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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Mainstream meditation

I've written about the studies cited in this Boston Globe story, but it's a good summary of two studies on how meditation affects the brain, and it's got nice anecdotal evidence that meditation is for everyone. (The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that 20 million US adults had turned to meditation for health reasons in the previous year.)

 One woman recalls that when she first began to meditate 30 years ago, the practice was considered somewhat fringe. “If you mentioned meditation to people back then, they looked at you funny,” she said.
Today, you can find meditation groups at spiritual centers like Advaita, but also at colleges, social meet-ups, yoga centers, and medical clinics.
“Now it’s everywhere,” she says, “classified as much under health as it is under spirituality.”

Photo by Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe

Check it out for yourself -- Samadhi Yoga Studio, Manchester CT, Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Compassion meditation helps veterans

This NPR report describes a program in which the Veterans Administration is using compassion meditation to help war veterans work with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a beautiful example of how meditation can help.

The technique is called "compassion cultivation training." Weiss, who helped develop it, tells the men to think of a person they care about and to "allow yourself to feel the presence of this person." There's a phrase Weiss repeats, like a mantra: "That person is just like me."
"Consider that, just like me, this person's had ups and downs in his or her life. Just like me, this person's had goals and dreams," she says.
The idea here is that in combat, the way to stay safe is to think of everyone as a potential threat. Fear and distrust are default. But with PTSD, it stays that way, even after combat is over. The soldier with PTSD has lost the ability to relate to people as just people. Compassion meditation is about getting that ability back, learning to see oneself in others....
"The idea, of you saying, 'just like me,' that does a lot for me in a sense because I know how I'd like to be treated or how I want to feel," says John Montgomery, who has a bushy gray mustache and a tattoo of a scorpion on each forearm. "So if I'm showing that to somebody else, I find myself looking at me a little better and being satisfied with what I see."
Montgomery says he knows that what the meditation is teaching him sounds incredibly basic: Treat others the way you want to be treated; it's Human Relationships 101. And yet, it's completely at odds with the person the Vietnam War trained him to be.

While most of us don't have to close off to others' humanity to the degree that soldiers do, we all shut down to some extent. Pema Chodron teaches a Buddhist method called tonglen, or exchanging self and other. Written instructions are here.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude meditation

Center in your body
--Bring to mind a person to whom you feel gratitude -- a teacher, relative, mentor, friend. Visualize them sitting in front of you, happy to receive your thanks.
-- Next bring to mind something you are grateful for in yourself -- a characteristic, an act, anything -- or, if that's too difficult, visualize someone who might feel gratitude toward you. Rest in that feeling that you too deserve appreciation.
-- Bring to mind a circumstance -- a job, a home, family, etc, for which you feel gratitude. Rest in that more expansive feeling.
-- Now recognize all the things that go into that, known and unknown -- the electricity has to work, your body has to function, the world has to keep spinning. See that more things go right in every moment than go wrong. See the world in the golden glow of richness.
and rest in open awareness.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Meditation changes your relationship to pain

Meditation can change the way a person experiences pain, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists, reported on
During an experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them. Brain-imaging studies showed that experts had less activity in the anxiety regions of their brains than did novice meditators. They also became accustomed to the pain more quickly after being exposed repeatedly to it.
The scientists, based at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, are analyzing the effects of meditation in several areas.
The study involved an advanced form of mindfulness mediation called Open Presence, but other kinds of meditation also may provide benefits, says Antoine Lutz, first author on the paper appearing recently in NeuroImage.
The findings help explain how opening to pain, rather than avoiding it, can reduce the anxiety that can worsen the experience of pain.
“The goal would be to change your relationship to the pain, rather than changing the experience itself,” Lutz says.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Friend Your Body (with cake)

Deep Chocolate Vegan Cake
1½ cups gluten-free flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill baking flour)
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup cold water or chilled brewed coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 375. Generously grease a round or square 8-inch pan, dust bottom with cocoa powder or line with parchment paper.
Mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, mix liquid ingredients LEAVING OUT CIDER VINEGAR.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until smooth and well-blended.
Add the vinegar and stir briefly; the baking soda will begin to react with the vinegar, leaving pale swirls in the batter. Pour quickly into prepared pan.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Test doneness by inserting a toothpick. Note: because it’s vegan, it doesn’t have to be completely dry, it’s ok if some batter sticks to the toothpick. It may take a little longer to bake because of the gluten-free flour.

Chocolate-Raspberry Glaze
1/3 cup plus ¼ cup raspberry jam or fruit spread
1½ cups chocolate chips
1 tablespoon water
Melt 1/3 cup of fruit spread with chocolate chips and blend
Mix ¼ cup fruit spread with water  and warm to liquefy. Brush liquefied fruit spread on cake, then spread on glaze. Allow cake to cool before serving.

Adapted from Moosewood  Restaurant New Classics

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Meditation has lasting effects

The changes that take place in the brain during meditation -- reduced activity in the amygdala, which regulates stress response, for instance -- continue after a meditation session ends, according to a research study published this month in Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Researchers at Massachusetts General, Boston College, and other participating institutions also found differences in the brain activity of those who practiced mindfulness-awareness meditation and those who did compassion practices during meditation sessions.

“The two different types of meditation training our study participants completed yielded some differences in the response of the amygdala – a part of the brain known for decades to be important for emotion – to images with emotional content,” says GaĆ«lle Desbordes, PhD, a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and at the BU Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, corresponding author of the report. “This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.”

Participants in three groups took part in eight-week trainings in either mindfulness-awareness meditation, compassion meditation, or general health classes. They had brain-imaging tests before and after the programs as they viewed photographs.

In the mindful attention group, the after-training brain scans showed a decrease in activation in the right amygdala in response to all images, supporting the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. In the compassion meditation group, right amygdala activity also decreased in response to positive or neutral images. But among those who reported practicing compassion meditation most frequently outside of the training sessions, right amygdala activity tended to increase in response to negative images – all of which depicted some form of human suffering. No significant changes were seen in the control group or in the left amygdala of any study participants.

“We think these two forms of meditation cultivate different aspects of mind,” Desbordes explains. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer. Increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The science of mindfulness

There is a measurable benefit that people could achieve through body-mind meditation, especially involving an effective training regimen.
PreventDisease reports that researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have laid out the science behind mindfulness, describing a broad framework of complex interactions in the brain:

The researchers identified several cognitive functions that are active in the brain during mindfulness practice, which help a person develop self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART).

They then highlighted six neuropsychological processes that are active mechanisms in the brain during mindfulness that support S-ART -- 1) intention and motivation, 2) attention regulation, 3) emotion regulation, 4) extinction and reconsolidation, 5) pro-social behavior, and 6) non-attachment and de-centering.

In other words, these processes begin with an intention and motivation to want to attain mindfulness, followed by an awareness of one's bad habits. Once these are set, a person can begin taming him or herself to be less emotionally reactive and to recover faster from upsetting emotions.

The article states that "the framework and neurobiological model proposed by the researchers differs from current popular descriptions of mindfulness as a way of paying attention, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." It doesn't sound different from the teachings I've received, non-scientifically, from meditation instructors. But it's always nice to have science validate your experience.