Frustration in Meditation

When I first started meditating, I thought I had to get it “right”. I thought that somehow I could completely focus and then I would have a startling epiphany – a moment of “enlightenment”. Many of us start out with these sorts of ideas.

First, some would argue that “enlightenment” is not an instant insight at all. Stephen Batchelor in “After Buddhism : Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” argues that the Buddha saw enlightenment as a practice to alleviate suffering and not a mental epiphany that allows one to “break” with corporeal existence. I would say there are some merits to this view. One of the many difficulties I had with the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) was that after the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued his existence for another 40+ years. This makes sense if enlightenment is a process, rather than a flash of insight. So, I have come to see meditation not as some mystical experience leading to immediate release, but rather as a practice, which takes effort and whose goal is release from suffering through this practice.

Second, in my straining to focus, I didn’t realise that the simple act of returning to my breath is the purpose of meditation. Rather than beating myself up over my inability to focus, I realised that simply realising my mind was drifting and returning my focus to the breath was itself meditating. I was not “failing” by wandering, I was “succeeding” by noticing and returning to the breath. How did this help? Rather than scolding myself when my mind wandered, I felt good at noticing and returning my concentration to my breathing. This self-encouragement has had remarkable effects on my meditation practice (including my excitement, rather than dreading or putting off my practice).

When your mind wanders, gently notice and return to the breath, over and over again. Each time being gentle with yourself and realising that this is actually meditation. You are not doing it wrong. You are not failing. You are taking the same path we all take. The “monkey mind” will calm, over time. Frustration will not help. Frustration will not motivate you. Being kind to yourself will encourage you. You are brave to explore the mind. Many live their whole lives without looking inside. You are an explorer. Be kind to yourself and keep going.

Self-Comforting Through Difficult Times

Therapy is not just something “delivered” by another person for a scheduled time each week. To ensure our own mental health, we need to look for opportunities to help ourselves outside of therapy sessions. Therapists realise this and often will recommend tasks to be completed between sessions. Sometimes these tasks involve reading a book – within the therapeutic relationship, this is called a number of things, including “bibliotherapy”. Sometimes, clients will be asked to watch for certain things and then make note for discussion at the next session. These can be wonderful tasks, that can be focused upon in therapy.

What about things to do between sessions or once sessions have ended? What sorts of things can you do to help yourself? Learning as much as possible can be empowering (and I will discuss that in a post soon), but second to that focus, I try to self-nurture.

Think about it like this – if you had a friend who was down, what would you do? Maybe you would take over some soup. Maybe you would buy them something nice that you thought would cheer them up. What might cheer them up? Flowers? A book? Music? A new robe? I am going to say this with emphasis – THE CARING, NURTURING, LOVING APPROACH THAT YOU TAKE WITH OTHERS, YOU CAN TAKE WITH YOURSELF. Now, I can hear responses. “That would be self-indulgent!” “I would feel silly!” Toss all of those notions out the window.

Now, most of us practice SOME aspects of self-nurturing. Who hasn’t gone on a big shopping spree to help their moods? The problem is that caring for yourself can be sporadic and tends to fail the most when you most need it. Would you be happy with a friend who was inconsistent with help and never showed up when you needed them the most? Don’t be that sort of friend to yourself!

Me? I have a lot of self-care ready and waiting. The long, wet New Zealand winters are hard to bare, so I have a stack of books I love on standby (ordered during summer) and I have some incredibly comfortable nightshirts I order from Ireland (also in summer). What else? When my moods are down, I have one of my guitars sitting next to my bed and I strum and sing to myself. I have framed art made by my son and put around the house. This always cheers me up. When dealing with bullies professionally, I have been known to buy some herbal teas during the day and come home to a movie, fluffy robe and herbal tea. When I find myself dealing repeatedly with people who lack commitment to quality in their lives (not within counselling, of course, but other contexts), I add that much more beauty, quality and intellect to my own. I have enrolled in another course to fill this current gap.

Things I love to raise my mood
Things I love to raise my mood

Today? Drinking coffee from the “Best Dad Ever” cup that my son gave me a few years ago, while I read some history (I love history) and meditating with my turquoise mala (which reminds me of where I grew up).

Yes, seek professional help when you need it, but ALSO take responsibility for yourself, as you would for a dear friend or family member. You deserve to be cared for and who knows your needs better?

When Sitting Meditation Just Won’t Happen

We all have those days where we can’t sit. Sometimes it is something physical, such as pain or injury. Sometimes, our minds want to be anywhere else. When I was new to meditation, I would just give up for the day! There are other ways to meditate than just sitting. There are practices for walking meditation, where you focus on your feet striking the ground (for example). There is eating meditation, where you focus deeply on the food, the movement of your mouth, etc. There is meditation while using the toilet (I will let you figure this one out for yourself). There is chanting (“OM”, “Om mani padme hum”, etc) meditation, where rather than focusing on your breathe or a flame, you chant to a rhythm.

Meditation mala for mindfulness practice
Meditation mala for mindfulness practice

One of my preferred options, if my sitting meditation won’t happen, or if I am in a situation where it is not practical (sitting at doctor’s office, on the train, etc) is chanting to myself while working along my mala. One of my malas is pictured here. I work along each bead with focus, inhaling on the bead and then exhaling and clearly chanting “OM” as my finger works into the space between the beads. This can have a very powerful effect on me. It is different from sitting meditation, but also a balancing, centring and calming experience.

Another practice that is helpful for me, especially when I am feeling too centred on my own ego, is loving-kindness meditation. I might mention that in another post.

Until then,

OM . . .

My New Meditation Bench

I have used a meditation cushion since 2004, but I saw a meditation bench on Etsy and decided to give it a try. Honestly, I have never sat well with meditation cushions. I have tried to get my knees lower than my hips, but there was always discomfort. I wish I had tried a meditation bench way back then.

If you have not used a bench like this, you are basically on the front of your legs, with your knees on the ground and the tops of your feet flat on the ground. Your bottom rests on the bench, taking the bulk of your weight. This allows you to have your knees below your hips, which helps with blood flow. Having most of your weight on the bench, keeps pressure off your knees. The only very slight thing to get used to was having the tops of my feet stretched back behind me and this stretching sensation was only obvious the first time or two that I meditated on this new bench.

Another thing to note is that this meditation bench has curved feet – absolutely fantastic! This allows you to lean into the position which is most natural for you. I would strongly suggest that if you want to try one of these out, get the curved feet. If the bench has flat legs, you will be forced to shift your body to match the angle of the seat. After experiencing these legs, I wouldn’t buy another without this option, no matter how otherwise desirable it might seem.

What else? The legs fold up under the bench. When I was looking online, I wasn’t too excited about the look of the hinges but it allows me to fold up the bench and put in my backpack, to easily take with me to solitary locations to meditate. This will encourage me to meditate more and the ease of transport is a huge plus. If I had bought a bench that didn’t fold, I wouldn’t think of taking it on holidays. This bench will be one of the first things I pack.

I have found my old meditation blanket and have my malas next to my bed. I haven’t enjoyed meditation this much in years. Because I am in a good position and have no distracting discomfort, my practice has increased dramatically.

Find what works for you. Don’t assume discomfort is a natural or required aspect of your practice.

Null Hypothesis

The “null hypothesis” is the hypothesis in research (and statistics) that claims there is no statistically significant relationship between the experimental (dependent) variables and the observed results or data collected.

There is an assumption that the null hypothesis is true, unless research findings indicate otherwise. Rejecting the null hypothesis can be the central task of research.

The null hypothesis can be denoted in statistics as H_0.

Dummy Variable Trap

First, what is a dummy variable and why do we need them?

What does machine learning do with labels like “United States” when trying to figure out how to process data? These models cannot use these labels in mathematical operations. “1 + United States” does not have a result. So, these labels (commonly referred to as “categorical” variables) need to be converted to something upon which operations can occur.

Let’s make a very simple example. You are trying to use (multiple) linear regression to figure out the effects on the salaries of workers of the following variables:

  • the countries in which the workers are employed
  • the age of the workers
  • the number of years the workers have been on the job

You have a list of salaries and you want plot the salaries and use machine learning to be able in future to estimate salary by country, age and years on the job. Salary is your dependent variable (the one you want to watch change in response to the other variable changes). The other variables are your independent variables.

With dummy variables:

As already noted, categorical variables need to be converted to numerical values. We do not want to do this in one column, as our machine learning model might think there is a difference in values between these variables. If “United States” is given a value of “1” and “Canada” is given a value of “2”, “United States” might be considered numerically more (or less, depending on our logic) significant. To resolve this issue, we create “dummy variables”, giving each variable its own column and providing a 0 or 1 (0 if “no” and 1 if “yes”). Our dataset which contains the dummy variables might look like the following:

Second, what is the trap?

Imagine that you have a dataset with the constant “1” and dummy columns for “male” and “female”. The male and female columns will add up to “1”, which is equal to the constant column. This “1” equals the constant regressor and the regression equation becomes unsolvable. The solution? Either remove the constant or one of the dummy variables. Back to our example – like the male versus female example, the country in our dataset must be either “United States” or “Canada”, so we can remove one of these to avoid the Dummy Variable Trap.

With constant and both dummy variables:

With constant and one dummy variable (United States dummy variable removed):

We have now avoided the Dummy Variable Trap in this dataset!

Machine Learning and Data Science Course

While working through how to add machine learning to my mental health app, I came across the course “Machine Learning A-Z™: Hands-On Python & R In Data Science” at Udemy, found at:

https://www.udemy.com/machinelearning/.

The course looked like exactly what I wanted, so I signed up and got another course (“Deep Learning”) included in bundle. I am about 20 videos into the ML course and I am loving it!

I have already installed the two major (and open source) IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) used in the course:

Anaconda for Python: https://www.anaconda.com/

and

RStudio: https://www.rstudio.com/

I have also begun to work through datasets in both Python and R. Great stuff!

World Mental Health Day 2018

It is almost the end of the day here in Aotearoa New Zealand. A decade ago, I wouldn’t have given a day highlighting mental health a second thought. I was one of those persons who spent the first four decades of his life without any significant mental health concerns. Sure, I felt a bit anxious on that sixth cup of coffee and sure I had dealt with bullies in primary school, but that was it. I didn’t realise how easy I had it. I also didn’t have much empathy or compassion for the suffering of others.

Ten years ago, my world collapsed. I experienced PTSD as my marriage ended. In the depths of despair, I decided to become a counsellor to help others.

Mental Health Day is now front and centre in my thoughts. I can imagine the suffering of others, because I have felt it myself. I have also counselled others in person and from a distance. The burdens others carry can be unimaginable and when we try to understand, we tend to pull back in fear. One of the first things I learned as a counsellor was not to be a problem-solver. People in distress get more than enough of those interactions. Sure, help, but don’t feel a need to fill every second with speaking and don’t tell them “all you need to do is . . . ” That rubbish is generally unwelcome.

How can you help? Learn about mental health issues. Volunteer to just be with those suffering. Do things to make their struggles a bit easier – be it offering them a cuppa, listening without advising, making a meal, bringing their wash from the clothesline. There are so many ways to help others in need.

If we are lucky enough not to be struggling ourselves right now, we certainly will, given enough life. Help someone up, asking nothing in return. When you someday get the same, you will savour it that much more.

For those struggling – you are not alone.

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internal validity

The extent to which the results of a research experiment can be attributed to the independent variable under consideration, rather than to some confounding variable, through minimisation of systematic error (bias).

Contrast to external validity.