Transcript: How Mindfulness Meditation Redefines Pain, Happiness & Satisfaction: Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat at TEDxSFU

Here is the full transcript of psychologist Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat’s TEDx Talk: How Mindfulness Meditation Redefines Pain, Happiness & Satisfaction at TEDxSFU conference.

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Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat – Psychologist

So I’m here to speak about the elephant in the room. I know, but it’s there for all of us, in one form or another. It’s this dissatisfaction and unhappiness with what we have in our lives. So maybe if you’re here or watching this, you have all the basics covered — food, water, safety, shelter. But somehow, we long for something more.

As a psychologist, I’ve really seen how we all want to be happy, but keep chasing it in the future. And I know that myself, really well, because I had everything in life. I had loving support, education, career, but it wasn’t enough, and that really frustrated me. And eventually, I discovered the real, obvious reason. It’s really obvious. It’s our mind.

It really gets distracted and lost in negatives, and has a difficult time being right here in the present moment. What helped me see that so clearly was mindfulness meditation. I came across it in the research in my field, and started using it with clients. And that took me on a personal journey, which eventually led me to this ridiculous gut feeling that I had to do, which was drop everything in my life and go to a six-month meditation retreat in Southeast Asia, in a forest monastery, in silence.

I tell you, it was the most difficult, unpleasant, painful six months of my life. But it really taught me profound lessons that have inspired me to be here today.

So I’m here to really share with you my personal insights and professional understanding of mindfulness meditation with the hope that you give it a chance, so you can see for yourself how it can redefine the way we approach happiness, satisfaction, and reduce the suffering in our lives from the pain that’s already there.

Okay, so back to some not-so-good news about our mind: it has the tendency for a negativity bias, or evolutionary psychologists refer to it as a survival mechanism. So, if there’s a bunny in the bushes, and there are sounds, our mind is ready with a stress response, for a flight-or-fight response — I did it backwards actually — fight-or-flight response.

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Even if there’s just a bunny, we’re getting ready for a tiger. And neuro-psychologists refer to that as our brain being like Velcro to the negatives. Latches on to negatives. Anyone familiar with that? Just hang on. And being like Teflon fabric to the positives. Letting them all slip away.

Okay, so it’s not all bad news. With the advances in neuroscience, mindfulness meditation has been shown to change the structure of our brain. And you don’t have to do a six-month retreat in a forest monastery. That’s the good news. Even in eight weeks in mindfulness programs, practicing 40-45 minutes a day, we can improve concentration, decision-making, compassion, and, life satisfaction.

So, what exactly is mindfulness meditation? It’s one form of meditation, and basically it’s training the brain to be present. It’s based on thousands of years of wisdom tradition in Asia. And how we do it, one way, is we place our attention on the belly, to watch our breath. But we do that in a particular way, or as Jon Kabat-Zinn, who brought mindfulness to medicine, which is quite big, actually, he defines it in four words: we pay attention on purpose, so with an intention. And in the present moment, so, right now, and the hardest part for all of us: non-judgmentally. Really tough.

So, let’s say this is our attention. We place it right on the belly. Guess what’s going to happen with our mind? We’re going to get distracted. But, without pushing against the thoughts or hating the thoughts, or clinging onto them, good or bad, right back.

Now, you can get a sense of that if you like now, if you’d like to join me, by placing your hand on the belly, and we’re just going to observe two breaths. Natural inhale; natural exhale. Even slightly. Inhale… exhale. Inhale… exhale.

Okay, now, when we do that, and some of you maybe noticed that, there will be thoughts, emotions, or sensations. But we don’t get lost in them. We bring our attention back. And every time we do that, guess what we’re doing to our brain? We’re strengthening the muscles in the brain, every time. It’s a gym workout for the brain. And in the process of doing that, patiently — I mean it takes a lot of patience — and compassionately, we learn to work with our mind, and be present with whatever is here.

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Now we don’t have to like what’s here. When I first arrived at the forest monastery, I asked the monk, “Is it true there are poisonous snakes on the compound?”

He said, “Yes, yes. Deadly. Deadly. Just stay away from them. Walk mindfully.” Great. “Use a flashlight at night.” And I love this one too: “Check your meditation cushion before you sit on it.” I mean, I could have died. That was, you know, a possibility. But the best part, he said, “Send them love. They were here before us.”

Okay, Mr. Monk, I wasn’t ready for that yet. But I did notice, even before going to this long retreat, I noticed some changes in my mind and how I reacted, just from daily meditation.

One day I was stuck in a traffic jam, really early in the morning, 5:40, on my way to the gym, and unexpected. And, instead of the usual, “Why aren’t these people moving?”, get uptight, agitated, and the mind going into “This is going to be a horrible day. I’m late for stuff,” what surprised me is what I heard, and I thought, “Oh, interesting.” The thought? “I hope no one’s hurt.” Maybe there was an accident, or maybe it’s construction and those workers were up all night, and I started wishing them well. “May they be safe today.”

Now, I still was late, so that didn’t change, but I didn’t spiral into the negativity of the mind. And it really showed me, “Wow, it was worth working that muscle, and the daily practice.”

So, let’s put together what I shared so far, with a little illustration. Imagine this is pain, it could be anything. Let’s just say, stomach pain. Signals travel to the brain. If you imagine this is our brain, our mind, relatively calm. We have now a signal of pain. But it doesn’t stop there. We’re not usually loving to it. We hate it, and we get agitated, and wish it wasn’t there. And then what we do, we let negativity leak into the rest of our mind. “Why me?” “Why is this happening?”