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Monday, February 25, 2013

Call for calm

Imagine the stress faced by students at the nation's top universities, particularly one as competitive and proud as Harvard.

Now imagine the pressure on the people who have to deal with them -- faculty, administrators, other Harvard employees.


Ouch.

To ease the stress of administrative staff, Harvard's Office of the Executive Vice President announced three initiatives:

-- A six-week mindfulness at work class created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
-- One-hour workshops that can serve as refreshers for those who've taken the six-week class or as introductions or respite for others.
-- A staffed meditation "hotline."

The announcement says:
Finally, we have created a Guided Meditation Line, 4-CALM.  This telephone line, still in the beta phase, is live and waiting mindfully for the stressed masses to call for three- and four-minute guided meditations, pointers to other Harvard resources, and regularly changing reflections on stress and resilience.
I tried to find more details on the Guided Meditation Line because I was intrigued. No luck. Not even enough digits to make an outside call possible.

But with a little practice, you can be your own hotline. Feel a need for some calm? Find a place where you can sit without interruptions -- pick up your phone and call your answering machine. Notice your breath. Notice if it gets stuck anywhere in your body, if there are areas of tension. Know you can let it go. Watch your breath, treat your mind like a friend, and just be.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Meditation helps heart patients

African Americans with heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation regularly were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack, stroke or die from all causes compared with African Americans who attended a health education class over more than five years, according to new , says a new study from the U.S.'s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute..
Those practicing meditation also lowered their blood pressure and reported less stress and anger. And the more regularly patients meditated, the greater their survival, said researchers who conducted the study at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
"We hypothesized that reducing stress by managing the mind-body connection would help improve rates of this epidemic disease," said Robert Schneider, M.D., lead researcher and director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa. "It appears that Transcendental Meditation is a technique that turns on the body's own pharmacy — to repair and maintain itself." 
TM uses a mantra to focus attention; in mindfulness meditation, an object such as the breath is used.

Researchers tracked 200 people for more than five years and found that meditation lowers blood pressure and improves anger control. The study asked participants to sit quietly with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice daily, but most did so only once a day - and results were still impressive. "Stress on the brain hurts the heart because stress hormones like cortisol damage arterial walls," says lead author Dr. Robert Schneider.
Schneider, who is also dean of Maharishi College of Perfect Health in Fairfield, Iowa, says that the research "on Transcendental Meditation and cardiovascular disease is established well enough that physicians may safely and routinely prescribe stress reduction for their patients with this easy to implement, standardized and practical program."
(Note that the Mararishi College of Perfect Health is part of the mandala of programs that spring from the Marharisi Mahesh Yogi, who popularized TM in the west.)

Neurophysiological basis for the benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness may be so successful in helping with a range of conditions, from depression to pain, by working as a sort of "volume knob" for sensations, according to a new review of studies from Brown University researchers.

In their paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the researchers proposed that mindfulness meditation works by enabling a person to have better control over brain processing of pain and emotions.

Specifically, the researchers postulate that mindfulness meditation plays a role in the controlling of cortical alpha rhythms, which have been shown in brain imaging studies to play a role in what senses our bodies and minds pay attention to. They note the "intimate connection in mindfulness between mind and body," since the meditation traditionally begins with a highly localized focus on body and breath sensations, such as watching your breath.
This repeated localized sensory focus, the scientists write, enhances control over localized alpha rhythms in the primary somatosensory cortex where sensations from different body are “mapped” by the brain.
In effect, what the researchers propose is that by learning to control their focus on the present somatic moment, mindfulness meditators develop a more sensitive “volume knob” for controlling spatially specific, localized sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Efficient modulation of cortical alpha rhythms in turn enables optimal filtering of sensory information.
Meditators learn not only to control what specific body sensations they pay attention to, but also how to regulate attention so that it does not become biased toward negative physical sensations such as chronic pain. The localized attentional control of somatosensory alpha rhythms becomes generalized to better regulate bias toward internally focused negative thoughts, as in depression.

Read more here

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sentenced to sit

Noah Levine, the founder of the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society and one of my teachers, grew up with the dharma. His father, Stephen Levine, is a well-known teacher, and Buddhism was always available to him. But Noah often talks about how he didn't begin meditating seriously until he was in juvenile detention, facing prison time after a series of arrests.

Fleet Maull, an acharya in the Shambhala tradition and a close student of its founder, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talks in the film "When the Iron Bird Flies" about how we found a depth of practice he had not previously known in prison, where he spent several years on a cocaine conviction.

People don't generally start meditating if everything is right in their world. They're looking for something: Calm, peace, ease, a way to sit with intense emotions, to relate to the world with less stress.

"Hitting bottom," as they call it in AA, can be a great spur to practice. It doesn't have to mean a prison sentence, though. Buddhist nun and revered teacher Pema Chodron talks about the groundlessness she felt when her marriage ended and how that led to deeper dedication to practice.

Can it have the same effect if someone else sends you to the cushion?


The Prison Dharrma Network asks: Can Court-Mandated Yoga and Meditation Keep Kids Out of Prison?

The Lineage Project is testing that out. It works to keep young people, ages 11 to 24, out of the juvenile/criminal justice system through Awareness-Based Practices, which includes yoga, meditation, and life skills training, as a positive means of intervention. "We go inside to keep them out," its website says. The practices offer tools to decrease impulsive behaviors that lead youth toward incarceration, prepare them to become functioning members of society, and enable them to act as role models for other young people in their communities.

A 60 minute Lineage class begins with an opening circle. Participants are introduced to the theme for the day. Themes for group dialogue focus on concepts that can be taken off the mat and applied to everyday challenges, such as perseverance, self-acceptance, positive thinking, courage and responsibility. A brief discussion of the theme is then followed by teaching practical breathing and meditation techniques and basic, fun yoga or Tai-Chi movements. The class ends with a closing circle. Youth are encouraged to think about how the meditation and movements they have just learned could be helpful in everyday life. Bringing consistent attention to this level of consciousness, troubled youth can begin to break habitual patterns of action and reaction, and become empowered to make positive choices for their future.
I'd questioned whether meditation can work if you're sentenced to it rather than coming to it on your own since progress requires a willingness to be there. With the Lineage Project's programs, youths decide to participate; it's part of Alternatives to Incarceration and counts as an anger-management program.

And, really, can't we all use some anger-management skills? Maybe we have enough to keep us out  of the court system, but we all get taken prisoner by our emotions from time to time.

One participant in the Lineage Project program, Miguel, 23, from a rough section of Brooklyn, describes his experience like this:
. “It changed my life,” Miguel reflected enthusiastically. After the first class he remembers, “I never thought I could feel what I felt afterwards.” The class “released a lot of tension in my body. It helped me tune into myself, changed my awareness of my surroundings. I felt as if I had finally come home.”
You don't need to facing prison to see the benefit in that.





Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Embodied meditation

Before I started meditating I took yoga classes for several years. I was no poster girl for yoga, but I did develop a familiarity with my body's mechanics.  So I was pretty smug when I was introduced to mindfulness of body. I knew my body.
Thing is, I knew how my body worked (or didn't). I knew how it looked. I didn't know how it felt. 
Like James Joyce's Mr Duffy, I lived a short distance from my body. Growing up, I never had a sense of my body as a comfortable place to be. It was to be covered up or flaunted, depending on the situation, and I was most familiar with it from others' reactions to it.

It took a lot of tries to become aware of how it felt to be in my body. I was helped by a teacher who prodded me to identify where I feel emotions. Now I often notice the body sensation before the emotion: gritted teeth = stress; tightness in the throat accompanies sadness; panic is in the chest, in my heart and lunds; tiredness is behind my eyes. And noticing the body sensations I can head off the thoughts.
Buddhist teacher Reginald A. Ray says that the full benefits of meditation cannot be experienced or enjoyed when we are not grounded in our bodies.
"The phrase 'touching enlightenment with the body'... doesn't just imply that we are able to touch enlightenment with our bodies; beyond that it suggests that -- except in and through our bodies -- there actually is not other way to do so."
Maybe I'm getting ahead of the game in talking about enlightenment; the topic is body scans. Which simply means placing your attention on your body. Start at the top and let your attention slide down, like honey dripping along your body, slowly, deliberately. Notice the energetic quality -- is it tense, relaxed, at ease, knotted -- and notice your reaction. Does a sensation in your knee lead to panicky thoughts like "I can't stand this" or "oh, no, what if I need a knee replacement?"
The practice is about staying with sensation, not telling yourself a story about where the sensation came from or what might happen. Just stay -- until you move to the next body part. Don't skip any parts, don't get stuck on any parts, don't judge parts, don't worry about parts. Just gently feel.
It's so simple -- and so complex. It develops awareness, observation, openness, lovingkindness, compassion, resting in the present moment.

Click here for directions and audio for a body scan mediation by a teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

And here are some downloads from the University of California at San Diego Center for Mindfulness



Saturday, February 9, 2013

Meditation Challenge

Each February, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-day meditation challenge based on her book Real Happiness -- The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program. For 28 days, Sharon and bloggers are posting their experiences with meditating, loosely following the four-week program she outlines in her book for starting (and committing to) a meditation practice.

Yes, it's Feb. 9. But it's never too late to start.

You can go to this website for details and to read an assortment of blog posts from those who are participating in the challenge.