Dawn of the Year 2015

Up for the dawn

Up for the dawn

Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me….We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look….To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Thoreau, Walden

Happy New Year! May 2015 bring more of the dawn’s promising light.

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Feeding Your Inner Wolves: A “Traditional” Cherokee Tale

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves that are inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The Grandson thought about this and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.”

I like and agree with the gist of this tale, that what we pay attention to ends up ruling our lives. (It’s the psychic analogue of the idea that we are what we eat.)

That said, are we really to believe an old Cherokee rattled off this suspiciously modern (not to mention progressive!) list of virtues and vices? Hardly. Rather, I suspect the particular values we’re being fed here were cooked up by the academic psychologist who provided this unattributed “traditional Cherokee story” at the beginning of his textbook discussion of positive psychology. No doubt it’s a fitting introduction to positive psychology, but I’d love to hear how the original tale was told.

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Definition of the Day: “Meditation”

I have read and heard many definitions of “meditation” in my time, but the one below strikes me as perhaps the best. It captures the core aspects of meditation, so that by committing the definition to memory you are internalizing a simple way of reminding yourself what you are to be doing when doing that thing called meditating.

Without further ado, Meditation is

paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment.

This is a functional definition. So, if you sit in a dignified position, set a timer for two minutes, and decide on purpose to pay attention in the present moment to your breath in and your breath out, and then close your eyes and do this, you are meditating. It’s that simple. Oh, and if during this time your mind should get up and wander over to the day’s to-do list, etc, then you simply bring your attention back to the breath—without judging yourself negatively because your attention wandered. (If it’s any consolation, it’s in the nature of minds to wander. As suggested in earlier posts, the untrained natural mind is like an elephant’s trunk or a rabid dog’s mouth.)

Hat tip: The definition comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn. I heard it while listening to an audio series he and Dr. Andrew Weil put together, Meditation for Optimum Health: How to Use Mindfulness and Breathing to Heal. For those interested in an excellent, straightforward, ideology-free introduction to meditation and breathwork, it’s hard to do better than this. (If you’re curious about the virtues of vomiting, you can read some reflections inspired by the good doctor Weil here.)

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The Science of How to Learn Anything

Some time ago I introduced a post offering advice for serious readers by bemoaning the fact that in all my years as a student I never once had a teacher who spoke in any detail about how to read and study effectively. Well, I just finished reading the best, most up-to-date book on the subject, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. For anyone serious about learning anything, you cannot do better than to read this book. If I were king, it would be required reading for teachers and students and, well, everyone. (Aren’t you glad I’m not king!)

The book is written by two cognitive scientists who have dedicated their careers to the study of learning and memory. But don’t be discouraged, for these academics were wise enough to bring on a third author, writer and novelist Peter Brown, to help them tell the story. As a result, the book isn’t just chock full of fascinating and useful information, it’s also a great read—which is something one cannot say about most academic writing. The book is full of illustrative stories about learners across the spectrum, from athletes, gardeners, and soldiers to undergrads, professors, medical students, and neurosurgeons.

As the authors point out in the preface, many of the widely accepted theories and practices surrounding learning are neither supported by evidence nor effective. In other words, much of what you’ve learned about how to study and practice is probably wrong. To take just one example, rereading text and the single-minded repetition of something you’re trying to burn into memory, the “practice-practice-practice” philosophy behind cramming, may give rise to a feeling of fluency and mastery, but, as the authors argue, “for true mastery these strategies are largely a waste of time.”

Here’s a brief summary of some of the effective ways to learn presented in the book. First, it’s far better to review by practicing retrieving facts, concepts, events, physical skills and the like from memory first. Second, spacing out practice sessions—actually letting yourself forget a little of what you’re learning before trying to recall it—is very effective. For example, if you’re a student taking several classes, one way to do this is to “interleave the practice of two or more subjects” in one study session: spend half an hour on calculus, then turn to those Greek paradigms, then turn to Aristotle’s text. Then go back to the calculus problem, the Greek paradigms, and so on. Finally, it is much better to attempt to come up with your own argument, solve the problem, or otherwise figure something out for yourself first, before learning from others how it works.

Perhaps you’ve noticed one thing all these methods have in common: they’re harder than what most of us do.  Alas, when it comes to learning, easier is not better:

Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful. Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.

In my experience, many teachers and students alike are eager to believe that learning should be fun and easy. Scads of books are devoted to telling you how learning and remembering and becoming a master of anything can be made easy. (In my book on friendship and dogs, I discuss how this wishful thinking is peddled to dog owners in the name of “positive-only” training methods, and how these diminish the possibility of friendship.) There are deep reasons why learning and mastery are not easy. Among them,

Psychologists have uncovered a curious inverse relationship between the ease of retrieval practice and the power of that practice to entrench learning: the easier knowledge or a skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit your retention of it. Conversely, the more effort you have to expend to retrieve knowledge or skill, the more the practice of retrieval will entrench it.

Or, as Spinoza (and, in so many words, Plato before him) famously said: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

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The Way of the Monkey or the Way of the Kitten

In India there are two images used to characterize the “two principal religious attitudes” found among human beings. One is the “way of the kitten”; the other is the “way of the monkey.” When a kitten cries, its mother takes it by the scruff and carries it to safety. In contrast, watch a troop of monkeys, and you’ll see that the babies riding on their mothers’ backs are hanging on by themselves. With this in mind,

the first is [the religious attitude] of the person who prays, “O Lord, O Lord, come save me!” and the second is that of one who, without such prayers or cries, goes to work on himself.

I came across this charming distinction in Joseph Campbell’s book, Myths to Live By. He uses it to introduce the Zen attitude toward life, which is the way of the monkey with a vengeance, inasmuch as their way is to work on oneself and cultivate the power that lies within. Other forms of Buddhism (the Jodo and Shinsu sects of Japan, for example) seek enlightenment by calling upon a transcendent power to grant release from rebirth.

While Campbell calls these “religious attitudes,” they seem to me to get at something deeper and more universal than religion. They illustrate a basic division among soul types. When we are seeking something or in a crisis of some sort, some of us instinctively look to ourselves, while others instinctively look outside themselves.

Of course, such grand distinctions are ultimately too simple to have much real explanatory power. Having said that, I suspect that most readers will immediately recognize whether their way is more that of the kitten or that of the monkey.

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OR-7: A Lone Wolf’s Story

OR-7,  photographed in May 2014

OR-7, photographed in May 2014

On a quiet Sunday morning last summer I saw my first wolf in the wild. I was near the end of a long trail run when I noticed him gazing steadily at me from a grassy clearing about 15 meters off the trail. Needless to say, he’d seen me first.

Captivated, I dared not break my stride or alter the rhythm of my breath, for fear any change would send him off. A few precious seconds elongated and passed in slow motion, the wolf looking at me as I looked at him. Then he turned away and trotted up the slope, into the trees, and out of sight.

Later, when I was trying to decide whether what I’d seen wasn’t an awfully big dog, I remembered the way he looked at me and how I’d been certain from his gaze that he wasn’t a domestic dog. Nor could it be a coyote, since it’s unheard of for coyotes to be more than 74 pounds, and they’re usually much smaller. (According to Wikipedia, coyotes generally range from 15 to 45 pounds.) But this canine was big, easily over 100 pounds. My German shepherd Aktis weighs in between 90 and 100 pounds, and this animal was considerably larger than Aktis. He just didn’t look or act like a domestic dog, and there’s no dog that lives within 10 miles that looks anything like what I saw.

Ultimately I persuaded myself that what I saw was the coyote’s closest relative, the gray wolf. In fact, it’s most likely that I saw the now famous gray wolf, OR-7, who was born into the Imnaha pack of wolves in northeast Oregon. He was among the 64 wolves living in Oregon that biologists counted last winter.

For the past three years he’s been wandering alone—”in search of a mate”, apparently. Since he’s wearing a radio collar, biologists have tracked those wanderings, which included time in northern California. (There’s a map of his route here.) As I learned later, he was known to be in our neck of the woods on the day I saw him.

OR-7's pups

Two of OR-7’s pups

On June 2nd, 2014, biologists looking for OR-7 in the southern Cascades found these pups, presumed to be the offspring of OR-7 and his mate. Amazingly, after years of wandering alone over a large territory in which there were very few known wolves, he got lucky and met a black female wolf. Her origins are as yet unknown.

So now we have the first known wolf pups born in the Oregon Cascades since at least the 1940s. It’s wonderful how robust wildlife can be, given a chance. (The “chance” in this case is the Endangered Species Act that protects wolves.)  I’m glad they’re back in the neighborhood. And given how close we are to California’s border, it’s likely that wolves will reintroduce themselves there eventually.

As recently as the 1600s, there were over 2 million wolves in North America alone; now there are less than 200,000 worldwide. In contrast, there are estimated to be over 525 million dogs worldwide. In a cruel irony, dogs were used extensively among early Americans (including some of the founding fathers) to hunt down and exterminate wolves. Pretty ungrateful way to treat your ancestors. But for better and worse, dogs, like most of us, live by the motto that the enemy of my friend is an enemy of mine. 

I’ve written several posts on wolves and their relation to dogs. This one in particular may interest the canine cognescenti among you; it also has links to other related posts. In my book, I explore how dogs split off from wolves, inheriting the wolf’s cooperative genius and using it to befriend human beings—again, at the expense of wolves. For a human being and a good dog are as formidable a pair of hunters as you will find.

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Syphilis, Hypnotism, Buddhism, and the History of Psychology

Lately I’ve been reading Ronald Comer’s textbook on abnormal psychology. Needless to say, it’s a very big book.

The author classifies many theories and therapies according to whether they adopt a somatogenic or psychogenic approach to mental illness. In other words, do they trace the root cause of a given disorder to the body or to the mind? From what I can tell, one would be foolish to claim that either one is ultimately responsible for every disorder. As I discuss in an earlier post on mind over matter, most aspects of our lives—including our physical, mental and spiritual well-being—are a function of both in some ratio. (The ratio varies from condition to condition. Schizophrenia presumably has a greater ratio of somatogenic elements, depresssion a greater ratio of psychogenic elements.)

In recognition of this fact, a growing number in psychology subscribe to a “biopsychosocial” approach to what’s responsible for disorders; likewise, a growing number of therapists are eclectic in their approach to treatment, adopting a psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, sociocultural, or biological view—or some combination thereof—depending on the client and the disorder.

What does all this have to do with syphilis, hypnosis, and Buddhism? In the introductory chapter of the textbook I learned that in 1897, German neurologist Richard von Kraft-Ebing found that in some cases delusions of grandeur and dementia could be traced to the bacterial infection associated with syphilis. Kraft-Ebing injected matter from syphilis sores into patients suffering from general paresis, the symptoms of which include delusions of grandeur, dementia, and paralysis. When the patients didn’t develop the symptoms of syphilis, he hypothesized that their immunity was caused by an earlier case of syphilis, and that in fact syphilis was ultimately responsible for the later-stage symptoms of general paresis. For defenders of the somatogenic view this was powerful evidence that mental disorders are ultimately rooted in physical disease processes.

In the same decade that Kraft-Ebing made his findings, powerful evidence for the psychogenic view was also discovered. Vienna physician Josef Breuer found that patients suffering from hysterical disorders often “awoke free of hysterical symptoms after speaking candidly under hypnosis about past upsetting events.”

Speaking one’s mind appeared to be healing. The “talking cure” was born.

Which brings me to  an interesting twist in the history of psychoanalysis. Not long after this discovery, another Vienna physician, Sigmund Freud, joined Breuer in his work on hypnosis. In retrospect it’s no wonder Freud came to take the unconscious so seriously: it was that part of the mind to which hypnosis granted access, and the  contents buried there seemed likely to be a master key in treating patients.

The rest is history. Freud pioneered the psychogenic approach to mental illness, endeavoring to heal patients by engaging them in conversation meant to expose and resolve the causes of the illness, which were to be found in conscious and unconscious experiences, thoughts, feelings, fantasies, dreams.

Finally, Buddhists have long appreciated that awakening to our whole nature is both healing and enlightening.  For 2500 years Buddhism has been cultivating techniques aimed at exposing and resolving the causes of psychic suffering. Among other things, insight meditation and mindfulness practices are powerful tools for identifying the range of unexamined and largely unconscious maladaptive assumptions and feelings and behaviors that western-trained therapists now help clients identify in the course of treatment. (Practiced meditators encounter this content as the interior chatter one awakens to as one sits quietly, observing whatever sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts, dreams, or fantasies, arise.) It’s no wonder that techniques borrowed from the ancient traditions of yoga and Buddhism are fast becoming part of the contemporary therapist’s repertoire.

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