Monday, March 7, 2011

It's Reading Week Again, Time for Some Silence!

View of the not-so-silent ocean from Alila Villas Soori, my wonderful hosts for reading week.
Reading week is supposed to be a week off from class so students can study for mid-terms afterwards. But of course, professors have their own ideas. I had mid-terms for Emotion and Psychopathology as well as a journal critique on the connection between working memory and depression for Emotion due in the first couple days of reading week. Fortunately, I still had time to go to Bali for the rest of it.

I've spent the past 5 days at Alila Villas Soori, and it just so happened to coincide with Nyepi, Bali's day of silence to mark their new year. Everyone is supposed to stay at home for a day of self-reflection and fasting. Even resort guests are not allowed outside the resorts and the airport is shut for the day. Gotta love Bali! I think the whole world can use a silent day.

What have I been reading? The first three chapters of Smith & Kosslyn's Cognitive Psychology: Mind and Brain, Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman on Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion and Ekman's Emotions Revealed. I'm reading these books by Ekman even though I'm only on waitlist for his and Dr. B. Alan Wallace's upcoming 5-week Cultivating Emotional Balance Teacher Training in Phuket. Keeping my fingers crossed.

All this reading has left a few words bouncing around in my head: perception, attention, control, choice and compassion. Here are just a few ponderings to connect the dots:

1. What I perceive of my external reality is incomplete and subject to distortion -- "Our interpretations of the world around us are determined by the interaction of two things: (1) the biological structure of our brains and (2) experience, which modifies that structure." (Smith & Kosslyn, p. 56) and "The two problems of perception in relation to the sensory world, then are 'not enough' and 'too much'. In both cases, cognitive mechanisms are necessary to provide the means to interpret and understand the material our senses bring to us." (Smith & Kosslyn, p. 52)

2. What I can attend to is only a small fraction of what's going on at any given point of time. The more I try to attend to, the less complete my knowledge of each -- "Attention involves selecting some information for further processing and inhibiting other information from receiving further processing." (Smith & Kosslyn, p. 104) "Understanding attention is as much about information that is not selected as well as information that is selected." (Smith & Kosslyn, p. 105). Check out this classic test.

3. Due to problems of perception and attention, how much control do I really have of my comprehension of "reality"? Add to this, Ekman's point (Emotions Revealed, p. 39): "Emotions change how we see the world and how we interpret the actions of others. We do not seek to challenge why we are feeling a particular emotion; instead, we seek to confirm it."

4. But I can choose whether or not to question my comprehension of "reality" or take for granted what arises in my mind as truth. This sounds like an easy choice, but for many reasons, it's not so simple. Even if one consciously chooses the former, it's much harder in practice. It requires honing our ability to use, what Ekman calls, reflective appraising rather than automatic appraising of emotion. And how does what I choose to accept as reality, in turn, affect my perception and attention? Does it alleviate my problems or does it perpetuate failures in perception and attention? As N, one of my yoga teachers, mentioned, the Bhagavad Gita teaches us to "default to our highest". The trick, of course, is knowing what is our highest and then resetting our brain processing to change default settings. The paradox, though, is that our brains are wired for survival and the avoidance of whatever we perceive to be a threat. So it's back to a more complete comprehension of "reality".

5. Compassion is an action taken towards alleviating another's suffering, arising from a feeling of empathy, feeling another's suffering. I don't act compassionately, because I don't feel empathetic. I don't feel empathetic, because I'm afraid to acknowledge the existence of my own suffering, am afraid to feel suffering or afraid of what feeling empathy might compel me to do.

With all the lecturing and journal articles (we even read a few studies on how meditation increases gray matter volume and attentional performace) on the brain and cognitive-based explanations for depression and other mood and anxiety disorders, here was an enlightening take from the Dalai Lama:
"Reflection on suffering needs to be tempered with an appreciation of its opposite: what it must feel like not to have it, or freedom from suffering. What is important is to have a basic attitude based on a recognition of the destructive consequences of certain emotions and also some understanding that there are ways in which you can actually help yourself to avoid these situations." (Dalai Lama & Ekman, p. 204-205)
So perhaps one way to look at depression is to see it as a side-effect of empathy that has not been followed through with acts of compassion that result in an alleviation of suffering, leading to prolonged and internalized feelings despair and hopelessness. Call it frustrated empathy, if you will. This takes us back to the topic of the Dalai Lama and Ekman's conversation: How do we overcome the obstacles to compassion? The first, probably, is a sincere belief in the necessity of compassion, not just as a luxury but as the real key to our evolution for survival.

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