This post is dedicated to a personal hero, Dr. Martin Seligman, whose contribution to the field of positive psychology and books have been a pivotal inspiration in the development of the Calm Clarity Program. I would also like to personally thank him for graciously making time to meet me yesterday, signing my copy of Flourishing, and giving me his blessing to share his research and techniques in the Calm Clarity program.
In 2012, I took a personal sabbatical year to understand meditation and how it works, and how to harness the benefits that were being covered in the mainstream press. I decided to go straight to the heart of the teachings, Dharamsala, India, the home of the Tibetan Buddhist community-in-exile. I spent about a month in three different retreat centers: Tushita, Thosamling, and the Vipassana center. Although up until that point, I was agnostic about religion and had a skeptical attitude towards all dogma and blind faith, I tried to be as open and curious as possible to figure out this phenomena. I was attracted by the Dalai Lama’s portrayal of Buddhism as reasoned faith rather than blind faith and his open dialogue with scientists.
Yet when I was going through the introduction to Buddhism course at Tushita, I found the Buddhist concept of logic and reasoning to be quite circular. The most perplexing was the Four Noble Truths, the cornerstone of Buddhist theology / philosophy.
1. The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
2. The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya): The root of all suffering being unsatisfiable craving (Tanha) and delusion.
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha): extinguishing craving and delusion by understanding impermanence and emptiness and cultivating compassion.
4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga): The 8-fold noble path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
At the 4th truth, I was completely lost with the word “Right,” because the history of civilization is the story of human beings arguing, fighting, and warring over who is right and who is wrong. Is there even a way to objectively prove or demonstrate (without force) that anyone’s understanding is more right than that of another person?
During the 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, I had a long opportunity to ponder on these so-called 4 Noble Truths. I wondered how the practice of meditation has been a keystone in Buddhist practice and education, yet is not explicitly mentioned in the Four Noble Truths. As I sat there quietly focusing on my breath for 3 days and then scanning my body for 7 days, I had a visceral direct experience of impermanence, how thoughts, feelings and sensations arise and pass away. I began to cultivate equanimity by observing without attachment and by adopting a sense of curiosity to the subtle sensations I started to become aware of: the pulsing of blood vessels, the vibration of breathing through my wind pipe, the temperature of air going in and out of my nostrils, how I carried tension in various parts of my back and shoulders. It was fascinating. Then I started to observe how thoughts and sensations triggered an associative cascade of memories and emotions. By observing my own associative cascade and ideomotor reflexes, I understood how my thinking was embodied. Then I started to see what I had considered my “identity,” the story I told myself about who I am, unravel and untangle, until I experienced a sense of being pure consciousness without baggage.
I understood then that somehow my mind-brain-body intuitively and viscerally knew what was “right understanding” and “right thought.” I also realized in terms of terminology, it would provide more clarity to differentiate thoughts as “positive and negative”, rather than “good and evil” or “right and wrong”. A positive thought evokes positive feelings like happiness and bliss and boosted physical health. A negative thought sets off a cascade of stress and negative emotions like anxiety, fear, worry, and anger, which can weaken health. A person who is in tune with herself can literally feel this bio-feedback mechanism happening within. This is the underlying premise of lie detection machines, that people cannot fool their own bodies. After 10 days of Vipassana, I finally became mindful of this intrinsic bio-feedback mechanism. That was the first clue to the mystery of the 8-Fold Noble Path. Later, when I opened the Dhammapada, I found this insight captured in the opening verses of the first chapter:
“1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
3. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,”—in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.
4. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,”—in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease.
5. For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”
Now the question was, how does one find validation for this insight?
As I started to read Dr. Seligman’s books, I realized scientists had already done the heavy lifting and packaging. Dr. Seligman’s research provided clear evidence on the benefits of optimism, hope, engagement, meaning, and social connections with achievement, well-being, life satisfaction, and longevity. The research by Dr. Emmons and Dr. Seligman proved that gratitude provided cognitive, emotional and physical benefits and strengthened relationships. The research by Dr. Frederickson, Dr. Losada and Dr. Gottman showed that sharing positive verbal and non-verbal communication resulted in healthier, warmer, and more robust relationships at home and at work, and that healthy relationships increased productivity, performance, and achievement. Research on forgiveness led by Dr. Worthington demonstrated that people who practice forgiveness lead healthier, happier lives. Research on altruism demonstrated that the “helper’s high” manifests as improved mental, emotional, physical health and longevity. And as captured in my earlier post, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy developed by Dr. Ellis demonstrated that when people become upset in response to an adverse event, their negative emotions are not caused by the event but by their perception of the event, framed within their personal belief system.
Further, the research in psychoneuroimmunology, epigenetics, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity are unveiling the potential mechanisms for how “Right Understanding” and “Right Thought” cascades into mindfulness, well-being, and flourishing. The truth of the cessation of suffering is under our noses.
It is a beautiful time to be alive and thinking positive thoughts. I am so grateful for the contribution of all these scientists and researchers. I am also grateful to be able to integrate these insights and share them with the world to enable people everywhere to achieve a state of Calm Clarity.
Dr. Seligman, thank you for your research, your books and your blessings.