General Articles

A Banality

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

If we know how to, we love our kids (which is a big “if” (since many of us weren’t loved or were not loved “right”)). They take that love and, hopefully, pass it on (a big “hopefully” since they are so many matching and existential variables involved). That’s how the world is righted, a heart at a time.

A banality, I know.

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www.pavelsomov.com


Pure Experience

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

leafsomov“I suddenly realize that at last after more than seventy years of looking I see things as they are – what a phrase, “as they are” – and not, as in all past years, wrapped in concepts, e.g. man, woman, flowers, trees.  I see them now as islands of black and white that move, or spots of color making a herbaceous border or a garden of flowers. [...] If the adult gives oneself over to the pure sensation, then he [she] experiences a fusion of pleasure and sensory quality which probably approximates the infantile experience… The emphasis [of my looking] is not on any object but entirely on feeling and sensation.”

Joseph Lyons wrote this in 1974, in his book “Experience: an Introduction to a Personal Psychology.”

We don’t have to wait until we are seventy or older to suddenly discover this capacity in ourselves.  This non-conceptual way of seeing reality “as it is” is available more or less on demand, with a bit of practice.

What’s the formula?  What’s the method?  The process of getting there is not an easy one to describe.  To put it simply (and, thus, to run the risk of great oversimplification), you have to practice flowing with sensation and knowing how to disengage from the interpretive, labeling eddies of your mindstream.

Let me give you an example of how this works.  Last Friday I was waiting on my wife to finish her Pilates training session in the Market Square of Pittsburgh.  I had about an hour to kill so I walked over to Amazing Books (a hole-in-the-wall bookstore with high ceilings and visibly low over-head) and picked up a book of poetry by Indian sages of the past.  I went back to the Market Square – it was close enough to a lunch hour, a hundred or so people milling around, eating lunch, enjoying the autumn sun, someone was doing Johnny Cash songs.  I squatted down by a wall and flipped to a random page.  It was songs of Nanak.  I saw this verse: “from listening sin and sorrow disappear.”  I picked up a leaf …


A Common Sense Definition of Common Sense

Saturday, October 18th, 2014

shutterstock_121574566I’d like to offer you, arguably, an uncommon definition of common sense.  A definition that I myself refer to as “a common sense definition of common sense.”

Common sense is (literally) what can be commonly sensed. Not thought or felt but sensed.  If you and I are both sensing (seeing) a sunrise, that’s something that we are commonly sensing (by way of seeing). As for the rest of what we typically consider “common sense” – it’s really non-sense, i.e. non-sensible abstractions, not actual things we sense (by way of seeing, touching, hearing, or tasting) but the “thing-less things” we think (i.e. mentally envision, imagine, speculate).

“Sense” is the operative word here.

Redefining common sense in terms of the shared sensory experience (as opposed to defining common sense as the shared fund-of-knowledge or shared belief system or shared living wisdom) allows us to downgrade our assumptions about others’ mind-ware (others’ “operating system”) to a minimum.  This kind of un-presumptuous stance can be helpful in minimizing misunderstanding early on in the human encounter.

To sum up, we commonly share the sensory experience (the sensory input) but we don’t always share our interpretations of this sensory input. So, rather judgmentally, we conclude: “So and so doesn’t have a common sense.”  I think that’s unkind: the reality is that so-and-so does probably share the same sensory experience (same sensory input more or less) as we do.  What’s different is what they think about it, how they interpret the shared sensory data-set.  To think differently is not to lack common sense but merely to differ, which is entirely normal and to be expected.

Thus, this view of common sense that I suggest here offers a sensible (realistically-minimal) and non-perfectionistic expectation about others’ common sense.

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www.pavelsomov.com

Potter’s hands image available from Shutterstock.


Excitement, Compassion, Not-Knowing

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

3As a parent I asked myself the other day (while falling asleep) – what am I modeling to my kid?

And here’s what crystallized in mind: “Only three virtues I know and stand for: Excitement, Compassion and Not-knowing.”

Sure, as a parent, there all kinds of things I need to teach and impart and model to my kid, but these three strike me as most essential in my own life.  So, let me un-pack these three words to help you see what I mean and why these three matter to me.

Excitement: we live once, and even if lived forever, we’d be still only living once; with this in mind, I want to model a stance of excitement about life, I want my kid to develop a sense of awe about this bewildering reality, I want to spare my kid that existentially-suicidal ennui and boredom that comes with losing interest and taking life for granted.

Compassion: we are all connected, in fact, life/reality/universe is one seamless oneness; a stance of compassion is about staying in touch with all that is, with that ant on the side-walk, with that fallen leaf under your feet (it too had a story of being born and dying!); compassion helps us slice through the illusion of self: all is one and one is all.  And I want my kid to also get it that compassion is self-care: if all is one and one is all, then whenever you are pausing to step over an ant on the side walk, you are also saving yourself.

Not-knowing: reality is bewildering, ever-morphing and it is always ahead of us; as information-processing life-forms we are always a phase behind – what we consider to be now is really a moment that has already passed; what this means is that we are epistemologically limited – we cannot really definitively know for sure what the truth is; furthermore, mind is inevitably subjective, full of nothing more than biased opinions… of course, it’d be a long while before I’d use any of these words with my 2 year old to explain the virtue of …


A Grief Hygiene

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

shutterstock_175407059“The cup is already broken,” they say in Zen lore. Yes, we know: we get dogs knowing that we will most likely outlive them. We’ve learned to look at our fragile tech gizmos with that acquired acceptance of “it’s built-in obsolescence.” Impermanence is all around us: Heraclitus knew it, Buddha knew it. We all know it but we work hard to ignore it: we make assumptions of continuity and so we grieve post-factum – after the loss occurs.

What if we grieved in advance – the way Buddhists do – by accepting the impermanence as a fundamental condition of living? By recognizing the “ceasing” part of ceasing-and-arising? Living and dying, beginning and ending, arising and ceasing – are dichotomous word-pairs that describe one and the same seamless process.

What am I trying to say? Only this: “Meditation on impermanence is anticipatory grief work, a grief hygiene of sorts.”

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www.pavelsomov.com

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. His books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the London Mindfulness Center (UK). Somov’s book website is www.pavelsomov.com and his practice website is www.drsomov.com

Broken cup image available from Shutterstock.


Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, and Mindful Smoking to You!

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

smokesomovThin mists and light clouds waft imperceptibly;

The friends who have gathered here pass the pipe around.

I know that there is no constancy in what is possible and what is not,

Yet I do not believe that fire and ash are only fragments of time.

—Wang Lu, a Japanese seventeenth-century “gentleman smoker” (quoted in Smoke: A Global History of Smoking)

Marla and I are big fans of Leonard Cohen. A weekend or so ago he turned 80 and decided to resume smoking: “too young to die, too old to worry,” summarized NYT Jason Karlawish.  Cohen himself said the following: “It’s the right age to recommence [smoking].”  Indeed, why not, if it gives you “the pleasure of the present”?

We are not being rhetorical.  In our 2011 book Smoke-Free Smoke Break we have made a harm reduction case for mindful smoking as well as for the idea that we have more than one kind of health – the health of the body and the health of the mind.  A risk-taking behavior (be it rock climbing or smoking) is an existential choice to pursue the wellbeing of the mind while consciously accepting possible costs to the body.  So, with this in mind, we congratulate Leonard Cohen not only on reaching the age of wisdom but also on remaining the rascal sage that he’s been – and teaching us the existential calculus of controlled recklessness. Mindful smoking to you, Leonard!

What follows is an excerpt from our book – its least read chapter – the chapter on harm-reduced/mindful smoking.  And to any stray moralizers that might have stumbled upon this piece of writing, a tip: listen to Cohen’s songs of existence – there is more to human decision-making than meets the statistically-dualistic eye.

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If you decided to take the path of harm reduction, either as a short-term mindful-smoking sabbatical (as you gear up for the next attempt at quitting) or an open-ended, long-term harm-reduction commitment, you will have to learn how to get more out of less. To do so, you’ll have to shift from mindless smoking to mindful smoking. The …


Noosphere: You Are a Part of It

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Noosphere – a beautiful concept. You are a part of this human whole. A conscious or an unconscious part?

The noosphere is the sphere of human thought. The word derives from the Greek νοῦς (nous “mind”) and σφαῖρα (sphaira “sphere”), in lexical analogy to “atmosphere” and “biosphere”. It was introduced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922 in his Cosmogenesis. Another possibility is the first use of the term by Édouard Le Roy (1870-1954), who together with Teilhard was listening to lectures of Russian philosopher Vladimir Vernadsky at the Sorbonne. (source: wiki).

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www.pavelsomov.com


Impermanence and Permanence

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Every life-form that passes in front you also passes in front of itself.

(I’m talking about every and any life-form – a neighbor, your kid, an ant on the sidewalk.)

Namaste to it all: to all that is inside and outside, to all that passes in front of you and in front of itself.

To all that passes, internally and externally, inter-objectively and intra-subjectively – namaste.

360 degrees of Namaste!

And to all that remains the same – in me, in you, in everything – to You too – namaste!

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It’s curious, isn’t it, that not only do we pass (change) in front of each other but that we also pass (change) in front of ourselves.

The you that you were a moment ago has now changed.  And if there had been someone to notice how you changed, the two of you would have been sharing a similar reference point of permanence.

The Buddhist psychology of impermanence of form is half the story.  The Vedic psychology of permanence of essence is the rest of the story.

We are always changing and yet there is always something in us (something ineffable) that remains the same.

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Notice what changes and notice what remains the same.

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www.pavelsomov.com


An Evolving Text of Self

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Mind is a living, evolving, self-correcting, self-editing, self-serving text of survival.

What you say to yourself matters.  And what you don’t say to yourself matters too.

But, as important as this self-narrative is, we are not it: we are not this mind.

This mind, this narrative is but writing on the ever-changing water of consciousness.

Neti, neti – meaning: not this, not this.

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www.pavelsomov.com


The Effort of Happiness

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

Yesterday night, over a dinner with my older brother’s family, a topic of happiness came up.  My wife, Marla, a fellow psychologist, was sharing about Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow.”  Marla explained that according to the research on flow, people are happiest when they are absorbed (engaged) in a task that is just challenging (effortful) enough for them to experience a sense of unfolding mastery and agency.  I am paraphrasing here.

A few moments later my brother, Yuri, offered the following proposition: “The first and only, necessary and sufficient precondition for happiness is to stop associating happiness with pleasure. The two – happiness and pleasure – have nothing to do with each other.”  Yuri’s wife, Natasha, looked at me across the table and asked: “What do you think?”  And I said: “I think this is an intriguing point. Simple yet profound.”

This morning, with my cup of coffee, I rummaged through a stack of books on my bedside table and – at the bottom – found Bertrand Russell’s musings on happiness, a book I started reading but didn’t finish.  In it, I find the following thought:

“The human animal, like others, is adapted to a certain amount of struggle for life, and when [...] his whims [are satisfied] without effort, the mere absence of effort from his life removes an essential ingredient of happiness.”

The conversation (last part of it playing out in my head and in this bit of writing) came full circle: people are happiest when they are in a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi’s language)… which is the effortful absorption in a moment (I plucked the word “effort” here from Russell)… which has nothing to do with pleasure (my brother’s point).

Indeed, as Yuri insisted: happiness-as-pleasure is a myth; the association between happiness and pleasure is nothing but a semantic/linguistic habit; psychologically, the two – happiness and pleasure – are arguably as different as refrigerators and stiletto shoes; and letting go of this association between pleasure and happiness might, in fact, be a powerfully liberating first step in the pursuit of happiness.  I’ll call it “Yuri’s Axiom.”

As I look back at that exchange – between Marla, Yuri, Natasha, Czikszentmihalyi …


Reinventing the Meal
Reinventing the Meal
Present Perfect
Eating the Moment
The Lotus Effect The Smoke-Free Smoke Break
Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D. is the author of The Lotus Effect, Present Perfect, The Smoke-Free Smoke Break, and Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time.


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