Saturday, July 03, 2010

What Should LeBron James and Dwayne Wade Do?

For the last week or so ESPN has been talking 24/7 about LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and the other top-tier free agents - speculating on where they might sign, following their team visits, and then spending some more time speculating on where they might or should sign.

I have an idea about all of this - and it would create a championship level team immediately.

I think that LeBron (SF), Wade (SG), Chris Bosh (PF), Dirk Nowitski (PF), Joe Johnson (SG), Amar'e Stoudemire (PF), Carlos Boozer (PF), Ray Allen (SG), Richard Jefferson (SF), Brendan Haywood (C), Yao Ming (C), and Joe Salmons (SG) - all of whom are free agents - should get together, pony up around $200 million (which should be no problem) and start their own damn team - we could make space for them by demoting Minnesota to the D-League.

They should try to talk Larry Bird into returning to coaching for a couple of seasons.

If it were up to me, this new team would be based in Seattle - and they would rock the league. Kobe who?

"Non-meditation is the Supreme Meditation" - A Visit from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

A great article from the ID Project's One City blog at Beliefnet - I wonder how long this will last with Beliefnet recently having been sold by one conservative group (Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.) to a more religiously conservative organization (BN Media LLC)?

One City: A  Buddhist Blog for Everyone

"Non-meditation is the Supreme Meditation" - A Visit from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Wednesday June 30, 2010


On Monday night we were fortunate to have the amazing and inspiring Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche as a guest teacher at the ID Project. I've been a fan of Rinpoche's for a while and really enjoyed his books, The Joy of Living, and Joyful Wisdom. I was also really moved by his teaching last year at the Shambhala Center.

I was a little surprised, however, to receive the invite, which cited Rinpoche as the "Happiest Man on Earth." I'd long been under the impression that title was still held by the great Matthieu Ricard, who successfully defended his title in a steel cage match back in '08. I don't know if Rinpoche won some sort of provisional title at some point, but I'm guessing it could have been in an unsanctioned bout somewhere in Thailand.

Still, he seemed pretty happy. It was easily 100 degrees in the room, and Rinpoche wiped the sweat from his bald head as he teased us and told meditation jokes in his mellifluous accent. Here he is from a talk in '07 on a topic he shared with us on Monday, the panic attacks he had as a young boy. Take a look, to get a sense of his genuine warmth, openness, and giddy exuberance.

He's clearly told the panic attack story many times--it's even in one of his books--but I got something valuable from hearing him tell it. It felt like there was a tremendous inclusiveness in his teaching; I am just like you. He'd been having panic attacks, and learned to "make friends with them." As I listened to him tell his story, I thought about how easily I put teachers (and particularly Buddhist teachers) on a pedestal. Whether draped in robes or not, it's hard not to admire the wisdom we sometimes come across. There was something hopeful about Rinpoche's storytelling; this gifted, open teacher sharing his own vulnerability with us, saying I am just like you.

Rinpoche's main message that evening seemed quite simple--relax. I'd noticed this the last time I saw him speak. The way he described it, it's more important for us to relax in mediation than to be hypervigilant, guarding against thoughts and staying on track. In fact, he led us through an exercise in simply sitting in relaxed, open presence, which he called non-meditation. "Don't meditate," he told us, and we just sat, relaxed, without doing much of anything. From his website (italics and bold are mine):
If one is meditating and thinking I need the clarity I need to be vast open mind I need to have this now and that is very difficult also isn't it? You don't need all that, you don't need anything, just leave the mind resting naturally. If one can rest the mind naturally that's the best meditation. Non-meditation is the supreme meditation.
Here he is in The Joy of Living, describing shinay (shamatha) meditation:
Just let go and relax. You don't have to block whatever thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise, but neither do you have to follow them. Just rest in the open present, simply allowing whatever happens to occur. If thoughts or emotions come up, just allow yourself to be aware of them. Objectless shinay meditation doesn't mean just letting your mind wander aimlessly among fantasies, memories, or daydreams. There's still some presence of mind that may loosely be described as a center of awareness. You may not be fixating on anything in particular, but you're still aware, still present to what's happening in the here and now.

When we meditate in this objectless state, we're actually resting the mind in its natural clarity, entirely indifferent to the passage of thoughts and emotions. This natural clarity--which is beyond any dualistic grasping of subject and object--is always present for us in the same way that space is always present. In a sense, objectless meditation is like accepting whatever clouds and mist might obscure the sky while recognizing that the sky itself remains unchanged even when it is obscured.
As Rinpoche described what he called "compassion" and "focus" meditation, he used similar emphasis. Don't work too hard. Don't be so tight. He'd screw up his face in an impossible twist, as though he was doing his impression of us, trying so, so hard to meditate just right. Then he'd slump over, to point that we shouldn't relax too much. Like the Buddha said: not too tight, not too loose.

Thinking back on it, it's hard not to laugh. Most non-meditators who I talk to think of meditation as a relaxation practice. But how often do we really relax on the cushion? It was great hearing Rinpoche giving us permission to do so. After all, he's just like us, and it seemed to do him some good. He was clear that this wasn't permission to be lazy, to wander, to doze off during practice. But I imagine that many of you are like me--we tend to work too hard in our practice, trying to get it right. Rinpoche's teaching, his sense of humor, and his own smile reminds me to smile, and to stop working so hard. I'll take that with me in my practice, going forward.

rinpoche 2.jpg
Photo credit: Gala Narezo

Empathic Civilization: Jeremy Rifkin - Empathy Documentary

In my opinion, Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis is one of the most important books - and most important ideas - of this first decade in the 21st century. It offers a comprehensive look at the science of who we are as human beings - that we are hard-wired for empathy and compassion, not violence and greed.

This is a video of one of his lectures from the book tour earlier this year.

Empathic Civilization: Jeremy Rifkin - Empathy Documentary - 2010-01-24 from Edwin Rutsch on Vimeo. For more on empathy visit our website. This is part of a larger documentary project by Edwin Rutsch on the nature of empathy. I hope you'll connect and get involved.

The Jeremy Rifkin book tour for the Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis -

Video Taped at Praxis Peace Institute, January, 24, 2010 in Sonoma, CA.

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Adbusters - America's Identity Crisis

This article offers a little perspective for the Independence Day weekend. Those who see the 4th as something more than a day to barbecue and drink beer tend to celebrate America's greatness without questioning its dark side.

Sifton makes a good point about how the 9/11 crisis damaged the American psyche, left us hyper-vigilant in defending ourselves preemptively against an enemy that does not have a state. We cannot continue to use the military as way to control the rest of the world - it's impossible.

America's Identity Crisis

Blake Sifton | 11 Jun 2010

In the aftermath of the trauma suffered by the American psyche on 9/11, the United States lashed out blindly and irrationally in fear and anger, deploying its military to the corners of the world and weakening itself in the process. Now, over eight years later, with the economy in shambles and the military overstretched, the sun is setting on the American empire and experts say it’s time for the US public to accept their country’s declining prowess, pressure their government to reduce its global military footprint and prepare for a looming national identity crisis.

Political psychologists believe that the shock and horror of the 9/11 attacks damaged the collective American consciousness, causing the country to stumble forward with a misguided and self-destructive foreign policy intended to destroy an exaggerated enemy.

Dr. Deborah Larson, a political psychologist at UCLA, explains, “9/11 removed a sense of invulnerability that Americans had felt, and fear sprang from the uncertainty. We overreacted and tried to gain control of the world to eliminate even a small probability of being attacked. It was totally irrational.”

Dr. Richard Hermann, Director of the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University, says, “A weird combination of fear, panic, anger and crude patriotism made us obsessed with an exaggerated threat. The administration’s leadership watched this with excitement and believed it was their chance to shape the world.”

Though the United States has maintained a massive military presence around the world since the end of World War II, the reach of US forces expanded quickly after 9/11. Besides the huge undertakings in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military also established US Africa Command, expanded its presence in Latin America, began launching constant drone attacks in Pakistan, recently approved the sale of over 13 billion dollars in arms to Taiwan and is currently setting up missile defense systems in Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait among other countries.

With upwards of 800 bases in 120 countries, the United States continues to spend almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined at a time when the economy is plummeting and many Americans are struggling.

Wayne Madsen, an investigative journalist and former Navy intelligence officer, believes that military overreach is eroding American power rather than projecting it: “The extension of US influence abroad is unsustainable and unaffordable and it weakens us politically, militarily and financially. We’re trying to be the Roman Empire and we’re going the way of them.”

Dr. Hermann worries that the money spent on military engagements will hurt America’s competitiveness in the future: “We’re spending 100 billion a year in Iraq alone. You could take the top 20 universities in America and fund them, make them free for everybody every year we’ve been there. It’s a terrible opportunity cost that we’ve paid.”

A psychological shift is underway in the United States as the evidence mounts and there is growing public awareness of the detrimental costs of maintaining such a large military. Dr. Hermann explains that a public suffering through the recession is more concerned about its financial well-being than its physical safety: “If you’re unemployed and you’re getting foreclosed on, you’re a lot less worried about al Qaeda.”

Nevertheless, political psychologists believe that guilt keeps the average person from speaking out against the economic effects of imperial overreach. “Only a small fraction of the public is willing to serve in the military and I think the rest of the people feel guilty that they aren’t enlisted and essentially get a free pass. They might not like it but they feel if they have to pay tax dollars its okay,” explains Dr. Hermann.

It is perhaps ironic that the American public still fears terrorism despite being bled dry maintaining the strongest military in human history. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Madsen, “These are ragtag people living in caves.” Hermann is frustrated by the contradiction in military spending and the threat faced: “There is a big disconnect here. There is huge spending on the military but at the same time an understanding that the military can’t protect us against the most likely attacks.”

Guardian columnist and London School of Economics professor Martin Jacques is an expert on the rise of China. He feels that many Americans hold on to delusions of grandeur to keep their pride afloat, denying the reality of waning US power.

“The decline of American power will entail the progressive reduction of American overseas military commitments,” he says. “But a nation in decline finds it extremely difficult to let go. It’s a reluctant process and a form of retreat.”

Jacques watched his own country go through the painful ordeal. “Britain was very reluctant to let go, not just the political elite but also the people. They lived an imperial role and didn’t like losing it. It gave them status, it gave them power and the knowledge that it was our role and responsibility in the world.”

“The military enjoys a very privileged position in the American mind, and the same experience will be had in the United States.”

Military superiority is very closely tied to the American identity and many believe that continued public support for imperial overreach stems from a desire to maintain prestige rather than from pragmatic security concerns.

“It’s very disorienting to lose your national identity. Part of being an American means knowing that you are part of the most powerful military state,” explains Dr. Larson, “If the US were to withdraw from various parts of the world, people would fear that we were declining and were no longer a hegemon. We would lose a lot of our national pride and prestige.”

It is time for the US public to accept that the military cannot maintain a global monopoly on violence and that rather than protecting and enriching them, imperial endeavors invariably become costly, never-ending counterinsurgency campaigns against dedicated, dug-in enemies.

In order for the American psyche to forge a new identity in the face of shifting realities, the US public must demand the change that their president promised, must urge leaders to scale back overseas military commitments, focus on education, technology and innovation and embrace a global leadership role rooted in soft power and diplomacy.

–Blake Sifton

The Dalai Lama - Foundation of the Altruistic Mind

25th Anniversary Edition

by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso,
edited and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins,
co-edited by Elizabeth Napper

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week

The foundation of the altruistic mind of enlightenment is a good heart, a good mind, at all times. All of us can benefit from cultivating this; we should not get angry, fight, backbite, and so forth. When people engage in such activities, they do so for the sake of personal concerns but actually are only harming themselves. Therefore, all of us need to do whatever we can to cultivate a good mind,a good heart. I am not just explaining this; I, too, am doing as much as I can to practice it. Everyone needs to do whatever is possible, for as much as we can practice this, so much will it help.

If you engage in such practices and gain experience of them, your attitudes and way of viewing other people will change; then when a problem--which you have encountered before--arises, you will not respond with the same excitement as previously, will not generate the same negative attitudes. This change is not from something external, is not a matter of getting a new nose or a new hairstyle, but takes place within the mind. Some people can withstand problems whereas others cannot; the difference is one of internal attitude.

The change from putting these teachings into practice comes slowly. After some time, we may encounter those who tell us we have changed; this is a good sign that the practices have been effective.

--from Kindness, Clarity, and Insight 25th Anniversary Edition by The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, edited and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-edited by Elizabeth Napper, published by Snow Lion Publications

Kindness, Clarity, and Insight • 5O% off • for this week only
(Good through July 9th).

His  Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

On July 6th His Holiness the Dalai Lama celebrates his 75th birthday.
Please join us in wishing him long life and the fulfillment of his aspirations!
His Holiness the Dalai Lama's page now includes a video interview.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Science Network - Nicola Clayton on Comparative Cognition

Nicola Clayton researches bird intelligence, especially corvids, which means I would most certainly like her. In this interview she talks about her life and work.
Nicola Clayton is a Professor of Comparative Cognition, Fellow of the Royal Society, Departmental Graduate Tutor and Chair of the Graduate Education Committee and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences for Clare College at the University of Cambridge School of the Biological Sciences in the Department of Experimental Psychology. Her research is focused on comparative cognition at the interface between animal behavior and experimental psychology and neuroscience.

Here is the abstract to one of her papers:

Science 10 December 2004:
Vol. 306. no. 5703, pp. 1903 - 1907
DOI: 10.1126/science.109841


The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes

Nathan J. Emery1* and Nicola S. Clayton2

Discussions of the evolution of intelligence have focused on monkeys and apes because of their close evolutionary relationship to humans. Other large-brained social animals, such as corvids, also understand their physical and social worlds. Here we review recent studies of tool manufacture, mental time travel, and social cognition in corvids, and suggest that complex cognition depends on a "tool kit" consisting of causal reasoning, flexibility, imagination, and prospection. Because corvids and apes share these cognitive tools, we argue that complex cognitive abilities evolved multiple times in distantly related species with vastly different brain structures in order to solve similar socioecological problems.

1 Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, CB3 8AA, UK.
2 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, CB2 3EB, UK.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Andrew Weil Gets It Right on Fat vs Carbs
Quadruple Bypass Burger

I generally ignore Andrew Weil's advice about nutrition - my basic rule is not to take nutrition advice from overweight people. But this time, he gets it right - it's not the fat that is killing us, it's the refined flours and simple sugars. Sugars lower the good cholesterol (HDL) and increase triglycerides, both of which are not good.

He recommends Gary Taubes' book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease, and I agree - it's a good resource if read with a critical mind.

By the way, Dr. Weil isn't advocating meat consumption, he's simply pointing out that we, as a culture, tend to be pretty clueless about nutrition, which is likely why 67% are overweight and/or obese.

Fat or Carbs: Which Is Worse?

Dr. Andrew Weil

In my home state of Arizona, a restaurant named "Heart Attack Grill" does brisk business in Chandler, a Phoenix suburb. Waitresses in nurse-themed uniforms with miniskirts deliver single, double, triple and quadruple "bypass burgers" (featuring one, two, three and four hefty patties, respectively) dripping with cheese, to patrons who wear hospital gowns that double as bibs. The motto: "Taste Worth Dying For!"

Now, there is much for a medical doctor (as opposed to "Dr. Jon," the stethoscope-wearing, burger-flipping owner) to dislike in this establishment. If you visit, I implore you to steer clear of the white-flour buns, the sugary sodas and the piles of "flatliner fries" that accompany the burgers in the restaurant's signature bedpan plates. This is precisely the sort of processed-carbohydrate-intensive meal that, via this and other fast-food establishments, is propelling the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in America.

But the Grill's essential, in-your-face concept is that the saturated fat in beef clogs arteries, and hamburger meat is consequently among the most heart-damaging foods a human being can consume. As the Grill literature puts it, "The menu names imply coronary bypass surgery, and refer to the danger of developing atherosclerosis from the food's high proportion of saturated fat..." Aimed at a certain crowd, this is clever, edgy marketing. Some people enjoy flirting with death.

The problem? It's not true. The saturated fat lauded in this menu won't kill you. It may even be the safest element of the meal.

Saturated fat is made of fatty acid chains that cannot incorporate additional hydrogen atoms. It is often of animal origin, and is typically solid at room temperature. Its relative safety has been a theme in nutrition science for at least the last decade, but in my view, a significant exoneration took place in March of this year. An analysis that combined the results of 21 studies, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that "saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk" of coronary heart disease, stroke or coronary vascular disease.

Although this was not a true study, it was a big analysis. It aggregated information from nearly 348,000 participants, most of whom were healthy at the start of the studies. They were surveyed about their dietary habits and followed for five to 23 years. In that time, 11,000 developed heart disease or had a stroke. Researcher Ronald M. Krauss of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Center in California found that there was no difference in the risk of heart disease or stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.

This contradicts nutritional dogma we've heard repeated since 1970, when a physiologist named Ancel Keys published his "Seven Countries" study that showed animal fat consumption strongly predicted heart attack risk. His conclusions influenced US dietary guidelines for decades to come, but other researchers pointed out that if 21 other countries had been included in that study, the association that Keys observed would have been seen as extremely weak.

Meanwhile, in the years since, there has been increasing evidence that added sweeteners in foods may contribute to heart disease. Sweeteners appear to lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the higher your HDL, the better) and raise triglycerides (the lower the better). That's according to a study of more than 6,000 adults by Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and published in April in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

People who received at least 25 percent of their daily calories from any type of sweetener had more than triple the normal risk of having low HDL levels than those who consumed less than five percent of their calories from sweeteners. Beyond that, those whose sugar intake made up 17.5 percent or more of daily calories were 20 to 30 percent more likely to have high triglycerides.

Science writer Gary Taubes has done more than anyone else to deconstruct the Keys mythos and replace it with a more sensible view, informed by better science. I recommend his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control and Disease. It presents more than 600 pages of evidence that lead to these conclusions:

  1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease or any other chronic disease of civilization.
  2. The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostasis -- the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight and well-being.
  3. Sugars -- sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically -- are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.
  4. Through their direct effects on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes. They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic diseases of modern civilization.

My point here is not to promote meat consumption. I've written here previously about humanitarian and ecological reasons to avoid a meat-centric diet, especially if the meat comes from factory-farmed animals. Instead, my purpose is to emphasize that we would be much healthier as a nation if we stopped worrying so much about fats, and instead made a concerted effort to avoid processed, quick-digesting carbohydrates -- especially added sugars. The average American consumes almost 22 teaspoons of sugars that are added to foods each day. This obscene amount is the principal driver of the "diabesity" epidemic, sharply increases coronary risks and promises to make this generation of children the first in American history that will die sooner than their parents.

My Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid emphasizes whole or minimally processed foods -- especially vegetables -- with low glycemic loads. That means consuming these foods keeps blood sugar levels relatively stable, which in turn lowers both fat deposition and heart-disease risk. If you make a concerted effort to eat such foods and avoid sugar, you'll soon lose your taste for it. The natural sugars in fruits and vegetables will provide all the sweetness you desire.

While saturated fat appears to have no effect on heart health, eating too much can crowd out vitamins, minerals and fiber needed for optimal health. So I recommend sticking to a "saturated fat budget" which can be "spent" on an occasional steak (from organic, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle, see LocalHarvest for sources), some butter, or, as I do, high quality, natural cheese a few times a week.

Andrew Weil, M.D., invites you to join the conversation: become a fan on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog. Dr. Weil is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of

David Nichtern - Real World Meditation: Why Being Present Matters

Excellent article - the most important practice any Buddhist can have, in my opinion, is how we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. Coming away from the cushion or returning from retreat, the key challenge is to bring our presence and wakefulness with us to the rest of our lives.

Real World Meditation: Why Being Present Matters

By David Nichtern, Senior Shambhala Buddhist teacher
Posted: July 1, 2010

Last Wednesday night I completed a 12 day silent meditation retreat at Karme Choling, Shambhala International's Buddhist Meditation Center in Vermont. Literally as soon as it was over at 11:30 p.m. I said my goodbyes, got in my car with a friend and drove the six hours back to New York City. After driving all night I arrived home at around 6 a.m. I slipped into bed with Cyndi and Leroy Brown (our chocolate toy poodle) and took a nap for an hour, then got up, re-packed my bag, put on my black suit, and grabbed a taxi to go to JFK Airport at 10 a.m.

Landing in LA, I picked up a rental car and drove straight to the Beverly Hilton just in time for the ASCAP Film and TV awards. The very next night I headed over to the Westin Bonaventure for the Daytime Emmy Awards. I was up for one for the music we composed for One Life to Live.

This trip provided perhaps an unusually stark contrast coming out of retreat, but even in less stressful circumstances, the experience of participating in an intensive meditation retreat and then returning to our ordinary life can provide an extremely vivid transition, and with that a chance to see our habits and patterns in high relief.

On this occasion my perception was that people are just people -- we are all basically living in a dream of expectation and disappointment, with an occasional moment of wakefulness shining through. In the retreat, the awake moments were accented; at the Emmys the expectation and disappointment felt thick and solid and heavy by comparison. Anyhow that was my perception in transition.

From a certain point of view, going on an intensive meditation retreat is a radical thing to do. There are so many ways we can spend our time, so many vacations we still want to take, so many places to go, things to see and do. The idea of dedicating a weekend, a week, or longer to practicing meditation can easily slide to the bottom of the "to do" list.

It can be so helpful to understand the "view" of any particular practice we undertake, particularly retreat practice -- what are we going to be working with, how are we going to go about it and how can we manage whatever dramas unfold, both internal and external.

The essential quality of meditation practice on retreat is that by simplifying our world to the bare essence of simply being present, we have an unparalleled opportunity to see how our own mind works -- to actually see the lenses and filters through which we experience our reality.

It is the one activity we participate in that is reductive rather than additive. There may be some techniques involved -- we may be cultivating mindfulness or loving kindness and compassion, but essentially we are simply resting naturally in our present awareness and seeing whatever arises with an open impartial mind.

Along the way we may experience intense boredom, frustration, emotionality, peace, happiness, spaciousness and all the rest of it, but the one thing that is clear is that whatever we are experiencing is being generated by our own state of mind. The practice is a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly and accurately, and hopefully develop more compassion for ourselves and thereby for others as well.

Re-entering our everyday world after a period of 20 minutes or two weeks of meditation practice, we have the opportunity to see ourselves entering the action. Of course, we may also have a heightened sensitivity to the obscurations, fear and cloaking -- what we call in Shambhala the "cocoon" -- the web of habitual patterns and manipulation that passes for authenticity but is really a kind of camouflage.

Unlike short bursts of meditation, retreat practice allows us to go much deeper into our exploration of what is really going on in our mind and heart. Coming out of retreat is an equally challenging and important part as we begin to integrate what we have gleaned into our everyday reality.

If you've done any kind of retreat practice and feel like chiming in about it, let's hear what it was like for you!

Follow David on his website (, facebook (, twitter (, or youtube (

'Butterfly Effect' in the Brain Makes the Brain Intrinsically Unreliable

There are butterflies in my brain? Seriously - the research indicates that one small spike in a single neuron causes spikes in about 30 neighboring neurons, each of which triggers spikes in another 30 neurons or so, and so on, activating millions of neurons.

This indicates that the brain creates and somehow manages to ignore an enormous amount of background noise, far more than any computer.

'Butterfly Effect' in the Brain Makes the Brain Intrinsically Unreliable

ScienceDaily (July 1, 2010) — Next time your brain plays tricks on you, you have an excuse: according to new research by UCL scientists published June 30 in the journal Nature, the brain is intrinsically unreliable.

Researchers introduced a small perturbation into the brain, the neural equivalent of butterfly wings, and ask what would happen to the activity in the circuit. Would the perturbation grow and have a knock-on effect, thus affecting the rest of the brain, or immediately die out?

This may not seem surprising to most of us, but it has puzzled neuroscientists for decades. Given that the brain is the most powerful computing device known, how can it perform so well even though the behaviour of its circuits is variable?

A long-standing hypothesis is that the brain's circuitry actually is reliable -- and the apparently high variability is because your brain is engaged in many tasks simultaneously, which affect each other.

It is this hypothesis that the researchers at UCL tested directly. The team -- a collaboration between experimentalists at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and a theorist, Peter Latham, at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit -- took inspiration from the celebrated butterfly effect -- from the fact that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas. Their idea was to introduce a small perturbation into the brain, the neural equivalent of butterfly wings, and ask what would happen to the activity in the circuit. Would the perturbation grow and have a knock-on effect, thus affecting the rest of the brain, or immediately die out?

It turned out to have a huge knock-on effect. The perturbation was a single extra 'spike', or nerve impulse, introduced to a single neuron in the brain of a rat. That single extra spike caused about thirty new extra spikes in nearby neurons in the brain, most of which caused another thirty extra spikes, and so on. This may not seem like much, given that the brain produces millions of spikes every second. However, the researchers estimated that eventually, that one extra spike affected millions of neurons in the brain.

"This result indicates that the variability we see in the brain may actually be due to noise, and represents a fundamental feature of normal brain function," said lead author Dr. Mickey London, of the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, UCL.

This rapid amplification of spikes means that the brain is extremely 'noisy' -- much, much noisier than computers. Nevertheless, the brain can perform very complicated tasks with enormous speed and accuracy, far faster and more accurately than the most powerful computer ever built (and likely to be built in the foreseeable future). The UCL researchers suggest that for the brain to perform so well in the face of high levels of noise, it must be using a strategy called a rate code. In a rate code, neurons consider the activity of an ensemble of many neurons, and ignore the individual variability, or noise, produced by each of them.

So now we know that the brain is truly noisy, but we still don't know why. The UCL researchers suggest that one possibility is that it's the price the brain pays for high connectivity among neurons (each neuron connects to about 10,000 others, resulting in over 8 million kilometres of wiring in the human brain). Presumably, that high connectivity is at least in part responsible for the brain's computational power. However, as the research shows, the higher the connectivity, the noisier the brain. Therefore, while noise may not be a useful feature, it is at least a by-product of a useful feature.

Journal Reference:

London et al. Sensitivity to perturbations in vivo implies high noise and suggests rate coding in cortex. Nature, 2010; 466 (7302): 123 DOI: 10.1038/nature09086

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Food as Medicine - July 1, 2010

In my opinion, the best medicine is food - and it's also the best way to prevent illness in the first place. From time to time, I will be posting articles that look at the latest research on foods that help prevent or treat common health issues.

Virgin Olive Oil and a Mediterranean Diet Fight Heart Disease by Changing How Our Genes Function

Everyone knows olive oil and a Mediterranean diet are associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, but a new research report published in the July 2010 print issue of the FASEB Journal offers a surprising reason why: These foods change how genes associated with atherosclerosis function.

"Knowing which genes can be modulated by diet in a healthy way can help people select healthy diets," said Maria Isabel Covas, D.Pharm., Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Cardiovascular Risk and Nutrition Research Group at the Institut Municipal d'Investigacio Medica in Barcelona, Spain. "It is also a first step for future nutritional therapies with selected foods."
Read more.

Journal Reference:
V. Konstantinidou, M.-I. Covas, D. Munoz-Aguayo, O. Khymenets, R. de la Torre, G. Saez, M. del Carmen Tormos, E. Toledo, A. Marti, V. Ruiz-Gutierrez, M. V. Ruiz Mendez, M. Fito. In vivo nutrigenomic effects of virgin olive oil polyphenols within the frame of the Mediterranean diet: a randomized controlled trial. The FASEB Journal, 2010; DOI: 10.1096/fj.09-148452

Dark chocolate appears to lower blood pressure

Chocolate is something that no one can resist be it a kid or adult. Eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks seemingly has significant effects. Experts reveal hypertension a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease may be treated by dark chocolate and flavanol-rich cocoa products.

Previous analysis revealed that blood pressure may be lowered by consuming cocoa-rich foods. However several studies shared conflicting results. The new study sums up current evidence about the effect of flavanol-rich cocoa products on blood pressure among hypertensive and normotensive individuals.

Read more. One note on this one - it only work if your blood pressure is high. If you have normal blood pressure, it just tastes good, although the flavanols are good for you. Unfortunately, no journal reference was given.

Tea tree oil may aid in treating skin cancer

Australia seems to report maximum cases of skin cancer with approximately 434,000 Australians being treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers every year. A ray of hope does appear as The University of Western Australia (UWA) apparently revealed that tea tree oil can be utilized as a fast, cheap, safe and effective treatment for non-melanoma skin cancers and precancerous lesions.

Initiated by UWA’s Tea Tree Oil Research Group the investigation continued for three years. The scientists apparently identified solid tumors grown under the skin in mice. These mice were treated with a tea tree oil formulation assumed to make way for inhibition of tumour growth and tumor regression within a day of treatment. The scientists were unable to detect tumors within three days.

Read more.

Greay SJ, Ireland DJ, Kissick HT, Heenan PJ, Carson CF, Riley TV, Beilharz MW. (2010). Inhibition of established subcutaneous murine tumour growth with topical Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. Cancer Chemother Pharmacol; Feb 21: PMID: 20577741.

Beetroot seemingly decreases high blood pressure

Beetroot juice is considered to be a healthy drink because it probably contains many vital vitamins and minerals. Investigators from the Barts and The London School of Medicine have mentioned that drinking 500ml of beetroot juice a day can aid in reducing blood pressure. The scientists have also shed light on the fact that these findings may provide suggestions of vital importance for the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

The authors affirmed that the ingestion of dietary nitrate present in beetroot juice and green, leafy vegetables reduce blood pressure. Initially vegetable-rich diets were ascertained to contain antioxidant vitamin. But this study has highlighted one more reason to increase vegetables and beetroot juice in the daily diet.

Read more.

Webb AJ, Patel N, Loukogeorgakis S, Okorie M, Aboud Z, Misra S, Rashid R, Miall P, Deanfield J, Benjamin N, MacAllister R, Hobbs AJ, Ahluwalia A. Acute blood pressure lowering, vasoprotective, and antiplatelet properties of dietary nitrate via bioconversion to nitrite. Hypertension. 2008 Mar;51(3):784-90. Epub 2008 Feb 4.

The Postmodern Sacred - Em McAvan

This article from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture argues that post-9/11 religion has returned forcefully to popular culture as fundamentalism on one extreme and New Age spirituality on the other.

I think there is some merit to this position - if postmodern spirituality is to enter the mainstream consciousness, it will be through popular media like books and especially film.
The Postmodern Sacred

Em McAvan
Division of Arts
Murdoch University


I argue that the return of the religious in contemporary culture has been in two forms: the rise of so-called fundamentalisms in the established faiths—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, even Buddhist—and the rise of a New Age style spirituality that draws from aspects of those faiths even as it produces something distinctively different. I argue that this shift both produces postmodern media culture and is itself always already mediated through the realm of the fictional. Secular and profane are always entangled within one another, a constant and pervasive media presence that modulates the way that contemporary subjects experience themselves and their relationship to the spiritual. I use popular culture as an entry point, an entry point that can presume neither belief nor unbelief in its audiences, showing that it is “unreal” texts such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Passion of the Christ and Left Behind that we find religious symbols and ideas refracted through a postmodernist sensibility, with little regard for the demands of “real world” epistemology. I argue that it is in this interplay between traditional religions and New Age-ised spirituality in popular culture that the sacred truly finds itself in postmodernity.

[1] Clearly after September 11, religion has become an ever more vital, and contested, part of culture across the world. The aftermath of September 11, however, has not been a re-assessment of what legitimately constitutes the domain of the religious or the spiritual (and these two are not necessarily one and the same), but rather, the political implications that stem from religious belief. Debates over abortion, gay marriage, terror legislation, Israeli settlements, Middle East policy and so on are inflected with religious beliefs and practices, yet these debates all take religious positions as given. The terms shift depending on context, but all have a marked tendency to take religious beliefs as unified positions, static and fixed traditions—becoming variously religious/secular, Christianity/Islam, Judaism/Islam, East/West, and so on. Both atheists and religious adherents make this presumption, the former from a disdain of religion that often simplifies in order to rebut (as outmoded or suspicion, for example) and the later in advocating their eternal, fixed truths. What I would like to do in this paper however is to complicate the matter substantially, by pointing out how secular and profane are always-already entangled within one another. If, as I argue, we live in a postmodern age, and one of the characteristics of postmodernism is that it collapses many binary distinctions—say, between high and low culture—it should be unsurprising then that the sacred/profane binary should be collapsed by the postmodern. That collapse is dramatised by the strain of spiritually inflected popular culture texts I have termed “the postmodern sacred.”

[2] Whilst much of the rhetoric of the so-called “return of the religious” has been anti-modern (or anti-postmodern), I argue that contemporary culture is always-already mediated1 through a reign of simulacra best described as postmodern, and this is as true for the sacred as for the profane. We live in a world of the virtual, in which media permeates everything and everyone. The media shifts over the last fifty years, from the saturation of what are sometimes called “old media” and the development and convergence new forms of media and distribution has produced profound social changes. The task of analyzing what these changes are and mean is as important now as twenty years ago, when David Harvey (1989, 65) charged that the task of postmodern theory was to “trace the changes in the structure of feeling” in post-industrial society.2 How is the sacred modified through its interaction with virtual, media culture?

[3] Postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson once rightly pointed out (1991, 6), constitutes a force field through which “very different cultural impulses must make their way.” Subjectivity in the contemporary is clearly what Scott Bakutman (1993, 5) calls a “terminal identity,” one formed in front of the computer, television and mobile screens, at the intersection of various information networks. Media “news” seems unable to relay “real” events without first mediating them through popular culture references from music, films or TV; indeed the lines between journalism, entertainment and advertising are blurry at best. This is the age of the spin-off, of product placement and infotainment. Symbols slide through different mediums, from the movie screen to the television to the computer to the mobile phone to the written page to the clothing with which we brand ourselves. Perhaps the decline of postmodern theory in the academy may, ironically, coincide with the utter victory of the cultural logic of postmodernism itself—a global, dispersed, virtual culture.

[4] Postmodernity is very much about the virtual and electronic shift in political and aesthetic economies, though as Gayatri Spivak (1999, 317) rightly points out, this continues to make use of modern and even pre-modern forms of capitalist organisation. Indeed, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 285) argue in their mammoth Empire, global capitalism notably makes a shift from industrial production to the production of networks of information and symbols, what they term “informatisation.” Whilst information tends to flow from a privileged positions within the network—particularly the US in the texts I am analysing—it flows from and through other points too. Texts from India or Japan are widely available in Western countries like the US or Australia, along with what is marketed as “world” cinema (that is, anything from non-English speaking countries). The metaphors employed by global capitalism—the net, the web—suggest a different kind of spatialisation at work, one without a centre. Despite this shift, modernist top-down distribution has not been superseded by postmodern virtuality; rather it intersects with it, and supports it. Because of this shift in production, it is now perhaps impossible to underestimate the number of texts circulating in the culture now—in bookstores (on-line and off), on terrestrial television, cable or satellite TV, DVD.

[5] This culture institutes a new mode of engagement with the spiritual—one that disconnects the sign from its context—and as such requires a mode of critical engagement adept at reading media culture. I use popular culture as an entry point, for popular culture both produces and exemplifies this process, it is a feedback loop. Arguably the symbolic, the virtual and the real have merged, irrevocably, into one. Given that the majority of texts are produced with mass-markets in mind, using popular culture to as an entry point to postmodern spirituality can presume neither belief nor unbelief in its audiences. In particular, I shall chiefly use explicitly unreal texts, texts in the science fiction, fantasy and fantastic horror genres. Whilst there are undoubtedly Realist religious texts, from the burning bush to Revelation there is an element of the fantastic in Western religions that overlaps powerfully with more obviously “secular” fantastic texts.

Read the rest.

Buddhist Geeks #178: Growing Up Versus Waking Up - John Welwood

Excellent - John Welwood is another of my favorite teachers. His book from a couple of years back, Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart, is one of the best books on relationships I have ever read.

Buddhist Geeks #178: Growing Up Versus Waking Up

BG 178: Growing Up Versus Waking Up

28. Jun, 2010 by John Welwood

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner John Welwood. John has spent his entire adult life exploring the intersection between Eastern and Western psychological approaches. In our discussion we cover the following topics: the three realms of human experience, spiritual bypassing (a term that John coined), the Buddhist perfections, waking up and growing up as different tracks of human development, and the ways that spiritual awareness can be used in service of psychological growth and well-being.

Episode Links:


Brain, Mind, and Consciousness - A Few (sort of) Random Videos

These videos are random in that I was looking for something else when I found them - but each offers a different angle on brain, mind, and consciousness - some I like and agree with, others not so much - but all are educational in some way.

Each of these videos is nearly an hour or more than an hour in length, so you may want to bookmark this and come back to it.

Your Brain at Work

In his new book "Your Brain at Work," coach David Rock depicts the story of two people over one day at the office, and what's happening in their brains that makes it so hard to focus and be productive. Not only does he explain why things go wrong, but how you can train your brain to improve thinking and performance at work. Based on interviews with 30 neuroscientists, he's developed strategies to help you work smart all day.

Learn how to:
· Maximize your mental energy by understanding your brain's limits
· Overcome distractions
· Improve your focus through understanding the nature of attention
· Reduce stress levels with brain-based techniques
· Improve how you collaborate by understanding the social needs of the brain

You can learn to be more productive, less stressed and stay sane by understanding your brain.

David Rock is a thought leader for the brain-based approach to coaching. David coined the term 'NeuroLeadership' and co-founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, Journal and Summit. He is also the founder and CEO of Results Coaching Systems, which helps Fortune 500 clients worldwide improve thinking and performance. He has authored four books, most recently 'Your Brain at Work'. He is on the advisory board and faculty of international business school CIMBA, and a guest lecturer at Oxford University. He consults organizations including Ericsson, Publicis, NASA, Accenture, EDS and the US Federal Reserve. He lives between New York City and Sydney, Australia.

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Za Rinpoche on The Backdoor To Enlightenment
Za Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, first came to the world's attention when his life story was chronicled in the first chapter of Po Bronson's bestseller, What Should I Do with My Life?

While growing up in a refugee camp in Southern India, Za Rinpoche was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the sixth reincarnation of the Za Choeje Rinpoche.

Now, in The Backdoor To Enlightenment, he shares with us the keys to immediate, profound realization and lasting peace, revealing the secrets to enlightenment that have remained hidden in the distant reaches of the Himalayas for more than a thousand years.

This revolutionary work stands out as a smart, clear guide, showing step-by-step how you can use these deep truths to transform every aspect of your life.

Za Rinpoche is the founder of the Emaho Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, dedicated to sharing Tibetan culture with the West, supporting humanitarian projects, and assisting with personal spiritual development - Cody's Books

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David Lynch: Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain
The inside story on transcending the brain, with David Lynch, Award-winning film director of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mullholland Drive, Inland Empire (filming); John Hagelin, Ph.D., Quantum physicist featured in "What the bleep do we know?;" and Fred Travis, Ph.D., Director, Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition Maharishi University of Management.

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The Primacy of Consciousness - Peter Russell
Presentation given at "Physics of Consciousness" conference, Virginia, 2004, in which Peter Russell explores the mystery of consciousness from both scientific and mystical perspectives, showing how light is intrinsic to both, and giving a coherent argument as to why consciousness is fundamental essence of the cosmos. (Includes beautiful graphics and images.)

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Autism and the Brain's Theory of Mind
Uta Frith is Professor in Cognitive Development at the University of London. She has proposed and tested two of the main theories of autism, mindblindness and central coherence. Behavioral studies over the last twenty years have shown that mentalizing is severely delayed or absent in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Series: "M.I.N.D. Institute Lecture Series on Neurodevelopmental Disorders"

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Brain Development
UCSD Cognitive scientist Joan Stiles reveals the latest understandings about the intricate relationship between biology and external influences in the development of the brain. Series: "Grey Matters"

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Brain Mind and Behavior: Emotions and Health

Take a look into our current understanding of the function of the human brain and some of the important diseases that cause nervous system dysfunction. On this edition, Jason Satterfiled, director of behavioral medicine at UCSF, explores the emotions and health and the promise of mind-body medicine. Series: "UCSF Mini Medical School for the Public"

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Music and the Brain: Depression and Creativity Symposium

Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, convened a discussion of the effects of depression on creativity. Joining Jamison were two distinguished colleagues from the fields of neurology and neuropsychiatry, Dr. Terence Ketter and Dr. Peter Whybrow. The Music and the Brain series is co-sponsored by the Library's Music Division and Science, Technology and Business Division, in cooperation with the Dana Foundation.

The "Depression and Creativity" symposium marks the bicentennial of the birth of German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), who died after a severe depression following the death of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, also a gifted composer.

One of the nation's most influential writers on creativity and the mind, Kay Redfield Jamison is a noted authority on bipolar disorder. She is the co-author of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness and author of "Touched with Fire," "An Unquiet Mind," "Night Falls Fast" and "Exuberance: The Vital Emotion."

Dr. Terence Ketter is known for extensive clinical work with exceptionally creative individuals and a strong interest in the relationship of creativity and madness. He is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief of the Bipolar Disorders Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, an authority on depression and manic-depressive disease, is director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is also the Judson Braun Distinguished Professor and executive chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.