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Saturday, October 9, 2010

How to be happy according to buddihism

Perhaps more than any other religion, Buddhism is associated with happiness. According to Buddhist thinking, happiness and sorrow are our own responsibility – and completely within our control.
"Buddhists say everything comes from the mind," says Venerable David Lungtok, a Buddhist monk currently living in Sydney. "If we train our mind properly, happiness will be the result."
It seems like quite a claim – that mental training can make you happy, no matter what happens to you.
But it's a claim that's backed up, not only by two and a half thousand years of religious tradition, but a growing body of research.
So what is it about Buddhism, exactly, that helps you feel happy whatever the circumstances?
And if you're not a Buddhist, can its teachings still help you move towards a happier life?

Positive psychology

A central tenet of Buddhism is that we are not helpless victims of unchangeable emotions.
In the words of Buddha himself, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world."
It's an idea that's in line with current thinking in psychology. In fact, this simple philosophy – that changing the way we think can change the way we feel – underpins the very practice of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), an approach widely used in clinical psychology and counselling, as well as stress management programs.
CBT emerged in the 1970s, and according to the University of Technology Sydney's Dr Sarah Edelman, who wrote a book on the subject entitled Change Your Thinking, it was originally developed to help people recover from problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, anger and self-sabotaging behaviours.
"But its principles are just as relevant for managing the upsetting emotions that arise and disrupt everyday life," says Edelman.
However, while psychologists stress actively challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with more optimistic ones, Buddhists focus more on detaching yourself from all thoughts to create a state of stillness conducive to ultimate self-understanding, or enlightenment.
For Buddhists, the key method of achieving this is meditation – which usually involves fixing our attention on a body part, the breath, a mantra or an inspirational picture – to arrive at a state where we are not distracted by our thoughts.
And psychologists agree that quite aside from any spiritual connotations, meditation is a powerful tool.
Research has shown that practising meditation regularly – and being more 'mindful', that is, focused on the present moment – has beneficial effects for a range of conditions. These include stress, anxiety, depression, poor sleep and coping with chronic pain. It also has other health benefits like reduced inflammation, improved immunity and lower blood pressure.
Most methods suggest meditating for about 20 minutes twice a day, although many people will find it useful to start with five to 10 minutes twice a day and to build from there.
Lungtok describes meditation as "a method to make the mind relaxed and peaceful. Tranquility gives rise to clarity from which understanding and wisdom grow."
This wisdom, explains Lungtok, allows us to observe that negative emotions such as anger and desire cause all of our problems. However by applying antidotes, it's possible to free ourselves from their harmful influence.
So for instance, to overcome anger, Buddhists cultivate the practice of patience. To counteract desire – say for wealth, status or a lover – one reflects upon the impermanent and transitory nature of life and everything in it.
Similarly, positive behaviours such as acting in a kind and loving way, or as Buddhists say, practising 'loving-kindness', give rise to joyful experiences and we should therefore try to cultivate them.

Meditation in the lab

Dr Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the US, and his team, have examined the brain activity of eight longtime expert Buddhist practitioners, including monks, while they meditated on unconditional compassion, generating loving empathic thoughts toward all beings.
As a control, 10 student volunteers with no previous meditation experience were also tested after one week of training.
"Our research is related to what Buddhists call neuroplasticity," explains Dr Antoine Lutz, the project's principal investigator.
"We wanted to test whether the training of the mind as cultivated using Buddhist meditative techniques can alter brain functions such as attention and emotions. Comparing these two groups was a way to see whether there's a relationship between mind training and brain activity."
As both groups meditated on compassion, the scientists recorded gamma waves in the subjects' brains using an electroencephalogram. Gamma waves are some of the highest-frequency and most important electrical brain impulses, due to their association with perception and consciousness.
Intriguingly, the electrodes detected much greater gamma wave activity in the experienced meditators, and found that this was much better organised and coordinated than in the brains of the novice meditators.
The novice meditators showed only a slight increase in gamma wave activity while meditating, but some of the experienced meditators produced gamma wave activity more powerful than has ever been reported. And those who had spent the most years meditating had the highest level of all.
Significantly, previous studies have associated mental activities such as attention, memory and learning with the kind of augmented neural coordination found in the experienced meditators.
The extreme gamma wave activity detected in this group has also been associated with weaving together far-flung brain circuits, suggesting higher mental activity and heightened awareness of those mental states most likely to bring happiness.
"The spectacular difference between the two groups suggests that mental training as cultivated in this contemplative tradition can radically alter brain functions," confirms Lutz.
"This is further supported by the group difference in the initial electrical baseline," he continues, "which also suggests these changes persist in a way that infuses daily life with certain qualities cultivated by meditation.
"So certainly this collaborating research with the Buddhist tradition informs our understanding on the possible mechanisms involved in mind training, and possibly wellbeing."

Good without God

Of course, many other great religious and philosophical traditions teach contemplative or meditative practices and although these differ in detail, they seem to overlap in principle.
"It's just that Buddhists have developed these very precise techniques to improve happiness," says Lutz. "And because they exist, you can more easily study and apply them to a secular environment. Indeed, the motivation for us is to see how these techniques can help the man in the street who doesn't believe in anything religious."
It's interesting to note though, that following any religion is one of the factors correlated with happiness. And studies show if you're religious you're less likely to be depressed, anxious and suicidal than nonreligious people. Chances are you also cope better with life crises such as illness and bereavement.
Whether this comes down to having a sense of purpose and meaning, social support, or other factors is not yet known.
But Monash University's Dr Craig Hassed suspects being 'religious' may be less important than an initial reading of the research suggests.
"The studies mostly measure what they call religious commitment because that's an easier thing to measure," says Hassed, a Senior Lecturer in Monash's Department of General Practice.
"But the problem with this is that somebody can be very 'religious' in that they attend church or belong to a religious group, but not necessarily very 'spiritual' in their outlook. Or a person can be very spiritual in their outlook but not necessarily interested in formal religion."
Hassed defines 'spiritual' as the quality of a person's core values. "If, for example, people express compassion in their daily life, if they respect and live according to simple natural laws and principles, if they believe in the interconnectedness of life, they're leading a very 'spiritual' life."
So while few studies have made this distinction, Hassed speculates that a person's level of happiness ultimately depends less on their 'religion' and much more on their core 'spiritual' values.

How to be happy

Even the Dalai Lama has said that in order to be a good person and a happy person, it's not necessary to practice Buddhism, or for that matter any religion.
After all, neither is needed for virtuous states of mind such as kindness, love, respect for others and a desire to help them to arise.
"It is these positive states of mind themselves that bring happiness to the individual and the people he or she engages with," says Lungtok.
"Therefore as we're all seeking happiness, it makes sense to try to be as good as possible."

Friday, October 8, 2010

How to organize your study area

The study area for a college student should be the least decorated room/area the student is ever exposed to. Too much distraction can prove fatal, especially during finals week. The important thing to keep in mind is the world simple. If there must be decoration, keep it to a minimum. Do not hang colorful or bright posters near the area. If there is a window in the vicinity, hang curtains of one color over them so the window will not distract the person studying.
Keep the area clean. A messy area is very distracting. Having papers and books littered all over the place will only remind a student of how much work he or she has to do, and that can be very stressful. Also, the more obsessive-compulsive students will only think about how much they will want to clean instead of study.
Use comfortable furniture. Sitting in a hard-backed chair does nothing for a person trying to concentrate. On the other hand, having a squishy couch runs the risk of a student falling asleep while reading a book. It is good to find a happy medium between hard and soft.
Do not have a TV or radio in the vicinity. Many students like to turn on these devices and say it helps them study, but in reality, it is a severe distraction, and can make a student completely forget what subject he or she is working on. It is very easy to be distracted by moving pictures on a screen or the beats of a song. When in doubt, leave it turned off or move it out of the room/area.
Laptops are a tricky subject. On the one hand, having them in the area is handy when something needs to be researched, but with Facebook and MySpace bookmarked next to Google, it is easy to just "check" an account and subsequently forget about studying. If studying does not require a computer, it is best to keep the computer turned off and put away.
It is good to have a file cabinet or a desk with several drawers. The messy papers mentioned earlier can be filed by subject into different notebooks and stored away for future use. This clears the clutter and keeps things organized.
Pen holders are often forgotten about but are very useful. Some pen holders nowadays even contain sticky notes, perfect for when a student wishes to write a little note without searching for a whole piece of paper.
Having a desk lamp is also very helpful. If a student has to share his or her study area with another student, having a lamp will be useful when the other student wishes to sleep and the first student needs to study or do homework. Instead of having an overhead light on, a desk lamp can illuminate just enough for the studying student to work. Also note, however, studying like this can be bad for the eyes.
In short, the study area should be a sanctuary of quiet and peace. Though that may be difficult in dorm room life, it is a necessity for success in college.