Archive for January 30, 2009

The Thought Of Thich Nhat Hanh

I read a couple of books recently by the peace activist and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  The focus of both books (titles given below) is the cultivation of mindfulness in our everyday lives, and in so doing, learning to be more alive.

Thich Nhat Hanh has had the most remarkable life.  He became a novice monk in Vietnam in 1942 at the age of sixteen, and it is claimed by some, to have achieved enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition.  During the US war in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh led a movement of ‘engaged buddhism’ inspired by Ghandi, where Buddhist monks left the monestary and tried to meet the needs of the population being bombed out of their villages.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace work brought him to the United States where he tried to make the suffering of both sides clear to the U.S. population.  His work is said to have influenced Martin Luther King opposing the Vietnam war, and he nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

The thrust of Thich Nhat Hanh’s thought is beautifully simple.  In becoming more aware of the present moment, we can become intimately connected with everything we could ever want.  Happiness, for Thich Nhat Hanh, is always just a breath away.

As a psychotherapist I am used to working with men who are running to get somewhere.  They are always striving to achieve more and more.  The idea is that once they have graduated college, got the promotion, made the first million, they will then be free to be happy.  As a therapist I often have to help such men become more aware of the present moment, something many have forgotten how to do.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s position is that we can never be happy by such ‘running’.  In fact happiness can only be achieved ‘in the here and the now’.

Profound stuff I know.  Yet Thich Nhat Hanh writes very clearly.  These two books are not difficult books to understand.  The difficulty starts in trying to put the philosophy into action.  Our minds just don’t like staying in the here and now.  It is in trying to tame the mind where Buddhism and psychotherapy meet.  Thich Nhat Hanh’s words have helped me realise the great opportunities that exist in every moment.  If we can be truly open to that, we can be truly open to life itself, and the happiness it can bring.

I whole heartedly encourage every man to read any one of these two books.  Men are often accused of being warmongers and aggressive. Thich Nhat Hanh shows that there is another way to be a man, and a great man at that:  To live in peace with oneself and ones world.

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How To Save Your Marriage

The first weeks back after the Christmas holidays are historically the time solicitors issue the most divorce proceedings. This year, though, it is predicted to be a record breaker. The reason is the credit crunch. Research from the University of Essex suggests that for every 10% reduction in house prices, there is a 5% increase in separations. In fact a survey from the website suggests that in the UK, 1.3 million married couples are considering splitting up.

So what should you do if you want to save your marriage? My take on this is to first dispel two myths about marriage.

The first is that marriage is about love. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but in my book marriage is as much about honour and duty as it is about love. Of course it’s great if that loving feeling is there, but too many couples throw in the towel too early after the loving feeling disappears. The reality is that love is an emotion, and like all emotions, including anger, jealously, happiness and despair, they come and they go. Furthermore, like all emotional states, if you want to experience love for your partner, you need to create the conditions for love to arise. You may not love your partner now, but there is no reason why you can’t grow to love the person again.

The second myth is that couple split because of conflict. Research by the relationship Guru John Gettman, suggests that in reality its emotional distance that predicts whether a couple will split or not. All couples have their rows, but it’s the couples who maintained the closest emotional intimacy, who are best placed to survive them (see Gottman, 1995).

The conclusion from this is that the best way to save your marriage is to spend time rebuilding emotional intimacy.  Here are some tips:

1. Plan time together to talk. If talking is simply too difficult right now, try sitting back to back, and each talk for five minutes with the other person just listening. This might help break your pattern of arguing.  We can only feel emotionally close, if we feel heard.

2. Build romance into your relationship. Time spent composing a love letter or a thoughtful card really helps to make someone feel appreciated and valued. Romance is just as important in sustaining marriages as it was when you first met.

3. Initiate affection. Research suggests that couples that are affectionate with each other are more likely to stay together (see Gottman, 1995). The emotional reassurance of a well-placed touch or hug speaks a thousand words. It is important, though, that such affection isn’t always the precursor to sex.

4. Go on a date every week. When we first meet, we make a special effort to dress up for a date. It all adds to the feeling of excitement of meeting the other person. When we marry our special person, however, it is all too easy to fall into bad habits, and not really take the time to look good. Making time for a date every week can give you the excuse back to look and feel special for your partner. Try doing something different, for example a new restaurant, to try and recreate that feeling of courtship.

5. Quit the porn. Porn continually keeps the mind focused on something better, leaving you to compare the airbrushed images that you see on the screen of the page with the reality of the person you are with. If you are continually chasing an elusive image or perfect body in print, it is inevitable that you will fail to be stimulated by your partner. If you find difficulty quitting porn, you might want to consider if you have an addiction to sex, something you could getting professional help for.

6. Find a new common interest. Nothing can liven up a relationship as quickly as finding a new common passion. If you can learn to have fun with each other again, the loving feeling won’t be far behind.

7. Let your partner know you care every day. We often assume our partners know we care. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take time every day to let your partner know that you care, whether by telephone, text, or face-to-face. Human beings are fragile when it comes to matters of the heart, and we all need constant reassurance that we are loved and valued.

8. Visit a relationship counsellor. In my experience of working with couples, it is almost always true that it is the man who is most resistant to coming to relationship counselling. It is also my experience that it is the man who has the most to gain. When things go wrong in a man’s life, we tend to withdraw into ourselves and try and figure it all out by ourselves. This strategy might be fine for fixing our cars, but not for fixing our relationships. By getting an outside perspective on your relationship difficulties, you’ll be on the fast track to recreating emotional intimacy which is where you need to be if you want to make your relationship work.

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Meditation Makes You Happy!

As a regular meditator, I was intrigued to read research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which claims that meditation makes you happy.

There are two kinds of meditation, the first kind helps you focus your attention, for example, on the breath. The second kind of meditation helps you to cultivate certain positive emotions. It was the second kind of meditation that the researchers claims help improve mood.

139 volunteers were randomly assigned into two groups with one group being taught a meditation which helps cultivate “loving kindness”. Results showed that this meditation produced increases over time in daily experiences of positive emotions. The researchers went further, and claimed that this also produced an increase in a wide range of other factors, including mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and even a decrease in illness symptoms.

So it seems that one trick to be happy, is to invest time thinking kind and loving thoughts about the people in our lives.

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Dying From a Broken Heart

Link Between Heart Disease and Depression

Can a man die of a broken heart? “Yes” says Dr Martin Cowie, consultant cardiologist at the National Heart and Lung Institute in London.

Most folk would have seen among their own friends, families and acquaintances (if not themselves!) how emotional stress can exacerbate heart disease and angina.

A 1969 study of 4500 widowers, all over 55 years, published in the British Medical Journal, revealed that for these men, the risk of dying in the first six months after they lost their spouse was 40% higher than expected. The single most common cause of these deaths was a heart attack.

A similar study in 1996 analysed statistics from a population of 1.5 million people between the ages of 35 and 84 – and found that the risk of dying from a heart attack in the first six months after losing a spouse was increased by 20 to 35%.

Depression linked to heart disease

Research studies have consistently shown that depression and heart disease are interlinked, with each being able to lead to the other. Just as depression can precipitate heart disease, so too can the development of heart disease result in depression, with all the psychological morbidity that this implies. Today, Depression is recognised as being an important risk factor for developing heart disease – just as serious a risk as having high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol.

A 1996 study conducted over a period of 14 years in Baltimore followed a group of 1551 people who were free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. It was found that those in this group who had a previous history of depression were four times more likely, compared to those who had no history of depression, to suffer a heart attack!

Another research study from Montreal found that heart patients who were depressed were four times as likely as those who were not depressed to die within the following six months.

Many similar research studies have shown that heart disease can follow the development of depression. Psychological distress can result in the blood pressure rising, the heart rate increasing, and blood clots forming more easily. People with depression may feel slowed down while paradoxically having high levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and steroids in their circulation – which can thus increase the workload of the heart.

Heart disease leading to depression

The original studies linking heart disease and depression found that people diagnosed with heart disease were more likely to suffer depression compared to otherwise healthy people. An interesting 1996 study by the same Montreal group mentioned above showed that, while in North America about 5% of the population at the time experienced major depression in a given year, this proportion increased to about 30% of people who had suffered a heart attack. And suffering from depression can make it harder for patients to take their heart medications properly and comply with their doctors’ advice.

Unfortunately, many patients being treated for their heart disease do not receive appropriate treatment for their concomitant depression. Heart specialists and general practitioners, unless they have a special interest or training in this field, often miss the diagnosis of depression – and even when they do recognize the symptoms, they often do not treat their heart patients’ depression adequately. Today we have new medications that can be used to treat depression quite effectively in many patients without causing the unpleasant side effects associated with the older anti-depressant drugs.

Interpersonal Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

While modern anti-depressant medication is helpful in some patients for improving the symptoms and signs of depression, they are not the whole answer. Intervention in the form of Interpersonal Therapy (IT) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has proved helpful in heart patients. Such therapy can also help to motivate patients to comply with taking their medication as well as changing their unhealthy lifestyles.

Physical exercise

Regular physical exercise provides another pathway that can help in reducing both depression and the risk of heart disease. A 1999 research study found, in a group of older patients diagnosed with major depression, that taking part in an exercise training programme was as good as antidepressant medication in improving their symptoms of depression. Since regular exercise is a major protective factor against heart disease, this form of exercise therapy has a doubly beneficial effect.

So just as much as emotional heartbreak can precipitate an actual heart attack, having a real heart attack can bring on psychological depression.

Observations like “It broke his heart when his life partner died” or “He seems so depressed after his heart attack”, are not without foundation.

They could well be providing the very medical diagnosis which is the crux of the problem.

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