the hardest simplicity


A friend of mine has just returned from a ten day meditation retreat where they spent the entire time in total silence. Between meditations they ate in silence, walked in silence, much as monks might.

He remarked how much learning he got from just being with his thoughts. For ten days, there was nothing else. He was able to pay attention to how his thinking worked. Noticing patterns in his thinking. Judgements, for example, of those around him. His fellow meditators judged for how they sat, ate, looked, or for what they were wearing. Thinking about conversations and meetings he would have, then reflecting and self criticising past conversations which might have gone better.

I contrasted this with a training session I had facilitated a few weeks ago. We asked the delegates to spend time , in silence, reflecting on their learning. After a short period we asked them how long that had been. The general concensus was seven or eight minutes, some thought more than ten. In reality it was four. Four minutes of silence with their thoughts and many couldn’t manage that. They wrote notes, checked phones, engaged in non verbal communication with neighbours…

We find it hard to notice ourselves. To be with ourselves.

Strange that something so simple is so difficult.


time to flex your happy muscle?

happiness mindfulness meditation
For many centuries, great sages, such as Aristotle, Bhudda, Confucius and Epicurus have advocated the pursuit of happiness. They have suggested happiness comes from within, from creating an inner peace, from reflection. Happiness of the mind, rather than of things.

Now science appears to be catching up. I have just been reading about a study at Kyoto University. The research, reported here, has identified a part of the brain, the precuneus, which appears to be larger in people who self declare themselves to have meaning in their lives, who report positive emotional and cognitive experiences and describe themselves as happy. This has been correlated to studies into meditation, which show that the precuneus grows in people who make meditation a part of their lives – it seems that calming our thoughts, being present in the current moment can exercise our happy muscle.

The research speaks of psychological training that could increase the volume of grey matter in the precuneus, which in turn may enhance subjective happiness. The report’s summary says…

Psychological studies have shown that subjective happiness can be measured reliably and consists of emotional and cognitive components. However, the neural substrates of subjective happiness remain unclear. To investigate this issue, we used structural magnetic resonance imaging and questionnaires that assessed subjective happiness, the intensity of positive and negative emotional experiences, and purpose in life. We found a positive relationship between the subjective happiness score and gray matter volume in the right precuneus. Moreover, the same region showed an association with the combined positive and negative emotional intensity and purpose in life scores. Our findings suggest that the precuneus mediates subjective happiness by integrating the emotional and cognitive components of happiness

Time to flex the happy muscle?

Now that’s a happy thought…