The increasing popularity and awareness of the Practice of Mindfulness in the Western World during the past decade, has been so phenomenal, that some sceptical observers have been calling it somewhat sardonically MacMindfulness!

My first memory of being impressed by the potential of the Practice of Mindfulness was when I read about research that was being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some 25 years ago.   It was when the first efforts were made to derive scientific evidence for this phenomenon using long term meditators as the subjects.  Matthieu Ricard was chosen as the perfect candidate to Meditate on Compassion in an MRI machine.   Practising Compassion or Metta is a pivotal mindfulness practice derived from the Buddhist tradition.    He was the ideal subject for this early attempt at obtaining scientific evidence on Mindfulness, as he was well on his way to receiving a Nobel Prize for his research in microbiology when he decided to leave his career at a Parisian research centre and immerse himself in Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation in the East.

Early Research

With many thousands of hours of meditation under his belt, Matthieu subjected himself to the rigours of Meditating on Compassion in the MRI machine.   When reading the report of this trial, I learned that the graph paper was not big enough to record the information being received from its experimental subject. The graph actually went off the top of the page because of the intensity of the brain waves which were being recorded during the experimental sessions.   This information motivated me to find out more about the practice of Mindfulness and meditation.

An Opportunity

At that time I was involved in the study and practice of Eric Berne’s “I’m OK – You’re OK.”  This theory investigated how the early relationships set up in the family home influences our thought patterns, behaviour as well as our responses to social situations and cultural pressures during our lifetime.    It was my teacher of Berne’s theory who emailed me information about an eight week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.   Having reassured myself that the presenters of this course were well qualified I decided to take a leap of courage and immerse myself into this training.

The idea of needing to meditate for 45 minutes a day, every day for the next eight weeks was daunting, and I had to be constantly reminding myself of my impressions of the performance of Ricard in the MRI machine, to keep me motivated.   There was a significant dropout rate from the class, but I did manage to fulfil all the requirements of the course which included a 6 hour day of mindful silence.

I was satisfied with my handling of this early immersion into Mindfulness.   I had done the homework meditation practices, attended all the two hour sessions, learned about mindful eating and incorporating mindful moments in my daily routine.   However, I was not successful in motivating myself to perform the daily meditation practice on the cushion.    This was a cause of personal dissatisfaction.

Further Opportunity

However, it was about 6 months later that I received an announcement about a new two year diploma course that was being offered at Stellenbosch University Medical School on the Theory and Practice of Mindfulness.   The entrance qualification was a degree in Psychology or experience in an allied field.   I had the necessary qualifications but, “What chance has a woman in her mid-70s of being selected for this course” I pondered.

Very soon I had a phone call from Dr Simon Whitesman, the initiator of this program.   He interviewed me telephonically and I learned I had been successful in my application.   The course involved on-line study, the writing of essays, and 4 separate weeks of immersion into the experience of Mindful Meditation at local retreat centres.    Two years later I was the proud owner of a certificate stating my success in pursuing this Diploma Course.

It is a full six years ago that I completed this training, and I now have an established mindfulness practice.   The first thing I do after my early morning ablutions and getting dressed is 20 minutes ‘on the cushion.’   If I miss out for any reason, like having to be on the tennis court at 7am, then the whole day has a feeling of something missing or ‘ennui’.   I have mastered the art of meditation in many varying situations including the park, the queue at the bank or just taking a break in my writing schedule!  Additionally, I sometimes remember to take a pause for a few mindful breaths a couple of times a day just to bring me back into the present moment, and away from the tendency to think compulsively.

Positive Lifestyle Augmentation

It was indeed challenging when my somewhat sceptical daughter questioned me a couple of days ago, “Ma,” she said, “Do you feel that your daily practice of meditation has helped you?”

I took a deep breath and expressed myself as follows.   “Tanya, I feel that I can with good conscience tell you that this practice has been of value to me.   As you know, I moved into a Retirement Village two years ago.   This move took place just 6 weeks after I had major back surgery.   I needed to pack up my home, recover from the post-operative pain, and cope with all the practical details involved.   I managed to do that with some degree of equilibrium, and indeed hosted a meeting at my new home, just two days after taking occupation.  I feel that my training in Mindfulness helped me to cope with the stresses involved in making this change in my lifestyle.”

I continued, “You know about the negotiations I went through to have my two dogs living here with me.   You recall that management only wanted me to bring one dog, so I went through many painful negotiations with the committee to ensure that I was not separated from both Blanco and Freddy.”

And besides, I said to her, “You know about the various family pressures with which I have been involved so soon after moving.   I have managed to cope with these events while continuing to pursue my hobbies and my commitments to my groups who come for their monthly sessions of Conscious Ageing.”

“So in conclusion,” I announced, “yes, my daily practice of mindful meditation has assisted me in establishing an equilibrium which I do not believe I would have enjoyed without this training. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to add this area of knowledge and skill set, to my repertoire of acquired skills.   I can sincerely recommend the practices I have learned around Mindfulness and the knowledge I have acquired on the journey towards developing a regular daily practice.”

Rachel Carsons who wrote the definitive work Silent Spring in 1962, her classic exposition on the potentially disastrous role of DDT which caused such damage to wildlife, birds, bees, agricultural animals, domestic pets, and even humans; has said  “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.”

I am interested in maintaining my cognitive reserve, which includes my ability to concentrate, pay attention and remember.   Since I learned about neuroplasticity; a concept which has only been part of the lexicon of medical terms for the past 20 years, I have realised that the maintenance of my cognitive skills is dependent on the use I make of my cognitive potential on a day to day basis.

Daily Rituals

Hence I have certain daily practices like doing the Sudoku problem in the Cape Times, as well as checking out the daily bridge problem.   Another attention and memory skill I attempt to do on a daily basis is Mindsparke, see http://mindsparke.com/    Whilst today a subscription needs to be purchased on a monthly basis to practice this sophisticated training when I started practising Mindsparke it could be purchased on a CD.    I have great faith in this exercise which involves some complex multi-tasking such as remembering both visual and auditory cues simultaneously.   The participant has to pay attention to the incoming cues delivered to two sensory modalities, and then make an appropriate response on the keyboard.    I have offered many of my students a copy of this CD (after getting permission from the creator), but so far I have not found anyone who has performed the exercise in the long term.

Another interesting daily task which can be done on the internet can be found at this link https://www.setgame.com/set/puzzle   I invite you to follow the link and engage in the game.  It is not too difficult to follow the instructions offered, and you may well find it an interesting challenge.   As you improve at Setgame, you will find you can perform the task in less time on each attempt.

Facility with Numbers

I am not a great mathematician, nor am I a graduate in any form of the “hard” sciences.   Despite my lack of academic study in chemistry, or physics, I enjoy numbers puzzles.   For the past six years, I have been attending monthly meetings offered by Alison, a retired teacher of mathematics.   She offers her expertise and vast experience to a small group of local members of the University of the Third Age.   At our monthly meetings, Alison offers as some challenges which involve just over an hour of concentrated thinking, whilst the rest of the morning is devoted to conversation and chat.

Some of the topics we have discussed over the years include Magic Squares, Pascal’s Triangle, Nine and some multiples of Nine, Farey’s sequences, Bayes Theorem and Matrix Multiplication.   These topics may sound somewhat esoteric to the uninitiated, but they can all be tackled with matric level mathematics.

Today we were given some tasks on the qualities of Polyhedra, which are solid shapes with flat faces and straight edges.   The pictures illustrating this blog will give you an idea of what a polyhedron looks like.   It was such fun making these models with toothpicks and jelly tots!

Here is a challenge!

My challenge to you the reader is to follow the links I offer to both Mindsparke and Setgame.   It will help to ensure that your cognitive reserve is not only maintained, but also enhanced.   Let me know in the comments section how you fared!

I have something in common with both Winston Churchill and Oliver Sacks.   Yes I know I am neither a great politician nor an esteemed neurologist known for my brilliant essays written for the lay public.   However, all three of us suffer from a condition known as prosopagnosia, or “brain blindness”.   People suffering from this diagnosis have a malfunction of the fusiform gyrus, the specialised area of the brain which determines facial recognition.   This disorder puts us at a serious disadvantage in social situations and I have often been accused of being a snob, by the person I do not recognise.   I bit more understanding would be appreciated!

My niece, living in Canada, drew my attention to a mind engaging article by Robert Sapolsky entitled “The biology of Us and Them,” which highlights a further important function of the fusiform gyrus.  Because of the role that his small area of the brain plays in facial recognition, it, in turn, plays a role in the formation of social prejudice. We feel more positive towards people who look like us, as have a natural tendency to be more favourably disposed to those who have similar behaviour patterns as ourselves, as well as those who have a comparable appearance

As Sapolsky points out in his analysis, both humans and animals favour those of our species who are most like ourselves in their physical appearance.   Despite the fact that today many of us who live in big cities live in culturally diverse environments, most people will have more friends who bear a physical likeness to themselves, than those who differ in appearance.   No doubt education and familiarity helps us to minimise these barriers of physical appearance, but the gut reaction of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our unconscious reactions, will demonstrate during an experiment in an MRI machine, a definite preferential reaction to photographs of similar faces to the subject and those which differ in physical qualities.   There will be an instantaneous negative reaction to a physiognomy which differs from our own.   This reaction may be adapted when the subject allows cultural influences to overcome his initial prejudice.

From this theoretical understanding of an inherent bias which we possess for a preference to people who are both physically and culturally similar to us, I am going to introduce a contemporary controversy which has elicited heated debate.   Being a secular Jew the current events of the nation of Israel are of particular interest to me.   One of the most prominent political divides in politics in that country is around the treatment of the Arab citizens within the state of Israel. Such a controversy has erupted over the past few days.

With the elections coming up in next month, Netanyahu who has been the right wing president of the state for the past 14 years is being seriously challenged by a centrist party which is forming a coalition with some of the Arab political parties.   This has resulted in the prime minister supporting his colleague who has made some statements around the danger of the Israeli Arab Parties, with which his opponent intends to form a coalition.  Netanyahu feeling insecure about his political future has pointed out the danger of having Arab political parties as members of the ruling party.

Netanyahu was responding to comments on social media by Israeli TV presenter Rotem Sela who wrote on Instagram on Saturday, “When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country of all its citizens? And the Arabs, God have mercy, are also human beings. So are the Druze, so are homosexuals and by the way so are lesbians….and, shockingly, the left.”   Both Gal Gadot, international star of the film Wonder Woman, and the President of Israel have support Sela

Netanyahu supports his comments by quoting the contents of the new Nation-State Law which was passed in Israel a few months ago and similar sensitivities were aroused.  This controversial law states that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag.”

An unfairly brief background excursion into the historical background may help the reader understand this gut reaction of the Prime Minister.     The Jews have a 2000 year history of being discriminated against and have suffered, and fought long and hard for the Jewish state.   A sad reflection is that there needed to be a Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews to give the motivation for the UN to create the conditions for the creation of this Jewish Nation State.

I think that the amygdala of Jews has become super activated because of this difficult history.  There is an unconscious reaction when a Jewish person’s insecurity is threatened.   It is all due to so many years of being a nation of outsiders.     So whilst I can agree with Galot, Siler and the President for their support of universal human rights, the rights of Arab citizens within the state of Israel, I can also understand the biological basis of the gut reaction of Israelis who feel that their culture and lifestyle is being threatened by giving political power to the Arab parties.