Cracking Open the Closed Mind

It’s been a bad year, out of control. As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough, we’re faced with extreme denial—a rotten stew of conspiracy theories and lazy thinking.

People on opposite political sides are mostly in the business of getting their biases confirmed. On both left and right, most see what they want to see and avoid what they don’t. They act as if one side’s always right and the other’s always wrong. It’s childish and absurd. It’s also corrosive. The periodic switching of governments between left and right has been the engine of political debate since the first parliament in 1215, but now respectful exchange has turned to cynicism—a social cancer. In the States of America, and in other countries too, large portions of each side believes the other is evil. This is leading nowhere good.

What can we do? Tell people they’re in denial and they’ll just deny it! Which brings us to the question of the day—how to talk to the other side?
I learned from my debate teacher Geshe Rabten that the best way to win an argument isn’t to challenge your adversary’s ideas. Rather, you question them, drawing out each argument and exposing every weaknesses until they contradict themselves. Hurling your truths at them just hardens their position.

You get into the other person’s head with empathy. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you listen without letting your own beliefs get in the way. It’s exactly the same open mind you need to do science—no prejudice, no expectations. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to pry the mind open, especially when it comes to ideas you personally identify with.

Confirmation bias is a natural human instinct that we rely on every day. The more it operates unconsciously, the more ingrained it becomes. On the other hand, mindfulness over time brings it to the surface. It loses its power, and objectivity becomes an option. It’s not easy to see your own biases. It takes a sort of awakening.

For example, speaking recently to a lady who supported Donald Trump, I asked, “Do you think he’s a decent man?” She was visibly stressed by the question, and went to great lengths to avoid saying ‘no.’ However she couldn’t bring herself to say, ‘yes.’ Her confidence was shaken; a chink of daylight got it. I don’t need her to agree with me. I just want her to doubt herself, and I want the doubt to sink in. Why bombard her with ideas she already hates?

Two promising vaccines were announced this week and it looks like there’ll be an endgame to Covid-19. Deniers, however, will always be with us. You can’t just shoot a vaccine into their brains. They have to see their own biases and confront them with honesty and humility. Most people will never do this, but there are always some, as the Buddha put it, with little dust on their eyes.

That would be you. So go out there and create some mindful, empathic chinks. Make them doubt themselves. Go on, I know you can do it.

Sam’s Life: What’s the Point?

Sam’s an interesting cat. He darts out of his room each morning as soon as I open the door, then loops right back to nuzzle my hand before he completes the circle back to the foot of the stairs. Before I even get there, two steps away, he’s remembered the scratching post! Back he goes to embed his claws in the sisal—you’d think he’s trying to pull them right out of his paw. By then I’m half-way upstairs and he flies past. I hear the pitter-patter but his feet are a blur. He literally seems airborne. Don’t you love the way cats move?

Sam
Sam

By the time I’m upstairs he’s on his butt licking his crotch. This has nothing to do with personal hygiene. It’s a message: “This is my domain.” This morning, yesterday morning, the morning before—always the same. Next, breakfast; to be followed by sleep, play, etc. You can set your watch by his rituals.

That’s how Sam keeps body and soul together—automated brain patterns. My primary school teachers, all Catholic nuns, insisted that animals have no souls. I never believed that. Animals don’t have our cognitive skills, true, but so what? I don’t think Sam worries about his existential condition nearly as much as I do. Pet-owners often envy their pets you know. It’s funny how often this comes up in mindfulness classes. They say their animals are more in the moment than they’ll ever be!

My Buddhist teachers explained how cognitive skills enable us to upgrade learned behavior and free ourselves from it. It’s a tempting idea that I’ve found to be true—sort of. What they didn’t explain is that freedom is relative; you have to keep working at it, and of course you’ve got to be pretty clear about what you’re freeing yourself from. That’s the hard part.

The question of meaning nags at our species. We’re so obsessed with our vast cognitive powers (I’m not being facetious) that we keep trying to put it into words. A million theories and beliefs, but nothing agreed. However, one look at human behavior shows consensus. Forget about what we should do and look at what we do do. What fulfills us more than any idea? The feeling of acceptance, love and communion that we get from connecting to others.

Ziggy

Sometimes, Sam looks up into my eyes, just like his brother Ziggy here, and sends a shiver up my spine.

The Food Habit

Just over six years ago, Caroline and I changed our diet. It was pretty dramatic. I’d grown up in an Italian kitchen and she in a Lebanese, both of which lean heavily on grain and dairy. Now we quit gluten and dairy. And oh yes, sugar. We had to learn to cook—and eat—all over again.

This is the Wahls Protocol and it’s for people with autoimmune disease, like Caroline’s multiple sclerosis. We first heard of it a couple of years earlier. It was radical. No more pasta and Parmesan? What—not even baguette and Brie? We couldn’t imagine! We toyed with some of the recipes. I bought a dehydrator and made some kale chips. It was a laugh. We forgot about it. Finally I put the dehydrator up for sale on Kijiji.

Two years later MS fatigue and vertigo were taking a toll on Caroline and she was spending whole frustrating days in bed. The doctors had nothing for her. We finally went on the diet, and it paid off almost immediately. Caroline gained energy, and we both lost pounds. We were motivated, which was just as well because it turned our kitchen upside down. Old recipes were useless. Our favorite dishes—especially the convenient ones—were off-limits.

Caroline was on her feet again and that’s what mattered. But we learned more. Twenty-first century eating isn’t just about fueling up. We now became intimately aware of our comfort foods and the cravings that drove them. Our expectations of various food and our reactions to them are expertly manipulated by slick marketing that targets the instinctive reward system. We get stuck in a vicious cycle of craving high-calorie food and then eating it, only to crave more. At the same time, I realized that to disconnect those triggers I had to shed a nostalgic connection to my childhood self.

In time the carb cravings eased off. I started to experience the satisfaction of a full stomach for the first time in my life. After a meal, I was done. This surprised me greatly. I’m not sure I ever really believed I’d quit pasta, let alone sugar. Growing up in Dad’s restaurant, food was a sacrament to be treated with reverence and longing. I could limit my plate of pasta, but I never wanted to. There was no satisfaction. My two sisters, brother and I all emerged into the world with refined tastes and a profoundly sweet tooth. We identified personally with our foods. My brother’s cassata was to die for. My sister’s tiramisu was divine. You get the picture.

Now consider what the great cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “It is easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” She wasn’t joking.

This is even more true when you’re dependent on processed foods—pretty well everything on a supermarket shelf. They’re engineered these days by taste experts, the same way apps are engineered by attention experts. They want you addicted. If you can’t stop, don’t blame yourself—and don’t take it as a personal failing. Consumer marketing has you in its sights. It targets your most basic hard-wired salt and sugar reward systems, associates them with dreamlike images and creates expectations that just can’t be satisfied. It takes more than brute willpower to step out of that vicious circle. You need a real-life motivator and—no less important—support.

After twenty-eight years, Caroline’s still on her feet because she’s a member of the MS Gym,* as well as Wahls Protocol groups. Members exchange their challenges and achievements. They get feedback and encouragement. She’s connecting to people in her shoes who care, and who are trying just as she’s trying. They’re not just experts, although some of them are. They call themselves MS-warriors. They’re awesome.

Ever tried changing your diet—perhaps your entire lifestyle? I’d love this to become a conversation. Please share or comment below.
=======================================
* Check out Trevor Wicken, an extraordinary MS resource.

Getting Along with Covid-19

“THANK GOD WE GET ALONG!”

I’m not sure how many times I’ve said that to Caroline since we went into lockdown—but a lot. There’s just the two of us here. We work, play, eat and sleep together 24/7. I’m not just being polite—I really am grateful for the way we live together. Not that we never disagree or fight. That would be weird. We’ve both lived through toxic relationships and divorce. In fact, we became friends talking about them, figuring out how we got ourselves so stuck.

Of course we’re grateful now. For so many people, the extra hours at home with people they’re supposed to love aren’t relaxing at all. They add to the Covid-19 stress. For us, they're an opportunity to learn more about each other but sadly, people are not spending money on professional help when they need it the most.

Caroline works with women in difficult relationships, and they're under additional stress right now. However, if social isolation is bringing things to a head, that makes it a perfect time to explore options. Caroline’s always available to help you get back on track, or even build a better relationship.

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. Caroline and I built our love together brick by brick. We talk about it every day. It’s like building a house. No matter how sturdy it is, unexpected things happen. It always needs maintenance. Ignore those little imperfections and they grow large. Things get stressful. Once you start down this road, you become preoccupied with how bad the other person makes you feel.

Healthy relationships work the other way around: by looking at how you make the other person feel. This isn't a natural instinct. It takes effort, starting perhaps by reaching out to a coach. It signals that you’re ready for change.

You can keep on reacting the same old way, nurse the same old resentments and distract yourself from the emptiness of an unfulfilled relationship. Or, you can work on the issues and build it into something beautiful and strong.

Love never just happens. Every human has the essential skills to construct a solid foundation, but not everyone bothers. What sort of person would you rather be with?

You can reach Caroline at www.courey.com, 450-853-0616 or caroline.courey@gmail.com. Social distancing not required as meetings are conveniently done by video conference.

Your Fantastically Imperfect Human Mind

When you’re upset do you keep it in? I did—for years. I felt superior because I didn’t shout and scream, but eventually I realized I was shouting and screaming anyway—inside. The only ones protected by my silence were the ones who hurt me.

We learn to talk as children, which is also when we learn bad communication habits.

My first mistake was to lose my temper at the drop of a hat. That got me into trouble, so I learned to keep it in. That was my second mistake. However, the turmoil was less visible and no one complained about me any more, so it was a comfort zone.

Satisfied with superficial results, I allowed those inner voices to roam freely around my unconscious—anything but face them.

I was stuck there for years before I realized what I was doing to myself. When you shut your inner voice up, it turns hidden and subversive. When I learned to confront it consciously, I discovered that I could change it—sometimes even let go.

It’s not easy. The subconscious is a confusing place. I got my first sense of inner direction when I found the support I needed—a true friend who took the risk of telling me what I needed to hear when I least wanted to hear it.

We all need people of like mind—ones willing to confront themselves, embrace change and never stop growing up. These are exactly the sort of people you’ll meet at Caroline’s upcoming Round Table—Communicate with Confidence.

Caroline’s skill as a life coach is to help you expose the crazy patterns of your fantastically imperfect human mind and to relate to them with empathy and intelligence. Her clients are literally transformed. Come meet her yourself next Saturday in Pointe-Claire Village, and start to let go of the lifelong baggage that keeps you stuck.

REGISTER & MORE INFO HERE

Star Gazing

www.andbeyond.com

When I was a boy churches were full. Now they’re empty. For millennia, religious authorities were the arbiters of moral value and atheists kept a low profile. Today, everything’s changed. Churches are renovated into condominiums. The day of rest is no more. Even the word ‘religion’ sounds old-fashioned.

This is modernity. Science rules, and religious belief is unscientific. Hard scientists seem compelled to attack religion, even though social scientists find it sublime.

To preserve their faith, believers must either deny science or juggle two realities.

What everyone seems to have forgotten is that there’s more to religion than belief. It’s about experience, and the natural human longing to be awed. I call it a religious instinct. We can all imagine our ancestors staring into the night sky asking irresistible, unanswerable questions. Then—humans being what we are—someone invented answers.

Mindfulness bridges religion and science. Its focus is an objective, non-judgmental perspective. Its goal is to let go of reactivity, which means changing your behavior in ways that you choose. Mindful thinking trains you to choose well, so it’s also a moral practice.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10: Beliefs and The Power You Give Them

Mindfulness of Beliefs

“I like to believe,” says a character from the TV show The Village. If you google that phrase you’ll find all sorts of things that people like to believe. I once liked to believe in reincarnation, and then— even though I still would have liked to—I stopped. Reason got in the way.

two dead trees in water

Questioning beliefs is hard. The possibility that they’re wrong seems to threaten who you are. That’s why people sometimes defend incredible ideas. Flat-Earthers are still with us; anti-vaxers are ushering in a new age of childhood diseases. We integrate our beliefs into who we are, so that we don’t just vote for conservatives or progressives; we are conservative or progressive—even when we don’t even care enough to join the party!

This is reactive believing, and it’s all about defending our choices. There is another way to use the mental factor of belief—by applying mindful thinking. First, you temporarily suspend your decision about whether something’s true or not, so you can check it out. Then you decide whether it’s credible—and worth holding onto even if it’s true.

This is easier said than done, but not because evidence is hard to evaluate—that’s the easy part. The difficulty lies before that—simply allowing for the possibility you’re wrong. This is is not a rational decision; it’s deeply emotional. To question your beliefs is to question who you are. Once you open that door, who knows what’ll happen?

Although testing beliefs is central to the Buddha’s teaching, it’s one of the hardest principles for Buddhist communities to implement. Preserving the founder’s legacy is their mission, and to do that they insist that all he taught is beyond question. There is no place for the possibility that the man might have been ordinarily flawed, and sometimes wrong. As happens usually with religion, often with politics and not infrequently even in scientific communities, advocates feel compelled to establish ‘truth’ beyond question, and end up trapped in dogma.

You however, have no such monumental beliefs to defend. Your job is entirely different, and thankfully much simpler—simply to know what you believe and why. That’s what mindful thinking is for, and that's what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming workshop.

UPCOMING MINDFULNESS WORKSHOP IN POINTE-CLAIRE VILLAGE STARTS APRIL 10

The Power of Clover Honey

I take a blackberry from its box, wash it with others, put them in a bowl and set them down between us. I take one. It is delicious—perfectly ripe, sweet, tart, juicy, firm and succulent. How many adjectives for a humble berry?

Perhaps an infinite number. You see, the berry is changing every moment, and so are you, and so is your perception of the events taking place in your mouth and sensory nervous systems, and so is your sense of where and who you are.

Look: I begin to bake and am tempted, when opening a jar of clover honey, to place a pearl of it upon my tongue and let it dissolve. It lingers deliciously, cascading endorphins far beyond my mouth.

And then half-consciously, while reaching across the counter for a measuring spoon, I pluck a blackberry from its bowl. Realizing suddenly that this is a treat worth savoring, I bring my full attention to the bite of the fruit.

It’s as juicy as ever, but now it’s tart on my honeyed tongue—no treat at all. The magic is gone.

It’ll come back. I’ll be patient.

The Cost of Silence

Zoe’s parents were very protective and shielded her from any danger and discomfort.

Her parents lavished all their love on her, and little on each other. They never held hands or kissed. They were often short with each other. They held opposite views on politics and religion. Neither would even consider the possibility that their marriage was in trouble. They agreed on one thing: to keep their conflict hidden from Zoe.

But Zoe lived there too. She didn’t ‘know’ what was going on (or not going on) with her parents, but she lived amid the tensions they were trying to suppress, and did what she could to ease them. It was a burden, but she accepted it with the same sense of responsibility.

Zoe’s mother was easy to get along with. Most of her anxiety came from her father. On the one hand he couldn’t handle conflict; on the other he’d sometimes fly into a rage. In either case, he went out of reach. When this happened, Zoe took responsibility for bringing him back.

If she didn’t, who else would? Keeping him happy became her raison d’être. She adopted subconscious behavior that in time became an automated role. Throughout her life Zoe felt competent in these sorts of conflict situations. She was drawn to them.

Sadly, her first marriage resembled her parents’ marriage.

At the time, Zoe’s parents claimed they were ‘protecting’ her. What they didn’t know was that they were setting her up in her role of peacekeeper. The peacekeeper’s dilemma is that she holds all her anxiety inside. She doesn’t talk about stressful situations, and believes that thinking about them makes them worse. She believes the solution to conflict is to avoid it, and that it’s a best to not challenge people.

Zoe’s role is inherently unstable because it’s based on these limiting beliefs: 1) talk threatens peace; 2) silence keeps the peace; 3) ignorance is safer than knowledge.

Who suffers from these beliefs? All three of them. When did they choose them? They didn’t, they simply adapted to their reality. So what can they do? They could examine their behavior and their motives. They could trust Zoe’s intelligence and speak to her (in age-appropriate language) enabling her to see how they handle conflict through healthy open dialogue.

These changes require nothing but natural skills that we all possess—courage, empathy and effort. They take practice, but that’s what mindfulness is for.


For an in-depth look at the limiting beliefs that burden us, and how to unload them, come to our Round Table event this Saturday afternoon March 9th in Pointe-Claire Village.

If Mindfulness is Simple, What’s so Complicated?

We are.

Each of us is a process—an unfolding of conscious and unconscious behavior. By taking shortcuts and automating routine tasks, we get more done. Sometimes we use the wrong shortcut, or it doesn’t work any more. Too much automaticity gets us into trouble.

Things get complicated because automaticity is contrary to mindfulness. Instead of being present, you let things happen without paying attention. Automaticity takes care of business but leaves you with no sense of ownership or responsibility. Instead of learning about yourself and continuing to grow through life, your behavior is governed by old, blind habits. You wonder why your thoughts keep on running, and why you’re stuck in old patterns.

With mindfulness, the confining story of who you are (dictated by those who raised you) loses its power. You let go of unnecessary beliefs and have nothing to prove. You see the self-limiting beliefs that hold you back, such as, “I’m not smart enough,” and “I’m not worthy.”

Mindfulness instantly turns off automaticity and brings your conscious mind to the fore. It gives you a say in your decisions. It helps you understand your choices in life, and where they lead.

Mindfulness takes effort. It never happens automatically. But it is instantly rewarding. You experience the wonder of the present moment; you weaken the attraction of old habits; you learn about yourself in ways that no one else can. Mindfulness reveals your unconscious expectations and enables you to let them go. Mindfulness brings you to your full potential.