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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mindfulness of body

The Buddha's first foundation of mindfulness is the body. Know when you're breathing in; know when you're breathing out. Know when you're sitting or standing or walking or resting. Locating awareness in the body is a way of connecting with the present moment and letting go of thoughts.

A new study indicates that those sensations also can give us clues about our mood. A team of Finnish researchers worked with 700 people in three countries to map where emotions are expressed in the body. They found remarkable similarities among people about where emotions manifest in their bodies.

Neuroscientist Antonio Dimasio, who was not involved in this study, told NPR he's "delighted" by the findings. He's been suggesting for years that each emotion activates a distinct set of body parts, and the mind's recognition of those patterns helps us consciously identify that emotion.
"People look at emotions as something in relation to other people," Damasio, who is a professor at the University of Southern California, says. "But emotions also have to do with how we deal with the environment — threats and opportunities."
The next foundations have to do with how we assign meaning or act on what we find in our bodies -- mindfulness of feeling tones (like it/hate it/don't see it) and thoughts. The body, though, is the first sensor.

The sensation maps were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can even take the experiment here and color your own sensation maps. And remember those maps the next time you notice yourself clenching your jaw,

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Joy of Missing Out comes from being present

Are you thinking about making a resolution to live more mindfully in 2014? You're in good -- and trendy -- company, according to global advertising and marketing company JWT, which named "Mindful Living" among its Top 10 trends for 2014. 

Ann Mack, the company's director of trend spotting, points to the Slow Food Movement, the rise of digital detox camps where you go to disconnect from social media, and meditation programs in major companies like Google and General Mills.
The mind-calming, mind-blowing concept goes like this, according to Mack: “You’re enjoying what you’re doing in the here and now and not on social media broadcasting or seeing what everybody else is doing.”
The trend-spotter offers a name for it: Joy of Missing Out, or JOMO (for which she gives credit to tech blogger Anil Dash). It follows 2013's Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, which bred anxiety among Instagram users who envied the meals, vacations, and life events posted by people they follow on the photo-sharing app.

Of course, there are less snappy names for it. Mindfulness, taught by the Buddha and countless secular psychologists and therapists, is a kind, non-judgmental awareness of what's happening in the present moment. By keeping our attention on what's happening now we can avoid the stress that rises from ruminating on the past or worry about the future.

Right now I'm breathing and aware, which means I can choose how to respond to what's happening in my life. Meditation is a great way of developing that awareness and of finding some peace amid the chaos of thoughts in our minds.

Rather than focusing on what's missing, you notice what's present. And you relax with it instead of measuring it against some standard. Joy arises when you can simply be present.

So maybe the resolution for 2014 is just to be there for it, not looking ahead or back.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mindful gene changes

The study compared a group of experienced meditation who took part in a day of intensive mindfulness meditation to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.

A new study has found specific molecular changes from a day of mindfulness meditation. Researchers believe it's the first study to find rapid alterations in gene expression from mindfulness meditation.

"Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs," says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain, where the molecular analyses were conducted.
Read more here

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mindfulness and empathy

Even as mindfulness is becoming ubiquitous -- popular with businesses, physicians, and stressed-out average joes -- empathy is declining.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cites the work of a Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske, who found that when research subjects look at photos of the poor and homeless, brain imaging shows they often react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion.

Instead of seeing the similarities -- there but for the grace of God go I -- we look for differences, for explanations to reassure ourselves that whatever led to other people being in difficult circumstances won't happen to us.

Mindfulness, though, should lead us in the other direction. Seeing how we want to be happy, to be safe, to live at peace and how many of our thoughts are about that and how we can secure it opens us up and lets us know how much others also want that.  Mindfulness -- kind, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness -- lets us see how we suffer. It's only a small step to see that others also want what we want and suffer when they don't have it. All we have to do, really, is to extend kind awareness to others.

And when we see the world through the lens of mindfulness, we also are more clear about how we can reduce suffering, our own and others'.

When mindfulness is equated with bare attention, it can easily lead to the misconception that the cultivation of mindfulness has nothing to do with ethics or with the cultivation of wholesome states of mind and the attenuation of unwholesome states. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
- B. Alan Wallace
We should be courteous to the poor as well as to the powerful. We should avoid attachment to relatives and animosity toward enemies, ridding ourselves of all partiality. But let us be especially respectful towards poor, humble people of no importance. Do not be partial! Love and compassion should be universal toward all beings.

Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Study: Meditation may head off dementia

Medical studies in recent years have documented changes in the brains of those who meditate -- but it hasn't been clear what those changes might mean. A new pilot study led by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center suggests that the brain changes associated with meditation and stress reduction may play an important role in slowing the progression of age-related cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

"We know that approximately 50 percent of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – the intermediate stage between the expected declines of normal aging and the more serious cognitive deterioration associated with dementia – may develop dementia within five years. And unfortunately, we know there are currently no FDA approved medications that can stop that progression," says first author Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, who conducted her research as a fellow in Integrative Medicine at BIDMC and Harvard Medical School. "We also know that as people age, there's a high correlation between perceived stress and Alzheimer's disease, so we wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve."

The study used adults with mild cognitive impairment divided into a control group and a group that was trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, whose members meditate each day for the eight-week program and did a day-long retreat.

The study found improved functional connectivity in the part of t he brain responsible for memory in the meditators. It also found less atrophy of the hippocampus, which plays a role in dementia.

"MBSR is a relatively simple intervention, with very little downside that may provide real promise for these individuals who have very few treatment options," says Wells. She adds that future studies will need to be larger and evaluate cognitive outcomes as well. "If MBSR can help delay the symptoms of cognitive decline even a little bit, it can contribute to improved quality of life for many of these patients."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Not to Fade ... er, Meditate

In Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," Bod is a young (human) boy being raised by ghosts. His education includes training in the art of Fading, which sounds remarkably like a lot of meditation instruction I've received.

He took a deep breath, and did his best, squinching up his eyes and trying to fade away.
Mr. Pennyworth was not impressed.
"Pah, that's not the kind of thing. Not the kind of thing at all. ... Try again."
Bod tried harder.
"You're as plain as the nose on your face," said Mr. Pennyworth. "And you nose is remarkably obvious. As is the rest of your face, young man. As are you. For the sake of all that is holy, empty your mind. Now. You are an empty alleyway. You are a vacant doorway. You are nothing."
... Bod tried again. He closed his eyes and imagined himself fading into the stained stonework of the mausoleum wall, becoming a shadow on the night and nothing more. He sneezed.
"Dreadful," said Mr. Pennyworth.

Poor Bod. When I was learning to meditate, I went to "learn to meditate" sessions at a yoga center where I'd gone mainly to do yoga. And I was told, over and over, to empty my mind. I had as much luck with that as Bod did with fading. Minds don't empty. Minds think. But meditation is still possible.


Notice the thoughts. Don't try to force them to stay down or push them away or feel bad because they're there. Just notice them as they arise and as they pass. Your mind has enough space to hold thoughts without getting tangled up in them.

Bod (was) standing in the middle of the room with his eyes tightly closed and his fists clenched and his face all screwed up as if he had a toothache, almost purple from holding his breath.
"What you a-doin' of now?" she asked.
He opened his eyes and relaxed. "Trying to Fade," he said.
Liza sniffed. "Try again," she said.
He did, holding his breath even longer this time.
"Stop that," she told him. "Or you'll pop."

I've seen people like that in the meditation class I lead. Shoulders hunched. Eyes scrunched. Jaw clenched. Determined. But there's no space to meditate. It takes something in between -- not too tight and not too loose, as the Buddha famously said. Balanced.

"What do you do when you try to Fade?" 
"What Mr. Pennyworth told me. 'I am an empty doorway. I am a vacant alley, I am nothing. ...' But it never works."
"It's because you're alive," said Liza with a sniff.

You're alive, and you have a curious mind that wired and trained to think. That's a precious thing. But you don't have to follow every thought to its logical conclusion or emotional resolution. You can rest, with thoughts in your head like bats in the evening sky, swooping past but never touching down.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do you judge people by their phone?

I got a provocative email today asking: "Do people judge you by the phone you carry?" It went on to detail a survey of 1,000 businesspeople that found in part:

* 55 percent of respondents say that if a business meeting participant pulls out a damaged or old cell phone, this negatively affects their impression of him or her.

* Over 80 percent of people say they judge a person to be “frugal,” “not tech savvy,” or “old” if they carry an older phone model.

* 35 percent of people will think a person is “poor” if they carry an older phone type.

I don't judge you by your phone. I probably couldn't tell anything about your phone just by looking at it. Also, I know young adults who prefer dumb phones -- old school clamshell-style phones that don't connect to the Internet -- so I might think you were cool if you pulled one out. But I am old, frugal, and not tech savvy.

A friend who is so savvy that she works in a tech field admitted that she does make those judgments. Of course you would, if that's your field, like I would be very curious about what you're reading. Avocationally, I would notice your shoes too.

The thing is -- and here's where it relates to meditation -- noticing is not judging. Noticing is just noticing -- that person has an old-style phone. Judging is when you ascribe meaning to what you have noticed -- that person is poor. Judgments often lead to feelings; you may feel pity for the poor person with the old phone or think that your savviness makes you superior. And feelings like to actions: You may treat the person with pity or contempt based on your judgment.

This is why, in meditation, we try to notice thoughts without evaluating or judging them. Thoughts that come up during meditation are not good or bad thoughts, they're just thoughts. All of them. If we catch the thought before it becomes a judgment, it hasn't yet got its hooks into us. But if it moves to a judgment, it grows into a story and becomes an action. (I'm thinking about ice cream when I should be meditating ... that's a bad thought... I need to lose weight ... thinking about food won't help me because I have no will power I'll never lose weight ....)

You can practice noticing without judging -- which is, really, just noticing -- any time. Look around you. Notice something. Look for the moment of noticing before judgment arises. Rest there. When notice judgment arising, and see if you can let it keep going. Judgment is a thought too.

I won't judge you by your phone. But I will judge you if you pull it out while we're speaking.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Meditators make better decisions

A new study says that as little as 15 minutes of meditation can help businesspeople make better decisions and avoid the "sunk cost bias," Forbes reports.

The sunk cost bias–also known as the sunk cost fallacy, or the sunk cost effect–is recognized as one of the most destructive cognitive biases affecting organizations today. Put simply, it’s the tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment has been made in an attempt to recoup or justify “sunk” irrecoverable costs. The phenomenon is not new; psychological scientists have been studying the “escalation of commitment” since the mid-1970s, noting its ability to distort rational thought and skew effective decision-making. Often, it’s a subconscious action, which can result in millions of dollars being invested into a project, not because it’s a sound investment but because millions of dollars have already been spent.
The study, Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Research and the Sunk Cost Bias, found that  just 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation– concentrating on breathing or doing a body scan – helps build resistance to this "problematic decision process," which often stems from stress, anxiety, guilt, and fear, and allow better decision-making.

The study's author's say that mindfulness meditation, which brings the meditator into contact with the present moment, reduces mind-wandering and diminishes "the negative feelings that distort thinking, thereby boosting resistance to the sunk cost bias."

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prescription: Mindfulness (for the physician)

Would you rather be seen by a doctor who paid attention to you, who listened to what you said during your appointment, or one who was distracted, whose mind was somewhere else, who heard the first few sentences and then made assumptions?

It's not really a question, is it?

Researchers, who've found previously that pharmacists, nurses, and physicians trained in mindfulness make fewer mistakes and experience less stress, now say they also make patients feel better -- at least about their office visits.

The New York Times reports on the findings.

“We clinicians are not always fully present for patients because our minds are always working,” said Dr. Mary Catherine Beach, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “But when we don’t listen,” failing to let patients say what they need to say or ask what they need to ask, “we end up giving explanations that are too long and complicated and responses that they don’t need or want.”
Researchers found that patients were more satisfied and more open with the more mindful clinicians, the Times reports. More mindful clinicians "tended to be more upbeat during patient interactions, more focused on the conversation and more likely to make attempts to strengthen the relationship or ferret out details of the patient’s feelings," the Times says.

Mindful doctors remained efficient, getting as much done medically for their patients as their least mindful colleagues, even though they spent more time in conversation with patients.
Less mindful clinicians, on the other hand, more frequently missed opportunities to be empathic and, in the most extreme cases, failed to pay attention at all, responding, for example, to a patient’s description of waking up in the middle of the night crying in pain with a question about a flu shot.
And speaking of flu shots, get one. But keep in mind a study from 2012 that found that meditation can help fight colds and flu. The study, which followed volunteers through a winter cold season, from September through May, found that meditators missed 76 percent fewer days of work than nonmeditators. And the average duration of colds and respiratory infections was lower among meditators -- five days, compared to eight.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Precious moment, wonderful moment

Autumn sky in the the Berkshires

 Where I live, this week has had the kind of weather that reminds you why you live here. Clear, cold nights, crisp like a locally grown Macoun apple. Clear, sunny days, the temperature right in the range where we used to set the thermostat back before the energy crisis. And not just one day, but a string of them, a bracelet of precious jewels, one after the other.

I was noticing this today as I headed home, autumn blue sky overhead, trees with a tinge of color along the road.

Then I thought: I wonder how long this will last. Will it stay for the engagement party scheduled for Saturday? The Old Farmer's Almanac says it's going to be a hard winter.

The colors faded a bit

And I had to laugh at myself. Here I am, thinking how vivid and wonderful the present moment is -- and instead of basking in it, I'm thinking about what comes next.

At one talk I went to, the presented stopped often to laugh. "I crack myself up" he'd say.

I think it was a transmission of insight.

When you notice what your mind is doing, sometimes, you just gotta laugh. And that brings you right back to this moment, this breath, this awesome day.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

20 research-based reasons to meditate

Emma M. Seppala, Ph.D., a meditator and scientist, offers a list of 20 reasons to meditate at Psychology Today, with links to scientific studies, here. The list is below, but there's some additional commentary you might want to read.

It Boosts Your HEALTH
1 - Increases immune function (See here and here)
2 - Decreases Pain (see here)
3 - Decreases Inflammation at the Cellular Level (See here and here and here)
It Boosts Your HAPPINESS
4 - Increases Positive Emotion (here and here)
5 - Decreases Depression (see here)
6 - Decreases Anxiety (see here and here and here)
7 - Decreases Stress (see here and  here)
It Boosts Your SOCIAL LIFE
Think meditation is a solitary activity? It may be (unless you meditate in a group which many do!) but it actually increases your sense of connection to others:
8 - Increases social connection & emotional intelligence (see here and - by yours truly - here)
9 - Makes you more compassionate (see here and here and here)
10 - Makes you feel less lonely (see here)
It Boosts Your Self-Control
11 - Improves your ability to regulate your emotions (see here) (Ever flown off the handle or not been able to quiet your mind? Here's the key)
12 - Improves your ability to introspect (see here & for why this is crucial see this post)
It Changes Your BRAIN (for the better)
13 - Increases grey matter (see here)
14 - Increases volume in areas related to emotion regulation, positive emotions & self-control (see here and here)
15 - Increases cortical thickness in areas related to paying attention (see here)
 It Improves Your Productivity (yup, by doing nothing)
16 - Increases your focus & attention (see here and here and here and here)
17 - Improves your ability to multitask (see here and here)
18 - Improves your memory (see here)
19 - Improves your ability to be creative & think outside the box (see research by J. Schooler)
20. It Makes You WISE(R)
It gives you perspective: By observing your mind, you realize you don't have to be slave to it. You realize it throws tantrums, gets grumpy, jealous, happy and sad but that it doesn't have to run you. Meditation is quite simply mental hygiene: clear out the junk, tune your talents, and get in touch with yourself. Think about it, you shower every day and clean your body, but have you ever showered your mind? As a consequence, you'll feel more clear and see thing with greater perspective. "The quality of our life depends on the quality of our mind," writes Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. We can't control what happens on the outside but we do have a say over the quality of our mind. No matter what's going on, if your mind is ok, everything is ok. Right now.

What do you have to say to yourself?

I overslept today. Again. 

That's happened a few times lately. Even on days when I get up on time, my arrival time at work has been creeping back. I justify it by saying that I stay later at work to get things set up for the next day -- so my late arrival isn't a big deal.

But it's not irrelevant. I don't work by myself; I work with a team of people, and we have certain deadlines we have to meet every day, starting with internal planning ones and leading up to the shared ones that go into putting out three editions of a daily paper. My arrival time does have an effect.

Driving to work this morning, I realized that if I supervised myself, I would pull myself into the conference room and have a talk about it. I've had to do that a few times in the past.

I also realized that I would speak more kindly and gently to the person in the conference room than I do to myself. I would not ask that person why they can't get their act together or demand to know what their problem is. The thought would not flutter through my brain -- as it did with myself -- that they can't do anything right. "You're such a fuckup" is a sentence I would say only to myself.

When you love lovingkindness meditation, a lot of people trip up on extending kindness to themselves. We're not trained to do that. We're trained to achieve, to follow rules, to meet expectations. And when we don't do that, we can be hard on ourselves.

The first step toward changing that -- toward treating ourselves with the same care and respect we'd extend toward others -- is to notice what we say to ourselves. And that's where meditation is beneficial. If you sit with yourself and observe your thoughts, you notice that the same ones come around. And then you notice that out in the world.

And then, when you tell yourself that you're a fuckup, you can question that. I can't doa nything right? Really? Look around -- there's a lot here that I have done right. Do I need to improve some things -- like timeliness. Hell, yes. I know it, and I'm working on it.

Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we already are. - Pema Chodron

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mindfulness improves students' attention

A short training course in mindfulness improves children’s ability to ignore distractions and concentrate better, a study presented this month to the British Psychological Society says.

Study author Dominic Crehan said: “The ability to pay attention in class is crucial for success at school. Mindfulness appears to have an effect after only a short training course, which the children thoroughly enjoyed! Through their training, the children actually learn to watch their minds working and learn to control their attention. These findings could be particularly important for helping children with attention difficulties such as ADHD. Further research on the effects of mindfulness on children’s attention is very much needed.”

The researchers worked with 30 children (girls and boys aged 10 to 11 years old), who took part  in a mindfulness course as part of their school curriculum in two groups. They measured the children’s levels of mindfulness using a questionnaire and assessed their attention skills using a specially-designed computer game. They made these measurements on three occasions, at three-month intervals, so that they could measure changes in attention skills over time as a result of the mindfulness course.

The results indicated that an improvement in the children’s ability to focus and deal with distractions was associated with the mindfulness course.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Cut your cravings

 A small study by researchers at the University of Oregon found that mindfulness meditation may help smokers cut back.

The study involved only five people, so the results aren't statistically significant. But a comparison group that was taught "to relax" showed no reduction.

So should smokers meditate if they want to smoke less?

"Sure, why not?" said study co-author Michael Posner, professor emeritus at the University of Oregon's department of psychology. "[Still], I can't say that all forms of meditation will produce these affects. It's likely that it depends on the brain state that the person is in, and there may be other ways to get into it."
The study took 60 people -- 27 cigarette smokers and 33 nonsmokers with an average age of 21 -- and split them into two groups; each group went through five hours of training over two weeks in either mindfulness meditation or relaxation.

After the two weeks, the researchers gave breath tests to the smokers to see how much they'd been smoking. There was no change for those who learned to relax, but the measurement fell by 60 percent in those who learned how to meditate.  Five smokers talked to researchers four weeks later and said they were still smoking less.

Posner speculated that the reduction in stress and changes in the brain found in meditators in other studies could be at work. And while the study isn't proof, he noted, there's no reason not to give meditation a try. Unlike drugs, it doesn't have any major side effects.And the cost is minimal -- how-to videos are available online and classes are offered many places (such as 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, Conn., which I teach.)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

It Gets Easier

"Does this get easier?"

That's the question I get asked most often by people who are new to meditation. Unaccustomed to holding their attention on just one thing, they're dismayed to see how their minds ping-pong from one subject to another, stopping ever so briefly back on the breath.

I usually answer this question from my own experience. Yes, it does. You still have thoughts, but you notice them more quickly, before you get tangled up in them. You become aware of the thoughts, and you can choose whether to follow them or let them go.

There's a scientific explanation for that. Wendy Hasenkamp, a neuroscientist at the Mind & Life Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, describes research on the subject.

One brain area stood out in this analysis: the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default mode network that is particularly related to self-focused thoughts, which make up a good portion of mind-wandering content. It turns out that experienced meditators deactivated this region more quickly after identifying mind-wandering than people who hadn’t meditated as much—suggesting they might be better at releasing distracting thoughts, like a re-hash of a personal To Do list or some slight they suffered at work yesterday.
In a follow-up study, we found that these same participants had greater coherence between activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and brain areas that allow you to disengage attention. This means that the brain regions for attentional disengagement have greater access to the brain regions underlying the distraction, possibly making it easier to disengage. Other findings support this idea—more experienced meditators have increased connectivity between default mode and attention brain regions, and less default mode activity while meditating.
Put more simply ... "Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering."

Or, to answer the question, it gets easier.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Meditation is my meditation

Maybe you've heard people say that they don't need to do sitting meditation because they do other things that have meditative qualities. "My yoga is my meditation," they say, or running or music or knitting or any repetitive activity.

Those are all activities that can be done mindfully, or meditatively. But they're not meditation. And while studies have documented the beneficial effects of meditation, that hasn't been done for other types of mindful activity.
Sakyong Mipham,

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala organization, wrote a book called "Running with the Mind of Meditation" which makes the difference clear. "Running is a training of the body, and meditation is a training of the mind." he writes.

Both are important aspects of our human lives, he says. "When we relate to our mind and body and allow them to harmonize, we feel more alive and strong."
If we train only the body and ignore the mind, the body is getting in shape while the mind is being neglected. We are not relating with mental stress and worry. Conversely, if we focus only on the mind, then the body is neglected, and we feel the ill effects of our stagnant physical demeanor.
The Sakyong lays out ways to run meditatively: with mindfulness, with appreciation, by working with challenges, knowing our intention, and feeling the benefit of the activity. But that doesn't make running meditation -- it makes it an activity that you can do while using techniques you've honed in meditation -- sitting still, focusing your concentration, locating your awareness, learning to untangle your mind from thoughts and emotions, recognizing habitual patterns.

Meditation is not just about sitting on a cushion, but it is about learning skills that you can bring to other parts of your life. The goal is to develop a meditative view that pervades your life, allowing you to be less reactive, less stressed, and more present. But it helps to learn that outside of the cauldron of your daily life and familiarize with the feeling of what it's like to be in balance so that you can bring that into the world.

This Huffington Post article suggests that you can meditate without meditating. Its view of meditation is limited, though, to mindfulness, the practice of knowing what is happening in the moment. To develop mindfulness, though, you need to know your mind -- to become friends with it -- and to learn how to recognize where your attention is and where it tends to go so that you can bring it back.

To be mindful for moments during the day is a good thing, no question. But it won't bring you the "razor-sharp focus, enviable level of productivity and bountiful amounts of creative juice" celebrity meditators cite.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mindful moments

Mindfulness is a skill we can train in during meditation -- being present with what's happening with awareness, not judgment -- but it's one that works best when carried over to daily life. Be present with what's happening in your life, esteemed teachers and researchers tell us, and you'll enjoy it more.

But the thought of being mindful 24-7 can be intimidating -- and can create a new source of stress. Instead of missing out on the moments of our lives because we're judging them in comparison to other moments or looking at what they lack -- the sunset was better last week, this is a nice beach but I liked it better at the other one, this party would be more fun if Joe was here  -- we're berating ourselves for failing to be mindful.

Here's the thing: The key to using mindfulness to enhance your life is to do it with kindness and friendliness. If your application of mindfulness becomes another way to criticize yourself, it's not helping to reduce stress.

Elisha Goldstein observes that it can be helpful to think of finding mindful moments rather than living a mindful life.

As we practice and repeat something the brain registers it and it starts to become more automatic. With the practice of mindfulness we start to experience more moments of awareness. Maybe it’s the moment that you’re driving shouting at the car next to you that one of those moments arrives. You pause, take a few deep breaths and become more flexible in how you’re seeing that situation and the choices you have before you.

...There are so many moments throughout the day where this kind gentle awareness is available to get us in touch with choice and the wisdom of what matters.

It will help a whole lot if we can drop the label in our minds of aspiring to be a mindful person and instead aspire to have more mindful moments. This simplifies things and takes away the trap of falling short.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

How long was that?

Often after I lead a meditation session, students will ask me how long we sat. It's nearly always 24 minutes, which one of my teachers says is the amount of time it takes for the mind to settle down (and who am I to question her?). But their experience of it is different each time. Sometimes 24 minutes seems like hours; other times they say it feels like five.

Time flies when you're having fun.

A new study finds that meditation alters time perception.

Research has increasingly focused on the benefits of meditation in everyday life and performance. Mindfulness in particular improves attention, working memory capacity, and reading comprehension. Given its emphasis on moment-to-moment awareness, we hypothesised that mindfulness meditation would alter time perception.
In the experiment, participants carried out a task to determine their standards of "short" and "long." They then listened to an audiobook or meditation focused on breath in the body. Then they did the task again.

The control group showed no change after the listening task. However, meditation led to a relative overestimation of durations. Within an internal clock framework, a change in attentional resources can produce longer perceived durations. This meditative effect has wider implications for the use of mindfulness as an everyday practice and a basis for clinical treatment.
My own experience of meditation and time is that when I'm present in the moment, the passage of time seems irrelevant. This moment lasts for the fullness of this moment, then another.moment takes it place. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

It's OK, Dustin Hoffman. I wouldn't have noticed you either

Maybe you've seen the viral video of Dustin Hoffman talking about how he prepared for his role in "Tootsie." He describes how he wanted to experience walking around New York City as a woman -- and how, after makeup and wardrobe, he found two things surprising:

1) He wasn't very pretty.
2) As such, he was invisible to most people.

Hoffman chokes up as he describes his realization that he had missed myriad opportunities to talk to amazing women because he didn't find them attractive and so didn't even notice them.

Many woman love this video because, yeah, they noticed that people don't notice them.

But I have to confess, I wouldn't notice Dustin Hoffman either. My eyes would slide right over a short guy with a big nose, slotting him into the category of nebbish-y short guy who probably needs to make himself feel big by being a jerk. (A category people with men I've encountered in my life.)

So the lesson here is not that men are missing out, or that women are right and we've been saying this since the 1950s -- how nice a man has validated it, but that we're all missing out. We're programmed, by our survival instincts, to seek out friendly faces. We want to find a tribe, and if all we have to go on is appearance, our lizard brains will go for that.

Fortunately, we have human brains too. So here's an experiment for the next time you're in a group that you can observe.

First, notice your own mind. What's there? Anxiety? Arrogance? Openness? Curiosity? Judgment? Comparison?

Then glance around the room. See who's there. Notice who draws you're attention and who makes your eyes move faster.

Check in with yourself again. Sip your drink.  Have some snacks. Look at the time.

Now look around again. And this time, notice who you did not notice before.

They are there, the invisible ones. In every group. If you're feeling brave, go talk to one. They may be interesting.

They may even be Dustin Hoffman.


Monday, June 24, 2013

The after-effects of meditation

New research says meditation helps people process emotions -- even when they're not actively meditating.
“This is the first time meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” said Gaelle Desbordes, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the Boston University Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology.
“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.”
During meditation, activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotional reactivity, decreased. The participants retained the ability to focus their attention and reduce emotional reactivity over an eight-week period.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Meditation: It's like a nap ... only better

George Stephanopoulos, host of Good Morning America, started meditating after hearing about the scientific benefits. He's been doing it every day for a couple of years now. Now he calls it a lifesaver.

"It's the equivalent of a couple hours more sleep," he told Arianna Huffington during the Third Metric women's conference panel. "I feel more space in my life even when it's not there."

Watch the video here

It's easier to get up at 2:30, he says, because he's getting up to relax. And during the day: "It's easier to tap into that quiet ... especially during big breaking news situations, it's easier to find that space."

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Meditation took him from Death Row back to life

Damian Echols spent 18 years in prison for murders he didn't commit and was freed nearly two
years ago. He lived on Death Row, and he suffered physically and mentally, he says. To cope with that, he learned eastern methods of working with the body, such as chi gong, and the mind, ordaining in the Rinzai Zen tradition. By the time he left prison, he was meditating for five to seven hours a day.

Now he teaches meditation.

In a blog post at Salon, Echols says:

I didn’t turn to meditation and energy work out of hope that I’d find nirvana in some distant future. I turned to it because I needed help dealing with the pain and suffering of everyday existence in a living hell. Those techniques I had to learn out of necessity to survive and deal with pain are the same techniques I now teach to other people. It’s my passion in life. It’s what I love doing.

When I teach these methods of meditation, I avoid the pitfalls of religious dogma. Instead, I focus on the science. I explain how our minds communicate with our bodies through chemicals called neuropeptides, and we can program these neuropeptides to speed up the healing process in our body with simple visualization and breathing exercises. I want to make it accessible to people of all belief systems, not only Buddhists.
I've never been to prison, and I don't talk about neuropeptides. But I practice meditation and teach meditation because I know it can bring liberation from suffering -- bit by bit, we raise our baseline happiness level. If it works for an innocent man on Death Row, how much more can it do for you?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why not meditate?

Most of my posts extoll the virtues of meditation. Maybe I'm taking the wrong approach.

Beth Teitel writes in The Boston Globe that "the studies showing the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are so relentless that I need to retreat to a monastery just to get away from the news. Nothing’s more stressful than hearing about the advantages of something you’re not doing."

So if you've heard about the famous meditators -- from Congressional representatives to athletes to celebrities -- and you're still not moved to start practicing, you're not alone. But you're starting to have less company. In 2007, according to the National Institutes of Health, 9.4 percent of American adults had meditated with the last 12 months, up from 7.6 percent in 2002. I'd guess the 9.4 percent will go up when the 2012 numbers are in.

Meditation has all kinds of benefits -- ones that you'll notice, more subtle ones that researchers have found in MRIs, ones that the Buddha promised. But you have to do.

The Globe article offers the following tips on starting a practice from Barry Boyce, editor of Mindful magazine.

1. Go online to get a clearer picture of just what mindfulness meditation is, anyway. Mind the Moment at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care offers a series of short, fun, and accessible videos. A YouTube video called “What Is Mindfulness?” with Jon Kabat-Zinn is also a great place to start.
2. Learn how to do mindfulness practice online: A great resource is — in particular the section called “Mindfulness: The Basics.”
3. Read a short book such as “Mindfulness for Beginners,” by Kabat-Zinn, or “A Mindful Nation” by congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), an avid meditator.**I really like Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg, which gives a progressive guide to starting a practice. The website lets you download the first chapter and offers audio for guided meditation.
4. Find a local group and try it with a live instructor. Come to Samadhi -- every week there's a mix of beginners and more experienced meditators, instruction, and time for questions. Everyone's experience is different every time, so however it is, that's just how it is that night. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The good thing about feeling bad

Meditation is about making friends with our whole being and learning to accept what we're tempted to reject, suppress, or avoid because it feels uncomfortable. I know, from personal experience, that's a beneficial thing. Now there's scientific evidence.

Scientific American reports here:

Anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
A positive mental attitude does have benefits. Back before MRIs and brain studies, the Buddha listed the benefits of practicing metta meditation to turn the mind toward thoughts of loving-kindness. Anecdotal evidence -- and now scientific research -- confirm this.

But Pollyana is not the model for mental health. Ignoring or surpressing thoughts we consider bad or negative doesn't make them go away -- researchers found that people who tried to suppress a negative thought before sleep went on to dream about it. t also can lead to substance abuse as a way to avoid them.

“Taking the good and the bad together may detoxify the bad experiences, allowing you to make meaning out of them in a way that supports psychological well-being,” the researchers found.
That is, of course, counter to our culture's emphasis on happiness, on making everything all good/all the time.

The key is to acknowledge the feelings, sit with the discomfort, and learn that -- like happiness -- it comes and goes. That's what we train in doing in meditation. (The article cites a 2012 study that found that a therapy that included mindfulness training helped individuals overcome anxiety disorders. It worked not by minimizing the number of negative feelings but by training patients to accept those feelings.)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Can mindfulness reduce prescription errors?

A British study suggests that mindfulness could help pharmacists avoid making costly and dangerous medication errors.

In over 60 percent of cases, medication errors are associated with one or more
contributory, individual factors including staff being forgetful, stressed, tired or engaged in multiple tasks simultaneously, often alongside being distracted or interrupted. Routinised hospital practice can lead professionals to work in a state of mindlessness, where it is easy to be unaware of how both body and mind are functioning. ...
There is expanding evidence on the effectiveness of mindfulness in the treatment of many mental and physical health problems in the general population, as well as its role in enhancing decision making, empathy, and reducing burnout or fatigue in medical staff. Considering the benefits of mindfulness, the authors suggest that health-care professionals should be encouraged to develop their practice of mindfulness.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Study: IQ is related to focus (which is related to meditation)

A new study suggests that intelligence is more about what the brain chooses to ignore than simply its ability to process information rapidly, Time reports.
The research, which was published in the journal Current Biology, suggests new ways of testing intelligence that measure thought processes in ways that are less culturally biased than IQ tests and that can factor in those who process information differently.
Scientists led by Duje Tadin, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, studied 67 people in two similar experiments that involved tracking the subtle movements of small and large objects on a computer screen. Intelligence correlated with their ability to tell which direction the balls moved and whether participants were better at tracking large or small balls. Those who tracked small balls did better on intelligence tests.

“For intelligence, you need to be able process relevant information fast, but you also need to focus on the most relevant information and filter out what’s irrelevant,” Tadin says.

Numerous other research studies have shown that meditation is a way to develop focus, to drop extraneous stimuli that may cause anxiety or stress. Can it also make you more intelligent? That study is down the road, I suppose.

But in the meantime ... a daily meditation practice won't hurt. Sit comfortably and quietly, focus on your breath. When you notice that your focus has moved to something else -- planning, remembering, evaluating, note that and return to your breath. Do that for a set amount of time.

Practice daily for weeks or months, and see if you feel smarter. Let me know.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Non-Distraction 101

College educators these days see students who check Twitter, email, and text messages while playing Internet games and sitting in class. They write papers while switching between YouTube, Facebook, Spotify. Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes a radical shift in the nature of attention that some fear may affect developing brains so that a generation from now, students won't have the attention span to read a novel.

David M. Levy, a professor at the University of Washington, teaches a college course called "Information and Contemplation" that helps technically adept students look critically at how multitasking affects their lives, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Those who happen to glance into this seminar, in Room 420 of Mary Gates Hall, might wonder whether the students had fallen asleep.
Just the opposite: Meditation sharpens their focus. The practice, as Mr. Levy teaches it, involves repeatedly bringing your attention back to your breathing as the mind wanders away. Think of it like lifting weights. Just as you can build up your biceps by doing reps, he says, meditation can strengthen attention.
Meditation works like an eraser that rubs out the mental chatter you carry up the stairs to class, says student Michael J. Conyers, allowing him to focus on the class.

We may be out of college, but some of Levy's assignments could be useful. Try these:

--Spend 15 minutes to half an hour each day observing and logging your e-mail behavior. The idea, an outgrowth of meditation, is to note what happens in the mind and body. Notice when you have the initial impulse to check e-mail and what you're thinking and feeling. What emotions come up? Does your posture and breathing change as you e-mail? (Levy has students use a camera and watch themselves later.)
-- Email meditation -- for a set period of time, do nothing but work with email. Notice the impulse to switch. What are the causes and conditions? What do you want to switch to? How long can you maintain concentration?


Compassion can be learned

Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to learn whether adults can learn to be compassionate and whether training can lead to greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion.

Helen Weng, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology, says, “Our evidence points to yes.”

The researchers trained young adults in what they term "compassion meditation," in which they envisioned a time when someone has suffered and then practiced wishing that the suffering was relieved. They repeated phrases to help them focus on compassion such as, “May you be free from suffering. May you have joy and ease.” They practiced this with various subjects, including themselves, loved ones, strangers, and difficult people. (This is similar to lovingkindness, or metta, meditation in Buddhism.)

They practiced for 30 minutes a day, using guided meditations over the Internet. The results were compared to a control group who learned "cognitive reappraisal," or reframing their thoughts to feel less negative.

“It’s kind of like weight training,” Weng says. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

The research tested this by asking the participants to play a game in which they were given the opportunity to spend their own money to respond to someone in need (called the “Redistribution Game”). They played the game over the Internet with two anonymous players, the “Dictator” and the “Victim.” They watched as the Dictator shared an unfair amount of money (only $1 out of $10) with the Victim. They then decided how much of their own money to spend (out of $5) in order to equalize the unfair split and redistribute funds from the Dictator to the Victim.

“We found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those who were trained in cognitive reappraisal,” Weng says.
What distinguishes this study is that researchers found actual physical changes in participants' magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after training, the researchers measured how much brain activity had changed during the training. The biggest change was found in people who were the most altruistic after compassion training. They had increase activity in the inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others. Compassion training also increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the extent to which it communicated with the nucleus accumbens, brain regions involved in emotion regulation and positive emotions.
brains.Using functional
“People seem to become more sensitive to other people’s suffering, but this is challenging emotionally. They learn to regulate their emotions so that they approach people’s suffering with caring and wanting to help rather than turning away,” explains Weng.

UW-Madison psychology and psychiatry professor Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and senior author of the article. said that “the fact that alterations in brain function were observed after just a total of seven hours of training is remarkable.”

Davidson foresees benefits from compassion training in schools, where it could decrease bullying, as well as with people who have social anxiety or anti-social behaviors. But even those with no obvious problems could benefit. Imagine if everyone became more compassionate and aware of others' suffering?

It's not a difficult practice, as long as you don't insist on fMRIs to prove progress. Visit a meditation center or try a metta meditation on youtube. Commit to doing it every day for two weeks, and see if you notice a change in your life.

Here's a guided metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg, a gifted and accessible teacher.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kindness works out your vagus nerve

A new study finds that lovingkindness meditation makes your vagus nerve more responsive. That's meaningful because it is involved in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and immune responses. Time reports:
The vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with each other— it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding.  Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.
Researchers, led by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recruited 65 members of the faculty and staff of the university for a study on meditation and stress.  Roughly half were randomly assigned to take an hour-long class each week for six weeks in “lovingkindness” meditation, which involves focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others.

Participants were taught metta meditation, using certain phrases -- “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease” -- first for themselves and then expanding out to others. They were told to focus on the thoughts in meditation and in stressful situations such as when they were stuck in traffic. “It’s kind of softening your own heart to be more open to others,” says Fredrickson. They practiced for 61 days. Other were placed on a waiting list.
More of the meditators than those on the waiting list showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart rate variability, particularly for those whose “vagal tone,” was already high at the start of the study.
“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion and that helps us get at a long standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson.
She notes that it worked only with those who developed feelings of compassion or connection; those who didn't feel an increase didn't see similiar improvements in the "tone" of their vagus nerve.

Meditation changes go deep

Blood samples of people who meditated regularly -- both longtime meditators and those trained in an eight-week class -- revealed changes in gene expression following meditation, according to researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

They trained a group of 26 people in meditation techniques in an eight-week program with deep breathing, mantras, and cooncentration (letting go fo distractions), with recorded meditations after that. They also recruited 25 longtime meditators, and took blood samples before and after meditation sessions.They found:

The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight: genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were turned on, while those involved in inflammation were turned off. These effects were more pronounced and consistent for long-term practitioners.

It's only gene expression that is altered, not the genes themselves, the researchers said. But these results also showed that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes.

People who practice simple meditation aren't "just relaxing," explained the study's senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson (he of the aforementioned institute). Instead, they're experiencing "a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress."

While this study only looked at one way of reaching this state, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation. Yet this is the first time researchers have been able to use basic science to show that these practices actually have an observable, biological effect.

Info from the Atlantic

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ask yourself these questions right now

What are you doing?
Is your mind on it?
How do you feel?

A Harvard researcher has designed a happiness app that measures your happiness. You sign up on the website, and at random times during the day, you get a text asking you those questions.

Research so far has found that people who answer "yes" to No. 2 report being happy more often than those who answer "no," even when they aren't happy about what they're doing. What that says is that keeping the mind in the present moment -- as we learn to do in meditation -- leads to more happiness.

You can sign up for the program -- on iPhone or email. Or just ask yourself the questions occasionally during the day. How often is your mind on what you're doing?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche talks about the importance of synchronizing mind and body:

Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone
thought up for self improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a
human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

School drops mindfulness training

Photo by the Akron Beacon Journal
I've written several posts about mindfulness meditation being used in schools to help students improve their focus and ease stress.

One described a study in the journal Psychological Science that found that students who had mindfulness training did better on the English portion of the GRE (graduate school entrance exams) than those who didn't have it. Another was about schools in the United Kingdom that are teaching mindfulness meditation to help students deal with stress, like test anxiety.

Now there's a story about a school in Ohio that's dropping its mindfulness instruction due to parents' objections.
The Plain district piloted mindfulness at Warstler in 2011 and was so pleased with the results it started the practice in its other elementary schools in 2012 and planned to expand it to the district’s other schools this year. Mindfulness involves using techniques like “belly breaths” and “mindful movements” to improve students’ focus and help them better cope with their emotions.
Some parents complained about the Buddhist roots of the practices -- the day started with a Tibetan bell being rung -- and others objected to taking time away from academic subjects.

“They were taking valuable time away from education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs. I just didn’t see it happening,” one parent said.

The school's principal had praised the program in December, crediting it with helping to boost the school’s performance index on the state report cards, a measure that had been stagnant for several years in the ’90s before jumping to 105.9. “I can’t imaging running a school without it,” she said at the time, the Akron Beacon-Journal reported.

photo by the Akron Beacon-Journal via
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, author of "A Mindful Nation" and a meditator, had visited the school and was pleased the school had adopted mindfulness.

“It is a shame that a program that successfully taught children how to discipline their minds and control their emotions is being taken out of the school,” he said in a written statement. “This approach is being used by the United States Marine Corps, and corporations like Google, Target, and General Mills. It is also recommended for wellness by respected institutions like the Cleveland Clinic.”

Ryan said getting children to “focus in a world of distraction” is one of the biggest challenges parents face. “This program is exactly what children need today,” he said. “I hope the school district will reconsider.”

Real life experiment: Music soothes anxiety

An orthopedic surgeon in Britain teamed up with musician Brian Eno to create a "quiet room" at a hospital where Eno's ambient music plays, The Guardian reports. Eno, who experiments with what he calls "functional music" -- or music designed to elicit a particular response -- was delighted.

Surgeon Robin Turner approached Eno after going to see the artist's audiovisual installation 77 Million Paintings at the 2010 Brighton festival. His mother-in-law also went, said Turner, and "she is normally very fidgety, you can't pin her down; the phrase we use is that she goes at a million miles an hour with her hair on fire. She went in and was there for two hours, which is unheard of. It was proof that this has a calming influence on people."

Eno says this is the first time he's been able to practice his belief that music can be made that deliberately affects mood. "I've met many women who have had children listening to one of my records so I knew there was this dimension and here, in the last couple of days I've met patients and staff who have said, 'I really like that room, it makes a big difference."

Turner said they intended to examine any physiological changes to people in the Eno room – pulse, blood pressure, anxiety and so on – and there was anecdotal evidence this week when a cancer patient came out and began telling Eno, not recognising him, how wonderful it was. "He wanted a copy of that room at home," said Turner. "The scientist in me says that's not very scientific but the human in me says that makes it all worthwhile."

In addition to his own albums and ones with David Byrne, Eno offers a series of ambient music, including Ambient Music for Airports. Photo from The Guardian of Eno preparing the Brighton exhibit.