Category Archives: Meditation

One More Reason to Meditate

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of being aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” – Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Tibetan Lama

A student of human nature, author Robert Wright was drawn to study mindfulness at a Buddhist meditation retreat. He deemed himself a particularly unlikely candidate for the exercise given his general restlessness and penchant for emotional expression. Yet he signed on for an immersive program that had him sit in stillness hour-upon-hour every day. Though challenging, he persevered, attended several other retreats, and wrote Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Suffice it to say, the book is not light reading. It subjects 4th century BCE Buddhist dharma to 21st century evolutionary biology and neuroscience to make sense of the ancient wisdom. It also seeks to provide practical reasons to immerse oneself in the discipline of mindfulness. From pages of notes, I hope to distill some key concepts.

One of the Buddha’s core teachings is that there is no such thing as a permanent, autonomous “self.” We cannot point to any part of our being and declare that it enjoys both control and persistence. In particular:

  • five aggregatesOur physical bodies cannot be the “self” because we have limited control over its appearance and functioning, and we certainly can’t forestall its deterioration in old age.
  • Our feelings cannot be the “self” because we are so often swept away by strong emotions that seem to arise out of nowhere. Moreover, said emotions can be here in one moment and gone the next.
  • Our perceptions cannot be the “self” because they are so readily manipulated by outside influence. Environmental cues, emotional states, and entrenched biases all contribute to which sensory input gets our attention and how we’ll interpret it.
  • Our mental formulations cannot be the “self” because they are as readily manipulated by external influence as our perceptions. Moreover, one of Wright’s teachers observed that sometimes “thoughts think themselves.”

The best candidate for the “self” appears to be consciousness. Some suggest that it has the capacity to observe and exercise control over our bodies, feelings, perceptions, and mental formulations. Wright makes a compelling case that this sensibility does not prove true.

Last week’s post discussed Wright’s book on Social Darwinism in which he argues that self-delusion confers an evolutionary advantage. When we see ourselves as more capable, understanding, moral, and righteous than we really are, we project an air of confidence that proves attractive to potential mates. Likewise, our tendency to view others with a jaundiced eye, readily pointing out their faults and failings, clears the field of potential rivals. These biases do not enter our conscious awareness, yet we act upon them because it improves our ability to perpetuate or gene pool.

Beyond the influence of social dynamics, the human brain reflects thousands of years of evolutionary development from the “lizard brain” that controls primal urges and responses. It’s a marvelously complex collective of neural circuitry spread across multiple overlapping modules that all work together. Modern technology and a gaggle of research has begun to pierce the veil of how this incredible organ functions. A number of findings support Wright’s thesis that “consciousness” is not in charge. For example:

  • Persons who’ve had their two brain hemispheres separated surgically can receive a stimulus in one half of the brain and respond to it with the other all outside the realm of conscious thought or control.
  • Brain scans reveal that action often precedes conscious choice. We often choose a path and then exercise our conscious capacity to rationalize our actions as if they were the product of deliberation.
  • Subliminal cues and messaging guide our thoughts and behavior without consciousness awareness of their influence.
  • Powerful feelings – e.g., fear, anger, grief, ecstasy, love – can usher in a whole new mindset that colors behaviors and perceptions over extended periods, for better or worse.

So, if there is no “self,” then who am I?

Wright suggests that we are each a collective of “selves” that take turns running the show. At any given moment, physical sensations, emotions, perceptions, thoughts, or other sensibilities might captivate our attention. The key to attaining mastery lies in:

  • Recognizing what has emerged
  • Accepting it
  • Investigating it and its relation to your body, mind, and spirit
  • Practicing Nonattachment (or non-identification) toward it

Insight meditation practiced faithfully provides the means to be attentive to what’s going on “in here,” not just what’s “out there.” We notice feelings, perceptions, thoughts as they arise and refrain from getting ensnared in the drama of them. We learn to stabilize our minds, release the chatter of their usual preoccupations, and perceive the world in a clear, less reactive way. As Wright says: “Mindfulness meditation gives calm passions more control than violent passions over time.”

The Relaxation Response

As a young cardiologist in the 1960s, Dr. Herbert Bensen noticed a trend among his patients that suggested a link between stress and hypertension, a precursor for heart disease. Many exhibited falsely high blood pressure at the doctor’s office. His colleagues routinely dismissed the phenomenon, ascribing the elevated readings to nerves. But the experience stimulated his curiosity.

If the body has a built-in mechanism to make adjustments physiologically in response to stress, might it also have a mechanism to calm itself down?

Bensen left private practice and joined the faculty of his alma mater, the Harvard Medical School, to answer that question.

Bensen confirmed his hypothesis through studies conducted with practitioners of Transcendental Meditation. He dubbed the phenomenon The Relaxation Response and authored a best-selling book by that name. Here were his findings.

When subjects entered a meditative state, they exhibited lowered heart rate, respiration, and oxygen consumption. The latter indicated that the body’s energy resources had been given a break, since cells consume oxygen when metabolizing sugars and fats for fuel. Meditation also produced a marked decrease in blood lactate, suggesting an anti-anxiety influence. Taken together, these metrics speak to decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and reflect a state of deep restfulness. In short, it’s the antithesis of the fight-or-flight response!

Bensen also demonstrated that the physiological impact of meditation is distinct from sleeping. During sleep, oxygen consumption decreases progressively to about 8% less than wakefulness. By contrast, mediation induces a rapid decrease in oxygen consumption within the first 3 minutes of practice and resets to normal at the end of a session. Alpha brain waves manifest prominently during meditation but are not common in sleep. Meditation does not induce Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

In sum: If you need a break from stress, meditate!

relaxation response

Since the 1975 publication of Bensen’s book, meditation has gone from a quasi-cult phenomenon to a mainstream practice with scads of research to supports its efficacy. There are lots of techniques for evoking the relaxation response and varying price tags associated with learning them. Bensen advocates a straight-forward approach that anyone can implement:

  1. Pick a focus word, short phrase, sound, or prayer that carries meaning within your belief system.
  2. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Engage in progressive muscle relaxation to relieve tension in the body, starting with the muscles in the feet and ties and working up through the calves, thighs, abdomen, arms, shoulders, head, and neck.
  5. Breathe in slowly and naturally; say your focus word, phrase, sound, or prayer to yourself as you slowly exhale.
  6. Take note when other thoughts attempt to intrude on your session and simply let them go. Gently return to your practice without judgment or concern no matter how many times this happens.
  7. Continue for 10-20 minutes.
  8. Sit quietly for a couple of minutes as you prepare to move forward with the affairs of the day. Open your eyes and wait for another minute or two before rising.
  9. Meditate once or twice daily. Good times for practice include just before breakfast and just before dinner.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

A recent conversation with my naturopath drew my attention to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. It’s an 8-week workshop with weekly classes, homework, and an all-day retreat with instruction in mindfulness meditation, body scanning, and simple yoga postures. It’s based on the following tenets: beginner’s mind, non-judgment, patients, acceptance, non-striving, trust, and letting go.

mindfulness

My husband and I attended an orientation last Spring. I followed up with a quick read though The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality by Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert, both certified trainers. While the authors make clear that a book is no substitute for the lived experience of a class, it provides a high-level summary of the course contents. I’m intrigued and may give the class a go.

Based on reading about how our brains and bodies work, I’ve learned how our mental activity impacts our brain circuitry and our physiology. When a situation elicits the “fight or flight” response, our bodies:

  • Mobilize energy (glucose) in our bloodstreams to provide fuel for our muscles
  • Elevate heart rates, blood pressure, and breathing to expedite delivery of fuel and oxygen to our cells
  • Halt long-term “building projects” – e.g., growth, tissue repair, reproduction
  • Boost immunity and blunt pain response
  • Sharpen senses and improve memory

These physiological changes prove useful for responding to a short-term threat – e.g., running from a predator. They’re detrimental when activated over a prolonged period of time in response to sustained predatory conditions, chronic pain, mental anguish, and the like. MBSR provides the resources to tamp down the parts of our brain that activate anxiety/negativity and amp up the parts that promote resilience and well-being.

With mindfulness training, we can draw focus away from the particulars of a difficult situation (e.g., grid lock during the daily commute) and observe the way we relate to it on an emotional, intellectual, and behavioral level. We learn to recognize that the irritant plays a relatively minor role in our experience of stress; it’s the extra elements that we attach to it that escalate our response. With heightened sensitivity to our reactivity and our rumination, we can turn the dial down on stress while opening the door to options for self-management and coping.

Mindfulness goes beyond managing stress. The program also draws attention to all the ways in which we get caught up in thoughts and lose sight of what’s happening in the here and now. It strengthens our capacity to recognize the vitality of every moment – even when we’re doing chores! It helps us live in the present without getting caught up in a past that we can’t change or a future that has yet to occur.

Mindfulness also helps to calm the restless mind. Thoughts have power. When they get “stuck” in our minds, we can get caught up with them. But if we can become aware of them in a calm, friendly, non-judgmental manner – without identifying with them or giving them credence – they lose their capacity to exert a negative influence. They can just pass on through.

Mindfulness can help us improve relations with others. The core premise here is that we cannot connect meaningfully with others if we’re not connected to ourselves. When we’re in touch with our thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs, we’re more likely to communicate clearly and less likely to respond on auto-pilot. We’ll be grounded in the present moment and listen more attentively. We’ll pause before reacting, giving ourselves time to choose the appropriate thought, speech, or action. We’ll also notice when we’re involved with something or someone that does not prove forwarding for our lives.

Given the program’s longevity and span of influence, there has been quite a lot of research on its effectiveness… hence my interest in attending. I just need to figure out how I’ll get it to fit in my schedule!

Does Meditation Really Change Lives?

As I noted in my last post, I’ve become increasingly curious about meditation and the benefits it confers to those who have cultivated the practice. So I ran across another book that sparked my interest – Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

The authors met as graduate students in complementary fields – Goleman in psychology and Davidson in neuroscience. They both got into meditation as students and continued their practices for decades. Both saw a multitude of positive changes in their lives as a function of their deep commitment to the practice. This experience motivated them to collaborate on an exhaustive review of evidence-based research to unearth proven benefits of meditation.

researchGoleman and Davidson applied rigorous standards to the studies that they included in their review. They devoted a fair amount of time discussing the ways in which studies may be poorly designed and/or produce untrustworthy results. For example, self-reporting often produces biased or skewed results. Benefits ascribed to meditation could be a function of expectation (e.g., “Everyone says they feel more peaceful when they meditate, so I guess I do, too”), the experience of social bonding in a class, or the enthusiasm of the instructor.

Goleman and Davidson zeroed in on what happens in the individual’s brain in response to meditation. They found transformation in the neural pathways resulting in: (i) less reaction to disturbing events; (ii) elevated compassion and empathy; (iii) increased attention; and (v) improved sense of self. For example, highly experienced Zen masters bear more pain than the control subjects and display little activity in the executive, evaluative, and emotional areas of the brain, all of which typically “flare” when exposed to stressors. The Zen masters experience pain; they just didn’t react to it.

Experienced meditators also showed enlarged brain regions as follows:

  • Insula, which attunes us to our internal state and emotional self-awareness
  • Somatomotor areas, which are the cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain
  • Parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with paying attention
  • Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation
  • Orbitofrontal cortex, also implicated in self-regulation

Of course, the authors acknowledge that such measurements may also be impacted by diet, exercise, sleep habits, stress, and other health factors. Long-time meditators may have healthier lifestyles that contribute to their brain function.

Long-term mindfulness training has also been associated with lower inflammation and a calming of immune response. It increases the enzyme telomerase which has been linked to a reduction in cellular aging. It has also been associated with a decrease in depression, anxiety, and pain.

One big caveat regarding all of the aforementioned benefits: It takes LOTS of practice to realize the systemic benefits. At 1,000 to 10,000 hours of accumulated practice, there are neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity and strengthened emotional regulation. Moreover, it’s not just the number of logged hours; it’s how well the practitioner engages the practice. Intentional practice requires expert coaching tied to the needs of the individual. There’s also strong evidence that periodic retreats plays a role in boosting one’s realization of the benefits of practice.

The good news: Anyone can do it. And even if one doesn’t attain mastery, a consistent practice can promote loving kindness, improve attention span, and instill feelings of well-being. The trick is to find a practice that works for you and stick with it.

Open Wide and Say “Om”

Meditation keeps cropping up in the books I’m reading and the podcasts that fill the airwaves while I exercise. The advocates talk about the peacefulness, clarity, and energy-boost that they experience through regular practice. As I’m intrigued by their witness, I thought I’d see what the “experts” have to say about it.

For my first stop on this tour, I chose a book by Dr. Norman E Rosenthal, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University and 30-year veteran of clinical practice. He has also conducted research in behalf of the National Institute of Mental Health for 20 years. So he can reasonably claim to offer expert commentary in Transcendence: Healing Through Transcendental Meditation.

transcendental meditationDr. Rosenthal’s transcendental meditation (a.k.a. “TM”) is a specific form of meditative practice that makes use of individually-tailored mantras during two 20-minute sessions daily. A certified trainer provides instruction on the technique and works with each client to choose the right mantra and use it correctly. Follow-up sessions on consecutive days reinforce the training. (See www.tm.org.)

TM confers a state of calmness while helping organize the prefrontal cortex in a way that improves focus and decision making. It allows the practitioners to feel a connection to something beyond the self while setting aside consciousness of date, time, and place. In this state of transcendence, one experiences 4 gifts: (i) the gift of being (not doing), (ii) the gift of retreat from the cares and concerns of the world, (iii) the gift of stress-release (physically and/or psychologically), and (iv) the gift of insights.

These high-level benefits have been touted since I first learned about TM years ago. Yet they’ve never inspired me to get past the fidgetiness that I experience every time I try to sit still for a 20-minute session. So I read on to see what Dr. Rosenthal has witnessed through decades of clinical practice.

HEALING: TM has been shown to lower blood pressure, increase insulin sensitivity, and improve cardiac health. It calms the sympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering the stress response. Stress has a deleterious effect on the cardiovascular and immune systems. It also accelerates aging. (He notes that when it comes to cardiovascular disease, it may not be solely about what you eat; it’s also about what’s eating you!) Meditators have superior health profiles, though Dr. Rosenthal allows as how their lifestyles may be more health-promoting than non-mediators.

TRANSFORMATION: Anger and anxiety may serve us when directed toward specific circumstances of limited duration. They fail us when a chronic state of heightened arousal leads to stress-induced physical and psychological challenges, including depression. While cognitive therapy works to change surface behaviors relative to anger, anxiety, and depression, TM works toward a ground of being that is more peaceful. By calming the mind, it helps patients respond to stressors in a clear-headed way. They’re less prone to acting on impulse or being overcome by their emotions. It trains the mind to let disquieting thoughts pass, rather than ruminate on them endlessly. It also has a positive impact on personal organization, effectiveness, and quality of thinking.

HARMONY: TM helps thoughts become more orderly and priorities easier to perceive and pursue. Practitioners focus on what’s important or urgent, not the “noise” that clamors for their attention. The uncluttered mind also has the freedom to explore new directions, to innovate, and to see things with fresh eyes. Most long-time meditators are relaxed in body, alert in mind, and open in spirit. They feel a sense of harmony within their minds, between their minds and bodies, and between themselves and others. Prisons and schools have been transformed by meditation. When practiced consistently by a group of teens, they were shown to have less absenteeism, suspensions, and school violations.

Dr. Rosenthal stressed the importance of working with a certified trainer when adopting this practice. I found a local provider that supports the technique available through Maharishi Foundation USA, a federally recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization. The fees are not for the faint of heart (or budget), although they offer lower rates for students and financially challenged individuals.