A quantum experience led me to a book that I'm loving a lot, Mindfulness Redesigned for the Twenty-First Century, by Amit Sood, M.D.
More precisely, it was an absurd mention of "quantum" in another book that led me to Sood's creative re-imagining of what mindfulness is all about.
There I was, semi-happily reading Loch Kelly's Effortless Mindfulness, which I wrote about in a recent blog post, when I came to a passage that caused me to give up on the book.
Self-essence is an invisible source, prior to energy. In turn, Self-energy is both wave -- flowing, boundless dynamism with relational qualities -- and particle -- active, compassionate, embodied, and full of vitality. The waves and particles are made of the invisible potential of the quantum field of Self-essence.
Those incomprehensible words violated one of my current Book Commandments: thou shalt not invoke quantum theory in an area where it has no application. Like, awareness and mindfulness.
I then headed to Amazon to reinvigorate my brain by searching for a book that took a genuinely scientific approach to mindfulness. After a bit of browsing I came across Sood's book, and ordered it.
I'm enjoying it a lot.
I intend to discuss Sood's approach to mindfulness in some detail in future posts. But for now I want to share a section where Sood describes how he came to an understanding that the ancient Asian Indian spiritual teachings he grew up with needed to be updated for the 21st century.
Sood came to the United States in 1995 from India. Here's his "About the Author" bio on Amazon:
Dr. Amit Sood is a Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic. He directs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative, and is the creator of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Resilient Mind Program. He is the author of the books, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness, and Immerse: A 52-Week Course in Resilient Living.
Dr. Sood received the 2010 Distinguished Service Award, the 2010 Innovator of the Year Award, the 2013 Outstanding Physician Scientist Award and the 2016 Faculty of the Year Award from Mayo Clinic. He was honored as Robert Wood Johnson Health Care Pioneer in 2015. The Ode magazine selected Dr. Sood as one among top 20 intelligent optimists helping the world to be a better place.
In 2016, he was selected as the top impact maker in healthcare in Rochester, MN - a community of over thirty-thousand dedicated health care professionals. Personally, he loves power naps and dark chocolate, detests flossing, likes love and logic, and cares a lot about children - all the children. Dr. Sood lives with his lovely wife of twenty-five years, Richa, and their two princesses, Gauri and Sia, in the occasionally frosty, but always caring and compassionate, Rochester, MN.
Impressive guy. Here's how he came to embrace a scientific approach to mindfulness, as described in his book's "Guilty and Back" chapter.
Challenging an age-old practice was extremely difficult for me. If you understand my background, it will make sense to you.
Meditation practices and teachers are highly respected in Asian Indian families. Many teachers are revered as spiritual leaders of the society.
Their images are placed in each room. In daily prayer, people bow to the images, decorate them with flowers, and light incense sticks in front of them. People see their teachers in dreams to solve personal problems.
In families with a faith-based practice, these teachers are considered a conduit to God. Annoying or disbelieving them or their instructions would be considered worse than heresy.
I have met several teachers who indeed deserve a high pedestal, but some do not. Nevertheless, if a teacher is caught committing nefarious practices, as has happened numerous times, instead of lowering the pedestal, the unsuspecting students often reframe by saying that the teacher is testing their spiritual resolve by creating the drama.
With this cultural perspective etched within me, my guilt, conflict, and anxiety grew along with the doubts I shared in the previous chapter. I felt vulnerable.
Will these doubts bring bad luck, illness, or curse to my family? I thought. The scientist in me conflicted with myths and rituals I had learned as a child. A master at overthinking, I did what I do best with such conflicts. I stopped thinking about it and tabled the idea.
I didn't stay put with the idea for very long. My return journey started when I heard about people with no meditation experience who were perceiving the deepest samadhi states as a result of acute stroke. I read about brain tumors and seizures causing sacred visions and spiritual experiences.
Could these states and visions just be a product of the brain's electrical activity? I asked myself. If that is the case, will it be worthwhile to spend my entire life seeking such experiences?
Then I read about swamis who had obtained these experiences but were doing very bad things. I heard stories about self-styled gurus who claimed to be adept at awakening people's kundalini (and many of their followers felt their "energy" and saw the "light" with their help) but were nothing but greedy, immoral charlatans.
They were illegally usurping money and property, abusing women and children, and committing other unspeakable crimes.
I saw a few of them get caught, was amazed at how low they could go in trying to defend themselves, and could clearly see the selfish psychopath beneath the long hair and saffron color. My uninformed faith in some of these traditions began to crack.
That worked wonders on my guilt. (I should mention that not all swamis are fake. I have personally met several masters of meditation who I deeply respect, who are humble, selfless, and kind, and are truly living each day to help the world.)
With my blind faith unblinded the more I studied, the deeper I looked and the more learners I worked with, the more convinced I became that most mindfulness programs in their current form need editing before they can optimally help twenty-first-century brains.
In our effort to make mindfulness simpler, despite our good intentions we have misrepresented some of its constructs.
Further, some of the language and philosophy is 2,500 years old. It simply needs to be refreshed. What is old and practiced for thousands of years doesn't always have to be perfect or even right.
After all they anointed cow dung on umbilical cords that caused tetanus, didn't believe in pasteurization, practiced child labor, and bad-mouthed any woman who stepped outside the house to join the workforce. (Unfortunately all of these are still happening in some parts of the world.)
The result of my deeper search was freedom. While I still revere the timeless wisdom of many scriptures, I have largely escaped my childhood blinders, partly because I feel confident in the new tool we now have to study the truth: science.
Using the scientific method polished with common sense I came up with a few key ideas for how to better align our understanding of mindfulness with twenty-first-century challenges so it can better serve resilience.
Here is what I thought was needed:
-- Integrate twenty-first-century neuroscience to help better understand the human condition. Philosophy alone isn't enough.
-- Offer skills that emphasize uplifting emotions and not just attention training.
-- Have more explicit focus on compassion, gratitude and forgiveness.
-- Abbreviate the training time.
-- Offer practices that are shorter and more relevant to people's lives.
-- Enhance focus on relationships to decrease perceived loneliness.
-- Integrate hope, inspiration, and courage in the program.
In addition to above, I felt adding humor to the program (and life) was vital. Fun and laughter are great sources of bonding and inspiration, and if we keep the training and the skills dry, they will remain inaccessible, particularly to the younger generation.
I debated and doubted these thoughts for months but couldn't negate any one of them. As a next step, I considered a three-part solution:
(1) Educate people about their brains, emphasizing how our neural traps generate negative emotions and hurt our attention.
(2) Offer different (briefer and deeper) attention practices that are easier to practice and adopt, that provide uplifting emotions, and that center on relationships.
(3) Return mindfulness to its ecosystem in the company of compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, relationships, hope, inspiration, and courage.
I strongly believed I was moving in the right direction, but received pushback from some old colleagues in the field. Pushbacks often demoralize me and they worked their magic this time also. But each time I saw someone struggling whom I couldn't optimally help, the thoughts creeped up again.
I needed one final push. Then His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to my rescue.