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Sunday, 1 March 2015

14 Things To Know Before You Start Meditating

Sasha Bronner in The Huffington Post

New to meditating? It can be confusing. Not new to meditating? It can still be confusing.
The practice of meditation is said to have been around for thousands of years -- and yet, in the last few, especially in America, it seems that everyone knows at least one person who has taken on the ancient art of de-stressing.
Because it has been around for so long and because there are many different types of meditation, there are some essential truths you should know before you too take the dive into meditation or mindfulness (or both). Take a look at the suggestions below.
1. You don't need a mantra (but you can have one if you want). 
It has become common for people to confuse mantra with the idea of an intention or specific words to live by. A motto. But the actual word "mantra" means something quite different. Man means mind and tra means vehicle. A mantra is a mind-vehicle. Mantras can be used in meditation as a tool to help your mind enter (or stay in) your meditation practice.
Other types of meditation use things like sound, counting breaths or even just the breath itself as a similar tool. Another way to think about a mantra is like an anchor. It anchors your mind as you meditate and can be what you come back to when your thoughts (inevitably) wander.
2. Don’t expect your brain to go blank.
One of the biggest misconceptions about meditation is that your mind is supposed to go blank and that you reach a super-Zen state of consciousness. This is typically not true. It's important to keep in mind that you don’t have to try to clear thoughts from your brain during meditation.
The "nature of the mind to move from one thought to another is in fact the very basis of meditation," says Deepak Chopra, a meditation expert and founder of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing. "We don’t eliminate the tendency of the mind to jump from one thought to another. That’s not possible anyway." Depending on the type of meditation you learn, there are tools for gently bringing your focus back to your meditation practice. Alternatively, some types of meditation actually emphasize being present and mindful to thoughts as they arise as part of the practice.
3. You do not have to sit cross-legged or hold you hands in any position. 
meditation man
You can sit in any position that is comfortable to you. Most people sit upright in a chair or on a cushion. Your hands can fall gently in your lap or at your sides. It is best not to lie down unless you’re doing a body scan meditation or meditation for sleep.
4. Having said that, it’s also okay if you do fall asleep. 
It’s very common to doze off during meditation and some believe that the brief sleep you get is actually very restorative. It’s not the goal, but if it’s a byproduct of your meditation, that is OK. Other practices might give tricks on how to stay more alert if you fall asleep (check out No. 19 on these tips from Headspace), like sitting upright in a chair. In our experience, the relaxation that can come from meditation is a wonderful thing -- and if that means a mini-snooze, so be it.
5. There are many ways to learn.
With meditation becoming so available to the masses, you can learn how to meditate alone, in a group, on a retreat, with your phone or even by listening to guided meditations online. Everyone has a different learning style and there are plenty of options out there to fit individual needs. Read our suggestions for how to get started.
6. You can meditate for a distinct purpose or for general wellness.
Some meditation exercises are aimed at one goal, like helping to ease anxiety or helping people who have trouble sleeping. One popular mindfulness meditation technique, loving-kindness meditation, promotes the positive act of wishing ourselves or others happiness. However, if you don't have a specific goal in mind, you can still reap the benefits of the practice.
8. It can also physically change your brain.
Researchers have not only looked at the brains of meditators and non-meditators to study the differences, but they have also started looking at a group of brains before and after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation. The results are remarkable. Scientists noted everything from "changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the 'me' centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions," Forbes reported earlier this year.
Those who participated in an eight week mindfulness program also showed signs of ashrinking of the amygdala (the brain’s "fight or flight" center) as well as a thickening of the pre-frontal cortex, which handles brain functions like concentration and awareness.
Researchers also looked at brain imaging on long-term, experienced meditators. Many, when not in a state of meditation, had brain image results that looked more like the images of a regular person's brain while meditating. In other words, the experienced meditator's brain is remarkably different than the non-meditator's brain.
9. Oprah meditates.
So does Paul McCartneyJerry SeinfeldHoward SternLena DunhamBarbara WaltersArianna Huffington and Kobe Bryant. Oprah teams up with Deepak Chopra for 21-day online meditation experiences that anyone can join, anywhere. The program is free and the next one begins in March 2015.
10. It’s more mainstream than you might think.
Think meditation is still a new-age concept? Think again. GQ magazine wrote their own guide to Transcendental Meditation. Time’s February 2014 cover story wasdevoted to "the mindful revolution" and many big companies, such as Google, Apple, Nike and HBO, have started promoting meditation at work with free classes and new meditation rooms.
11. Mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing.
The two are talked about in conjunction often because one form of meditation is called mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is defined most loosely as cultivating a present awareness in your everyday life. One way to do this is through meditation -- but not all meditation practices necessarily focus on mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is referred to most often when experts talk about the health benefits of meditation. Anderson Cooper recently did a special on his experience practicing mindfulness with expert Jon Kabat-Zinn for "60 Minutes."
12. Don’t believe yourself when you say you don’t have time to meditate.
crowded desk
While some formal meditation practices call for 20 minutes, twice a day, many other meditation exercises can be as short as five or 10 minutes. We easily spend that amount of time flipping through Netflix or liking things on Instagram. For some, it’s setting the morning alarm 10 minutes earlier or getting off email a few minutes before dinner to practice.
Another way to think about incorporating meditation into your daily routine is likening it to brushing your teeth. You might not do it at the exact same time each morning, but you always make sure you brush your teeth before you leave the house for the day. For those who start to see the benefits of daily meditation, it becomes a non-negotiable part of your routine.
13. You may not think you’re “doing it right” the first time you meditate.
Or the second or the third. That’s OK. It’s an exercise that you practice just like sit-ups or push-ups at the gym. You don’t expect a six-pack after one day of exercise, so think of meditation the same way.
14. Take a step back.
Many meditation teachers encourage you to assess your progress by noticing how you feel in between meditations -- not while you’re sitting down practicing one. It’s not uncommon to feel bored, distracted, frustrated or even discouraged some days while meditating. Hopefully you also have days of feeling energized, calm, happy and at peace. Instead of judging each meditation, try to think about how you feel throughout the week. Less stressed, less road rage, sleeping a little bit better? Sounds like it's working.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Cricket: What is Momentum and how relevant is it?

Mark Nicholas in Cricinfo

What exactly is momentum in sport and how relevant is it? Do New Zealand's cricketers have enough momentum to carry them past Australia this weekend? Can momentum overcome talent?

Essentially momentum is form and confidence. It is usually associated with a winning streak, a succession of performances that either truly reflect ability or, better still, lift that ability beyond its norm. This is presently the case with Brendon McCullum, whose bravado is driven by the need to prove to his team that anything is possible. He wants them to play without inhibition of any kind and if that means breaking boundaries (metaphorically and literally) then so be it. This is because most cricketers play with traffic in their head. The game bares heart, mind and soul. Insecurity, affectation and failure are the enemies. The enemies play tricks and cause confusion. A clear head is the holy grail.

McCullum might as well be saying: "If you think you can or you think you can't, you are probably right."

In Riding the Wave of Momentum, American author Jeff Greenwald says: "The reason momentum is so powerful is the heightened sense of self-confidence it gives us. There is a phrase in sports psychology known as self-efficacy, which is simply a player's belief in his or her ability to perform a specific task or shot. Typically, a player's success depends on this efficacy."

I once asked Andy Flower what he thought was the most important part of his job as the England coach. He said it was to have the players ready and able to make the right choices under pressure. This caught me off guard but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Single moments define cricket matches. At critical times these may be any one of a brave shot made, or one not attempted; a brilliant ball that outthinks the batsman; smart anticipation by a fielder that leads to a run-out; a masterly move by the captain who understands what the opponent likes least.

Flower felt that for a period under Andrew Strauss, England consistently made good choices. This led them to become the No. 1 team in the world. The flaw in Strauss' team was the formulaic nature of the play. If an opponent had the mind to challenge it, and the efficacy to pull it off, the England team seemed oddly unable to react. Witness Hashim Amla's 311 at The Oval, during which Graeme Swann, a key figure for Strauss, was so comfortably played from a guard on and outside off stump. In all the time I watched Swann bowl, I never saw him so witless in response. And by such a simple tactic!

During a momentum shift, self-efficacy is very high as the players have immediate proof of their ability to match the challenge. They then experience subsequent increases in energy and motivation that lead to a feeling of enthusiasm and control. The corollary is that a sportsman's image of himself changes. He feels invincible, which, naturally enough, takes him to a higher level.

David Warner is a good illustration of this. First a devastating T20 batsman, then a prolific Test batsman and now an intimidating 50-over batsman. With the various ages of Warner have come a variety of changes - some to technique and application, some to attitude, others to fitness, health and lifestyle. His momentum has run parallel to the improved performances by the Australian team. This is no surprise. They go hand in hand. The trick for Warner now is to retain - some might say regain - humility.

In his formative years Robin Smith was coached by the highly intelligent former Natal player Grayson Heath. Probably Robin was over-coached. Heath grooved technique and shot execution. But he did not free the mind. This is less a criticism than a reflection of the time. It was a more respectful age, both in society and of bowlers, whose examination of technique was greater than it is now.

Heath - a wonderful man, with cricket set deep in his soul - would marvel at McCullum, or AB de Villiers, as much for their carefree approach as their inspirational effect. Heath preached an equation: A + H = C. Arrogance plus humility equals confidence. Both de Villiers and McCullum perfectly reflect the equation. Humility in a sportsman is paramount. Without humility, momentum will easily be derailed. After all, momentum is winning and no person or team wins all the time.

The key to not losing momentum is to retain perspective and to remain grounded. Why do Chelsea, dominant in the Premiership, suddenly concede four goals and lose to Bradford in the FA Cup? I wasn't there but the fair bet would be indifference (inexcusable) or complacency (believable). Hard as José Mourinho must work to avoid this, even he cannot invade the heads of his players and correct them in a season of some 60-odd matches.

The other explanation for such a defeat is fatigue. Mourinho watches this closely but tends to play his MVPs for long stretches. No sportsman can beat fatigue. It is inevitable. The point is that you will lose some time. How you lose is what matters. Did you cover all bases? If so, momentum need not be lost.

The test for New Zealand, though it may not apply to Saturday's group match, will be to deal with the pressure of an event that troubles the mind. Australian cricketers trouble the mind. McCullum's assault against England was a real f*** you of a performance. It said to his men: "They are not worthy." Had he got out cheaply, it would have said the same dismissive thing - like his approach in the chase against Scotland. Had New Zealand lost, it would have been awkward and may have derailed the team. But he didn't think for a minute they would lose and his innings sent that message loud and clear.

His captaincy does much the same: "We are all over you and don't forget it." His tactics challenge prosaic thinking. His bowlers are empowered to take wickets. His fieldsmen are inspired by his own startling fielding performances. This style is more All Black than Black Cap. But for Richie McCaw read Brendon McCullum.

All Black or Black Caps? © Getty Images

The journey has not been easy. Ross Taylor was popular and the fall-out from McCullum's obvious desire to take his job was unpleasant. Taylor withdrew into himself, a loss of cricket expression that New Zealand could ill afford. Former players raged against the machine. McCullum had to deliver or he was toast.

Like Taylor, he is a good man. Arguably, he is more secure. This tournament will define him.

In the face of Australia, the Black Caps must, and surely will, continue to play McCullum's game. This means sticking to the flow, not overthinking or overanalysing. The minute you change approach, or even marginalise, you screw up. If you focus too much on the outcome, it becomes difficult to play so freely. An attacking mindset can all too easily become a defensive mindset. The outcome needs to be a given. Concern for the consequences diverts attention from what must be done.

Australia are the more talented team but they have been sleeping for a fortnight; the captain has been immobilised for three months. This is the time to get them. Momentum should carry New Zealand over this line because the consequences are not a major issue. Come the knockout stage, the traffic will creep in. Creep, creep until the brain is scrambled. Can McCullum's bold interpretation of cricket remain New Zealand's force when the stakes are at their highest? Or will momentum suddenly count for nothing?

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The jihadi girls are just part of a long line attracted to mad, bad men

Yasmin Alibhai Brown in The Independent

As I write this, the three Muslim teenage girls from East London are still missing. Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16 and an unnamed 15-year-old are believed to have gone off to join Isis. Their friend, another 15-year-old, took off in December and seems to have “inspired” them to do the same. In their photographs they are dressed like average British teenagers. These are academically gifted girls, whose parents are bewildered and distraught.

I used to teach English to young Bangladeshi and Somali mothers in this area. Denied education themselves when they were young, what they all wanted was for their daughters to become doctors, businesswomen and teachers, grab life chances, reach the top.

One of them, Razia, gave me her purse to look after. It contained her savings and cash she had got after selling some of her wedding jewellery. She was building up a fund so her daughter could go to college one day. Her husband was a boor and bully but she somehow kept her hopes and dreams alive for her children. When she finished the course, the purse contained almost £1,200. I rang her to ask how she felt about these East End girl jihadis. “My daughter became a teacher. She can’t understand. Allah, what is happening to them? The devil must have got into their heads. Or maybe they want to shock their parents. To be bad, not good.” Wise words.

Hundreds of impressionable young Muslim girls from around the world have been enticed to join Isis. Some have taken up arms, others have handed themselves over to some of the most violent men in the world today. A study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue found evidence that such groupies “revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation”. They seem willing to accept Isis’s hardline code of conduct and want to submit to brute male power.

This phenomenon is widespread and not confined to fanatic Islam. Women and girls throughout history have been fatally attracted to fascists, communists, revolutionary armies and serial killers. Sometimes it is the cause that consumes them. I have just returned from Vietnam where, during the many wars that have beset that lovely country, beautiful, innocent young girls volunteered to fight with guerrilla forces and to die.

In Cuba, similarly, teenage girls rushed to join the resistance armies. Much is made of their “beautiful sacrifice”. But did they even understand what they were signing up to? In her book, Women and Guerrilla Movements (2002), Karen Kampwirth suggests that some of the youthful volunteers “want to escape the tedium of their homes, to join another sort of family, start life anew”.

Then there are those who are drawn to monstrous men and extreme politics. Messianic fervour, millenarianism and magnetism can whip up female hormones alarmingly. In one of Sylvia Plath’s last poems, “Daddy”, she delves into her complicated relationship with her German father. “Every woman adores a fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you.”

In the Thirties, fascist Oswald Moseley was one of Britain’s most charismatic politicians. Joan Bond, a young poetess, glorified this nasty man who promoted the cult of motherhood and obedience. He married Diana Mitford, an aristocrat. The wedding took place in the living room of Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler was the only other guest. Diana remained loyal to her husband and other fascists till she died in 2003. Her sister Unity was besotted with Hitler and another, Decca, was lured by communism.

Mussolini had a limitless supply of nubile mistresses, many of whom described with pride the pain he inflicted on them. Teenage girls were recruited into Piccole Italiane, a training camp for Italian fascists. In Germany the equivalent was The League of German Girls. When you look at pictures of the recruits, with ribbons in their hair and faces full of optimism, you wonder how this could ever happen. Just as we do now over the Isis handmaidens. 

In the dark web of the female psyche lie these desires for pain, self destruction and annihilation. And cravings too for notoriety, the thrill of transgression, of doing something seriously wrong. Those who court danger don’t all go join armies and cults. Some, for example, choose to befriend and even marry callous murderers. It is the ultimate romantic adventure.

Denise Knowles, the Relate counsellor, believes: “These women crave recognition that comes from being attached to a gangster or dangerous criminal.” Sometimes it is an extension of teenage rebellion. Women who have had a sheltered upbringing are most prone to these liaisons. Within this spectrum, I would also include women who go for abusive partners and never break from the pattern.

The female Isis jihadis are no different from all those women who seem to go for men and messages outside the civilised norms. It may be madly exciting but for most, anguish will surely follow and then death or desolation without end.

Are low oil prices here to stay?

 By Richard Anderson 

Business reporter, BBC News

Predicting the oil price is a bit of a mug's game.
There are simply too many variables involved to make any kind of meaningful, definitive forecast.
What we do know is that, despite a recent upturn, the price of oil has slumped almost 50% since last summer following the longest-running decline for 20 years.
And we know why - US shale oil, and to a lesser extent Libyan oil returning to the market, has pushed up supply while a slowdown in the Chinese and EU economies has reduced demand.
Add to the mix a strong US dollar making oil more expensive in real terms, pushing demand even lower, and you have a recipe for a plummeting oil price.
What happens next is a little harder to see.
With the booming US shale industry showing little signs of slowing, and growing concerns about the strength of the global economy, there are good reasons to suspect that the current slump in the oil price will continue for some time.
This is precisely when Opec, the cartel of major global oil producers, would normally step in to stabilise prices by cutting production. It has done so many times in the past, so often in fact that the market expects Opec to intervene.
This time it hasn't. In a historic move at the end of last year, Opec said not only that it would not cut production from its 30 million barrels a day (mb/d) quota, but had no intention of doing so even if oil fell to $20 a barrel.
And this was no empty threat. Despite furious opposition from Venezuela, Iran and Algeria, Opec kingpin Saudi Arabia simply refused to bail out its more vulnerable cohorts - many Opec members need an oil price of $100 or more to balance their budgets, but with an estimated $900bn in reserves, Saudi can afford to play the waiting game.
Opec now supplies a little over 30% of the world's oil, down from almost 50% in the 1970s, partly due to US shale producers flooding the market with almost 4 mb/d from a standing start 10 years ago.
"Given this scenario, who should be expected to cut production to put a floor under prices?" Opec argued last month.
Equally, Saudi is not prepared to sacrifice more market share while its competitors, not least US shale oil producers, prosper. Safe in the knowledge that it can withstand very low oil prices for the best part of a decade, it would rather stand back and, as Philip Whittaker at Boston Consulting Group says, "let economics do the work".
The implications of Opec's decision, therefore, go way beyond sending the oil price crashing even further.
"We have entered a new chapter in the history of the oil market, which is now starting to operate like any non-cartel commodity market," says Stuart Elliott at energy specialist Platts.
The fallout has been immediate in many parts of the industry, and promises to wreak further havoc in the coming months and, quite possibly, years.
'Serious risks'

Without Opec artificially supporting the oil price, and with potentially weaker demand due to sluggish global economic growth, the oil price is likely to remain below $100 for years to come.
The futures market suggests the price will recover slowly to hit about $70 by 2019, while most experts forecast a range of $40-$80 for the next few years. Anything more precise is futile.
At these kinds of prices, a great many oil wells become uneconomic. First at risk are those developing hard to access reserves, such as deepwater wells. Arctic oil, for example, does not work at less than $100 a barrel, says Brendan Cronin at Poyry Managing Consultants, so any plans for polar drilling are likely to be shelved for the foreseeable future.
World's top oil producers, 2014 (million barrels a day)

  • US: 11.75
  • Russia: 10.93
  • Saudi Arabia: 9.53
  • China: 4.20
  • Canada: 4.16
  • Iraq: 3.33
  • Iran: 2.81
  • Mexico: 2.78
  • UAE: 2.75
  • Kuwait: 2.61
Source: IEA
North Sea oil production is also at serious risk, certainly in terms of new wells that need an oil price of about $70-$80 to justify drilling. Indeed in a recent interview with Platts, the head of Oil & Gas UK said at $50, North Sea oil production could fall by 20%, dealing a hammer blow not just to the companies involved but to the Scottish economy as a whole.
Exploration into unproven reserves in regions such as Southern and West Africa will also grind to a halt.
Questions are also being asked about fracking. Costs vary a great deal, but research by Scotiabank suggests the average breakeven price for US shale producers is about $60. At the same price, energy research group Wood Mackenzie estimates that investment in new wells would halve, wiping out production growth.
"The vast majority [of US shale wells] just don't work at $40-$50," says Mr Cronin.
Oil majors are already suffering, having announced tens of billions of dollars of cuts in exploration spending. But while the share prices of BP, Total and Chevron are all down about 15% since last summer, the majors have the resources to see out a sustained period of low oil prices.
There are hundreds of other much smaller oil groups across the world with a far more uncertain future, not least in the US. Shale companies there have borrowed $160bn in the past five years, all predicated on selling oil at a higher price than we have today. Banks' patience can only be tested so far.
Oilfield services companies are also "feeling severe pain", according to Mr Whittaker, with share prices in the sector down an average 30%-50%. Last month, US giant Schlumberger announced 9,000 job cuts, some 8% of its entire workforce.
But it's not just oil companies that are being hit by lower oil prices - the renewables sector is suffering as well.
In the Middle East and parts of Central and South America, oil is in direct competition with renewables to generate electricity, so solar power in particular will suffer at the hands of cheap oil.
Fuel price calculator 

Elsewhere, falling oil prices are helping drive down the price of gas, the direct rival of renewables. Subsidies, therefore, may have to rise to compensate.
Indeed lower oil and gas prices undermine a fundamental economic argument propounded by many governments to support renewables - that fossil fuels will continue to rise in price.
The impact is already being felt - shares in Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer, are down 15% since the summer, while those in Chinese solar panel giant JA Solar have slumped 20%.
Lower oil prices are also a grave concern for electric carmakers, with sales of hybrids in the US falling while those of gas-guzzling SUVs surge.
'Profound impact'

The knock-on effects within the energy industry of a sustained period of lower oil prices are, then, both widespread and profound.
But while Saudi Arabia's decision to call time on supporting the oil price marks an important milestone in the industry, oil's self-stabilising price mechanism remains very much intact - prices fall, production drops, supply falls, prices rise.
As a direct result of lower prices, exploration and production will be curtailed, and while it may take a number of years to filter through, supply will fall and prices will rise. After all, while there may be hundreds of new small suppliers entering the fray, there are still too few big players controlling oil supply for a truly free market to develop.
But real change is on the way. There is a growing realisation that fossil fuels need to be left in the ground if the world is to meet climate change targets and avoid dangerous levels of global warming.
Against this backdrop, it is only a matter of time before a meaningful carbon price - hitting polluters for emitting CO2 - is introduced, a price that will have a profound impact on the global oil market.
Equally, for the first time oil is facing a genuine competitor in the transport sector, which currently accounts for more than half of all oil consumption. Electric vehicles may be a niche market now, but as battery technology in particular advances, they will move inexorably into the mainstream, significantly reducing demand for oil.
The oil market is undergoing significant transformation, but more fundamental change is on the horizon.