Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat: So, I am here to speak about the elephant in the room. I know, but it’s there for all of us in one form or another. It’s this dissatisfaction and unhappiness with what we have in our lives. So maybe, if you’re here or watching this, you have all the basics covered; Food, water, safety, shelter. But, somehow we long for something more. As a psychologist, I’ve really seen how we all want to be happy but keep chasing it in the future. And I know about myself really well because I had everything in life. I had loving support, education, and a career. But, it wasn’t enough and that really frustrated me. Eventually, I discovered the real obvious reason. It’s really obvious; it’s our mind. It really gets distracted on loss and negatives and has a difficult time being right here in the present moment. What helped me see that so clearly was mindfulness meditation. I came across it in the research in my field and started using it with clients. And that took me on a personal journey; which eventually, lead me to this ridiculous gut feeling that I had to do, which is drop everything in my life and go to a six month meditation retreat in Southeast Asia in a forest monastery, in silence. I tell you it was the most difficult, unpleasant, painful six months of my life. But, it really taught me profound lessons that have inspired me to be here today.
So, I am here to really share with you my personal insights and professional understanding of mindfulness meditation, with the hope that you’ll give it chance so you can see for yourself how it can redefine the way we approach happiness, satisfaction, and reduce the suffering in our lives from the pain that’s already there. Okay, so back to some not so good news about our mind. It has the tendency for a negativity bias. Or the evolutionary psychologists refer to it as a survival mechanism. So, there is a bunny in the bushes, there are sounds, our mind is ready for the stress responses, for the fight or flight response. Even if there is just a bunny we are getting ready for a tiger. And a neuropsychologist refers to that as our brain being like Velcro to the negatives; latches on to negatives. Anyone familiar with that? Just hang on. And being like Teflon fabric to the positives, letting it all slip away. Okay, so it’s not all bad news. With the advances in neuroscience, mindfulness mediation has been shown to change the structure of our brain. And you don’t have to do a six month retreat in the forest. Even in eight weeks in mindfulness programs, meditating forty –forty five minutes a day. We can improve concentration, decision making, compassion, and life satisfaction.
So, what exactly is mindfulness meditation? It’s one form of meditation. It’s basically training the brain to be present. It’s based on thousands of years of wisdom tradition in Asia. And how we do it one way is we place our attention on the belly, to watch our breath. But, we do that in a particular way or as Jon Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness to medicine. He defines it in four words, we pay attention and on purpose, and in the present moment, so right now, and the hardest part for all of us, non-judgmentally; really tough. So, let’s say this is our attention (places pink dot on belly). We place it right on our belly. Guess what’s going to happen with our mind (takes the pink dot away at arm’s length). We are going to get distracted but without pushing against the thoughts or hating the thoughts or clinging onto them, good or bad…Right back. Now, you can get a sense of that if you like. Now, if you’d like to join me by placing your hand on the belly and we’re just going to observe two breaths. Natural inhale, natural exhale. Even slightly inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Okay, now, when we do that some of you maybe notice thoughts emotions or sensations but we don’t get lost in them. We bring our attention back and every time we do that, guess what we are doing to our brain? We are strengthening the muscles in our brain every time. It’s a gym workout for our brain. And in the process of doing that, patiently and compassionately, we learn to work with our mind and be present with whatever is here. No, we don’t have to like what’s here. When I first arrived at the forest monastery, I asked the monk “is it true there are poisonous snakes on the compound “
He said “yes, yes , deadly, deadly. Just stay away from them. Walk mindfully, use a flashlight at night, check your meditation cushion before you sit on it.”
I mean I could have died.
But the best part he said “send them love, they were here before us.”
Okay, Mr. Monk, I wasn’t ready for that yet. But, I did notice that even before going to this long retreat, I noticed some changes in my mind and how I reacted just from daily mediation. One day I was stuck in traffic jam really early in the morning, 5:40AM, on my way to the gym. And instead of the usual “why aren’t these people moving.” and the mind going to “this is going to being a horrible day,” what surprised me is what I heard, “oo interesting”, the thought “I hope no one is hurt, maybe there is an accident. Or maybe there’s construction whose workers were up all night.” And I started wishing them well. Now I was still late, but I did pile onto the negativity of the mind, and it really showed me “wow, it was worth working that muscle, in the daily practice.”
So, let’s put together what I shared so far with a little illustration. Imagine this is pain (holds a silver ball), it could be anything. Let’s just say stomach pain (puts it over his stomach). Signals travel to the brain, imagine this is our brain (pitcher of water). The mind is relatively calm (water is still), we have now a signal of pain (puts the ball into the pitcher). But, it doesn’t stop there; we are not usually loving to it. We hate it and we get agitated and wish it wasn’t there. And then what we do, we let negativity (pours red liquid into the pitcher), leak the rest of our mind. Why me? Why is this happening? And then we stir it all up with negativity (stirs everything together in the pitcher). What kind of horrible thing this is, we worry. And instead of being present with the pain, we get taken for a ride in our mind (lets the water circle around). I know that really well, because I experience that deeply at this forest retreat. You see the honeymoon phase of “ahh” fulfilling my dream, meditating for so long. That ended after the first night. You know everything that brought me happiness or I thought brought me happiness was pulled from under my legs. The people I loved, there’s no technology, no social media, no internet.; just seclusion and deprivation. And there was a wake-up call in the morning 3:00 am every day. But it wasn’t this nice chime of *ding*. No, it wasn’t that it was *BUMP* *Bump* *Bump*every morning, startled me; which would begin our 13-14 hours of daily mediation. And the heat, the lovely insects, the scorpions. Actually, someone got stung by one as they sat on their cushion, and sleeping on this lovely wooden bed with just a little bit of foam. Daily hunger, because the last meal of the day was lunch. And when? 10:30 in the morning. That was the reality. So, whenever my mind got stirred up in any of that pain, it was crushing. I felt trapped. I actually woke up one night screaming from it all. And really saw how when we begin to fight and resist our reality it gets worse. Things began to change for me when I just started to look at pain as pain. And saw so clearly that it was my mind that was creating the suffering, which is optional. Wow. All I have to do is just be this moment. And mindfulness showed me we can be the eye of the storm; watch it all pass moment by moment. And there is such freedom in trusting in permanence in that way. And then really holding our pain with great compassion, because it is painful already, you don’t need to hate it more, just be with it.
You know, there’s this psychiatrist Viktor Frankl and he said “choice is the last human freedom, choice.” I learned that using mindfulness is a choice, and even when all my freedoms felt like they were taken away; I experienced freedom right here (points at head). And my biggest, biggest epiphany is happiness and satisfaction is not in the distant future or when I go back home, it’s actually available for all of us in every moment. It blooms naturally from a state of mind that’s calm and not agitated and peaceful. So, I want to leave you with this acronym that captures some of my learnings and I hope you use it when you find yourself lost in any kind of suffering. And it’s L-O-S-T. This first letter is “L”, just know your lost and suffering and thought, come back to the present moment. “O”, offer loving-kindness. You don’t have to like the pain, just hold it with compassion. “S”, see and smile. See pain as pain or joy as joy without added agitation of the mind. And smile knowing you just did that. And “T” for take a deep breath, knowing you are not alone. We are all dealing with the condition of the mind. So, I invite you to join me in taking a deep breath into the nose and exhale. So, to sum up, if we don’t retrain the brain, it can cause added pain. And the training can begin with mindfulness meditation. It’s not a quick fix with magical results, nor is it going to make us immune to the challenges in life. Imagine if half of us created a daily mediation process to be more present in life with the good and the bad. Offer more compassion and feel more moments of satisfaction and happiness and let that bloom naturally from the state of mind that’s more peaceful. That’s a recipe for a positive change and it can start with you. Thank you.