Suffering is quite a complex subject, so for the sake of brevity and clarity, in this introduction I will only address the most obvious kind of suffering, the one we all know from daily life that arises when things are not going our way. Such personal suffering can be reduced by training the mind not to cling to pleasurable experiences and not to resist painful ones. That doesn’t make you unable to enjoy life’s pleasures, nor does it turn you into a living punching bag, it just gives you more freedom of choice is all.
Not clinging or resisting is easier said than done, but exploring your experience can bring about changes in perspective that make it possible. I’d like to illustrate this with a simile. Imagine a wave of water. Zooming in really close, you can see lots of interacting H2O molecules, but you cannot see the wave anymore. Zooming out really far, you can see the whole ocean and the original wave becomes but a small interconnected part of that ocean. You, as you are currently experiencing yourself, are like the wave and when you zoom in on your experience, you will stop seeing the self for the perceptions, thoughts and feelings it consists of. Without a sense of self then, all the suffering related to the self drops away. Zooming out, you can see that you are part of an interconnected universe and then your personal suffering suddenly becomes considerably smaller. All of these perspectives are equally true, even though for most of us, most of the time, the zoom is locked at the default setting.
So these are the things you can learn about on DhammaTime. Because there is so much more to all of this than fits into one short video I have designed a course for that. The video you are watching right now is the introduction of that course.
The course is offered free of charge, meaning you can watch all the lessons for no money. So how do we cover our costs and keep DhammaTime alive? Our main source of income is our membership program. DhammaTime members pay a mostly self-determined monthly contribution and in return have access to audio recordings of guided meditations, can browse our advice database, request individual advice and join us on our official community forums. You are invited to become a part of DhammaTime in this way, but it’s optional and not required in order to take the course.
Okay then, that’s DhammaTime in a nutshell. See the Tradition notes for the historical origins of the contents of this course and the Science notes for the scientific evidence that backs the claims I have made throughout this video. My name is Markus, by the way, and if you’d like to know more about me you can find a short biography linked in the Miscellaneous notes. To continue with the next lesson simply register a free DhammaTime account and log in. I’ll see you then.
The contents of the DhammaTime course root in ancient Indian philosophy and religious practice. Mind you, DhammaTime is in no way religious, everything here is as rational as can be, but there is something incredibly pragmatic and helpful about the ideas and practices that prevailed in India about 2500 years ago. Probably the most famous spiritual teacher of that time was Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly referred to as the Buddha and his teachings are known as the Dhamma in Pali or Dharma in Sanskrit. The word can also mean phenomenon or the truth or nature of things, depending on the context.
What I value most in the early Buddhist teachings is the emphasis on individual practice. Philosophical conjecture can generate concepts and ideas, but only by gathering empirical data can one gain real knowledge. Science follows the same basic tenet, the difference being that Buddhist practice is analyzing inner experience (also known as phenomenology) and science is analyzing the external world. There is a growing interest in combining these disciplines, but these things take time.
If you are interested in the scholarly exploration of traditional early Buddhist views on the development of the mind, I can recommend the books Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (also available as a free ebook), Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna and Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, all by Bhikkhu Anālayo.
If you are not really the scholar type but would like some practical wisdom from a Buddhist meditation master, I can recommend the Dhamma talks by Ajahn Chah. He was an icon of pragmatism in the Buddhist world. Many of his talks have been recorded and translated to English. You can find a collection of Ajahn Chah’s teachings both as a free ebook (2011) and a set of free audio recordings (2012, spoken by Ajahn Amaro). If you prefer real books and don’t mind that a couple of talks are missing compared to the electronic versions, there is also a paperback edition called Food for the Heart.
Living life more fully
There is scientific evidence for the phenomenon that time seems to slow down the more different conscious experiences you have in a given amount of time. A moment of conscious awareness of a particular phenomenon correlates with a quasi-stable spatio-temporal electromagnetic (EM) field pattern that spans the cortex of the human brain. As a different phenomenon appears in the mind, there is a rapid transition to a different state of the EM field. It has been proposed that the shorter these quasi-stable periods between the transitions are, the more conscious experiences fit the same amount of time and, therefore, time seems to slow down (Fingelkurts et al, 2010).
Improving mental health
It probably goes without saying that chronic stress isn’t good for you. It seems to be a contributor to a couple of diseases, including depression, cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer (Cohen et al, 2007). There is a meditation-based clinical intervention called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) that has become very popular over the past couple of decades and gave birth to a number of similar approaches. Together these mindfulness based therapies accumulated a mountain of evidence that is so huge scientists are now plotting graphs to summarize it. Here is a plot from a study that summarizes 81 systematic reviews (that’s a summary of 81 summaries of other studies) published to February 2014.
As you can see there is evidence for several mindfulness based approaches to help with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, pain, psychosis and improve overall health. Mindfulness (Pali: sati) is the defining factor of most (if not all) meditation, as will become clear in the course. A particularly potent candidate for improving anxiety and worry are breathing meditations, see Jerath et al (2015) for a review.
Pleasure and happiness
Reducing stress alone will be a relief for many of us, but we can do better. Scientists have discovered that the pleasurable feelings meditators regularly report during certain states of high concentration (Pali: jhāna) correlate with a self-activation of the reward system of the brain (Hagerty et al, 2013). That system is typically active during activities that are useful for gene-survival, i.e. it is the reason eating and procreating feels good. It is also the reason drugs of abuse feel good, but meditators don’t regularly turn into addicts because they typically include introspective techniques that put these highly pleasurable states into perspective and avoid clinging to them.
The blind spot
The following image shows two types of eyes. On the left is the kind that humans have and on the right the kind that octopi have.
As you can plainly see, the layout of nerves in our eyes is not exactly optimal. Not only does it block some light but it also creates a blind spot. Octopi, on the other hand, do not have these issues with their eyes, which excludes them from doing the following experiment.
You can make visible the blind spot with the following trick: Close your left eye and with your right eye stare straight at this bold letter: X. Then fully extend your right arm in front of you and make a “thumbs up” gesture so that the top of your thumb covers the X. Slowly move your extended arm to the right while staring at the X, so that your thumb crosses the field of vision of your right eye horizontally. At some point you will notice that a pretty large part of the thumb vanishes. This is pretty cool when you see it for the first time and it makes unmistakably clear that you don’t see that you don’t see, otherwise there would be a grey spot or something in that area.
The attentional blink
The attentional blink is the phenomenon that when humans are shown a couple of relevant stimuli in rapid succession, the first stimulus seems to occupy the brain for a moment, so that the second one is missed. Research on how meditation practice affects the attentional blink has been conducted e.g. by Slagter et al (2008). They found that a 3 month insight meditation (Pali: vipassanā) retreat reduced the amount of brain ressources spent on the first stimulus and thereby increased their chance of seeing the second.
I’m afraid it’s a bit more difficult to muster scientific evidence for this one, partly because science is really in its infancy when it comes to taking seriously first person evidence and partly because it is not a simple feat to accomplish. Please note that stopping suffering is not about reducing stress or anxiety, I’ve covered these topics already. It’s also not about feeling good, I’ve covered that too. It relates to insight into the deepest nature of existence as I tried to illuminate using the simile of the wave in the ocean in the video. For an overview of what science currently has to say about the neural correlates of such experiences of seasoned meditators, see e.g. this article by Davis and Vago (2013).
- Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D. and Miller, G.E. (2007). Psychological stress and disease. JAMA, 298(14):1685-7. Pubmed
- Davis, J.H. and Vago, D.R. (2013). Front Psychol., 4:870 Free full-text on PMC
- Fingelkurts, An.A., Fingelkurts, Al.A. and Neves, C.F.H. (2010). Natural world physical, brain operational, and mind phenomenal space-time. Physics of Life Reviews, 7(2):195-249. Free full-text in author’s archive
- Hagerty, M.R., Isaacs, J., Brasington, L., Shupe, L., Fetz, E.E., Cramer, S.C. (2013) Case Study of Ecstatic Meditation: fMRI and EEG Evidence of Self-Stimulating a Reward System. Neural Plasticity, vol. 2013, Article ID 653572 PubMed, Free full-text on Hindawi
- Hempel, S., Taylor, S.L., Marshall, N.J., Miake-Lye, I.M., Beroes, J.M., Shanman, R., Solloway, M.R. and Shekelle, P.G. (2014). Evidence Map of Mindfulness [Internet]. VA Evidence-based Synthesis Program Reports. Free full-text on PubMed health
- Jerath, R., Crawford, M.W., Barnes, V.A. and Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback, 40(2):107-15. PubMed, Free full-text on ResearchGate
- Slagter, H.A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Francis, A.D., Nieuwenhuis, S. et al (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends Cogn Sci., 12(4):163-169 Free full-text on PMC
- A short biography of Markus Echterhoff
- A comparison of the DhammaTime online course to other meditative programs (Buddhism, general relaxation techniques, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Vipassana retreats and Yoga meditation).