The Craving Mind Summary (7/10) — Unearned Wisdom

The Craving Mind is a book about meditation. Judson’s background as a scientist and researcher is juxtaposed against his interest in meditation. The first part of the book is the story of how he came to embrace meditation as a source of healing. The second part is his attempts as a scientist, to uncover the neuroscience of meditation.

Suffering

Suffering is a universal feeling, but puzzling, nonetheless.

The suffering, out-of-jointness, comes from the feeling that something is missing even though we have it all and are undeniably miraculous beings, geniuses, and gifted beyond compare with the potential to learn, grow, heal, and transform across our lifespan.

How do we understand such a contradiction? Why do feel so empty, and in need of constant gratification? What really, are we craving? And why? And finally, who is doing the craving? Who is in charge of the brain? Who suffers the consequences? And who can make things right?

Mind-Body Connection

Judson describes an episode he experienced in university, where he felt a pain in his stomach. He thought it was some kind of infection. He went to the doctor, it wasn’t. His doctor told him that he had IBS; that his symptoms were the product of his mind.

It was only later that I learned that I had presented the classic symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a symptom-based diagnosis with “no known organic [that is, physical] cause.” In other words, I had a physical illness caused by my head. I might have found this advice offensive-”get right in the head and you’ll be fine”-but a family life event changed my mind.

The event is of his future sister-in-law who was about to get married. She threw a huge wedding party, which involved a lot of stressful planning. The next day, and not because of alcohol, she got sick at the very beginning of her honeymoon.

Decades ago, the mind-body connection wasn’t taken seriously. It is now. Judson thinks mindfulness can help us find our way. In the same way that a map cannot be read unless it is properly oriented, we cannot tell what we want unless we are properly oriented. We tend to take extreme measured to overcome feelings of frustration. Instead of trying to shake it off or beat it, we should join it.

We should use our stress like a compass. The point isn’t to seek out more stress, but to use our existing stress a navigation tool.

What does stress actually feel like, and how does it differ from other emotions such as excitement? If we can clearly orient ourselves to the needle of “south” (toward stress) and “north” (away from stress), we can use that alignment as a compass to help guide our lives.

Mindfulness is about seeing the world more clearly. If we get lost because our subjective biases keep us wandering around in a circle, mindfulness brings awareness of these very biases so that we can see how we are leading ourselves off the path. Once we see that we are not going anywhere, we can stop, drop the useless baggage, and reorient ourselves.

When we scratch the wound and give into our addictions, we do not allow the wound to heal. But when we instead experience the raw quality of the itch or pain of the wound and do not scratch it, we actually allow the wound to heal. So not giving in to our addictions is about healing at a very basic level. -Pema Chödrön

You can observe a lot by watching. -Yogi Berra

Judson discontinued molecular biology research at Yale School of Medicine. Even though he was studying an interesting topic — how stress is linked to immune system dysregulation, and he was being published in high quality journals, he didn’t think his work really matters.

He wanted his work to directly help humans. He trained to become a psychiatrist. He saw more connections between Buddhist teachings and psychiatric frameworks he used to treat patients. The faculty wasn’t happy about his decision to study mindfulness. Psychology had enough struggles with legitimacy.

Judson decided to test whether smokers would be responsive to meditation. A patient knew that smoking was bad for her, so she joined his program. She discovered, simply by being curious and attentive the next time she smoked, that smoking tastes horrible.

She moved from knowledge to wisdom, from knowing intellectually, to knowing instinctually. The spell of smoking was gone. She grew disenchanted with her behavior. There was no force necessary. The process which she used is called CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). This technique requires no force, but simply cognition.

The problem is that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that regulates behavior) goes off line when we get stressed. And that is when we return to our old habits.

RAIN

The most useful acronym to remember is RAIN.

  • Recognize/Relax into what is arising (ex: craving)
  • Accept/Allow it to be there.
  • Investigate bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
  • Note what is happening from moment to moment.

When we recognize wanting or craving coming, and then relaxing into it, we learn how to ride the wave. We should learn to accept the way as it is, not to ignore it, or distract ourselves.

A word or phrase can be used in this exercise. Now, investigate the craving as it builds. Ask yourself what your body feels like right now? Just observe what your body is communicating without acting on it. Use simple words to describe this experience (NOTE): restlessness in stomach, burning etc… Follow this until the craving subsides.

RAIN was the best mindfulness skill in breaking the link between craving and smoking.

Technology

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free. -Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Social survival is as paramount to our brains as physical survival, because in the past, and in the present, the two are closely linked. Therefore, not feeling important, or being left out, is a real existential threat.

A study called “Hooked on Facebook” by Leewon and colleagues argued that the need for self-presentation — forming and preserving positive impressions of ourselves on others — is central to understanding the problematic use of online media. The researchers showed that the need for social assurance was correlated with excessive and uncontrolled use of Facebook, particularly in people who thought of themselves as lacking in social skills.

When we feel anxious, bored, or lonely, we post an update, a callout to our internet friends who respond by liking our post or writing a short comment. This feedback reassures us that we are connected, and paid attention to. In other words, we learn to go online to get a reward that reassures us of our importance. And whenever this happens, loneliness is dissipated, and the connection feels good.

And that’s how people get hooked to social media.

A study in 2012 by Zach Lee and colleagues investigated whether Facebook use was trapping people into constantly checking their Facebook feeds to try to feel better.

Just like cocaine users, people who preferred online social interactions ad deficient mood regulation and diminished sense of self-worth and increased social withdrawal. Online social interaction increased social withdrawal. So, people went to Facebook to feel better but in the end, it made them feel worse.

Like any addiction, whether drugs or chocolate, the root cause of the problem is being ignored for temporary relief.

In a study called “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage Is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,” Mai-Ly Steers and colleagues found evidence that Facebook users felt depressed when comparing themselves to others.

In his book In This Very Life, the Burmese meditation teacher Sayadaw U Pandita, wrote, “In their quest for happiness, people mistake excitement of the mind for real happiness.”

Ego, the self which he has believed himself to be, is nothing but a pattern of habits. -Alan Watts

Is our self-esteem shaped through the same lens of reward-based learning?

When we are young, we are given compliments when we get good grades. This feels good. We try to get that praise again. We expect more praise. We receive it. With this reinforcement as motivation, we make sure to study even harder. Over time, with our grades, friends, and parents telling us that we’re smart, we might begin to believe it.

Now, the child becomes addicted to praise and needs constant reinforcement. On the other end of the spectrum, we have an unstable sense of self.

This deficiency may be the case with borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is characterized by the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by a range of symptoms including “poorly developed or unstable self-image,” “chronic feelings of emptiness,” “intense, unstable, and conflicted close relationships, marked by mistrust, neediness, and anxious preoccupation with real or imagined abandonment,” “fears of rejection by and/or separation from significant others,” and “feelings of inferior self-worth.”

There are a series of NYT opinion pieces that Judson read — all had to do with someone relating their addiction to technology. They read like confessionals. These people complained about how work life and personal live was in shambles because of technology. They try to solve the problem by taking a technology “fast” and after a few weeks, they gain their ability to read more than a paragraph at a time of that novel they’ve been waiting so long to read.

Is it really that bad? Let’s see for ourselves, with the help of this short quiz. In this case, “X” is your cell phone usage. Put a checkmark in each box that applies to you.

Using X for longer than you meant to

Wanting to cut down or stop using X but not managing to

Spending a lot of time using, or recovering from using, X

Cravings and urges to use X

Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of X

Continuing to use X even when it causes problems in relationships

Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of X

Using X again and again, even when it puts you in danger

Continuing to use X even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by it

Needing more of X to get the effect you want (tolerance)

Developing withdrawal symptoms that can be relieved by using X more.

You get a point for each checkmark. The total number will tell you have a smartphone addiction.

  • Mild addiction = 2–3 Checkmarks.
  • Moderate addiction = 4–5 Checkmarks.
  • Severe addiction = 6–7 Checkmarks.

The definition of addiction here is the continued use of something despite adverse consequences. This quiz is used as a diagnostic checklist in the DSM to check whether someone has substance use disorder, and if so, how strong it is.

In 2014, Craig Palsson published a paper titled “That Smarts! Smartphones and Child Injuries.” He retrieved data from the CDC about nonfatal, unintentional injuries to children under five between 2007–2012. He then concluded that because the iPhone was at that time available only through AT&T, since its 3G network had expanded its coverage, he could use these data to determine whether increased iPhone use indirectly caused an increase in childhood injuries.

Based on a national hospital injury surveillance database, he could tell whether a hospital that reported a childhood injury was in area with 3G coverage at the time of injury. His suspicion was confirmed.

Injuries to children under five went up when areas began getting 3G service, which suggests an indirect causal relationship between injury and smartphone use. Not definitive proof, but well worthy of more investigation.

Smartphones also created distracted minds. And distracted minds are more likely to wander. And a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. A 2010 study by Killingsworth and Gilbert corroborates this idea.

Anticipating future vacations is rewarding, often as much as the vacation itself.

One of the greatest addictions, you never read about it in the papers because the people who are addicted to it don’t know it, is the addiction to thinking. -Eckhart Tolle

It is not thinking that is the problem but getting caught up in thinking that is the problem.

The Science of Meditation

In a study by Judson that measured brain activity during meditation for novice and expert meditators, it was shown that no specific areas of the brain lit up. Rather, four brain regions showed reduced activity (two of which were the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, the central hubs of the DMN). Judson wanted to repeat the experiment to make sure the findings weren’t a fluke.

Advanced neuroimaging was used to measure brain activity moment to moment. This field is known as neurophenomenology.

Over the next two years, Judson learned about the substantive differences between brain activity between novice and expert meditators. For example, there would be a lot of variability in PCC ( Posterior cingulate cortex) activity in novice meditators.

Experienced meditators who weren’t used to seeing a graph of their own brain activity while meditating had high PCC activity at first but then dropped dramatically as they got deeper into meditation and weren’t pulled to look at the graph.

Both novice and experienced meditators reported learning something about their experience, even though the intention of the study was only to confirm whether decreased PCC activity correlated with meditation.

Two things can be learned from the results. First, they confirmed that PCC activity decreased when people concentrated.

Here is where the second, surprising result came in. One of the bins that Juan filled was called “controlling”- trying to control one’s experience. That activity lined up with increases in PCC activity. Another, labeled “effortless doing,” correlated with decreased PCC activity. Taken together, these data revealed the mode of subjective experience that lined up with PCC activity-not perception of an object, but how we relate to it. In a sense, if we try to control a situation (or our lives), we have to work hard at doing something to get the results we want.

Basically, it’s better if we relax into a dance with the object and being with it as the situation unfolds rather than striving or struggling.

A craving is just a craving unless we get sucked into it. How we relate to our thoughts and feelings makes all the difference. Meditators train themselves to notice these experiences and not get caught up in them-to simply see them for what they are and not take them personally. The PCC may be linking us to our experiences through reward-based learning. Through mental and physical contraction, we may be learning that “we” are thinking, “we” are craving. And through this connection, we form a strong relationship to our thoughts and feelings. We learn to see the world through a particular set of glasses over and over, to the point that we take the view they provide at face value as who we are.

It isn’t the self that is a problem. Remembering who we are each morning turns out to be quite useful. But the problem is the extent to which we get caught up in the drama of our lives, and take it personally when good or bad things happen. Like thinking, which is bad in excess, but necessary in moderation, it is important to have a sense of self, but not too strong a sense of self.

Meditation is ultimately about practice. You can only learn it by doing it.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com on March 30, 2022.

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I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.

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