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Friday, March 21, 2014

Mindfulness helps prevent relapses

Learning mindfulness meditation reduced the risk that people in substance-abuse treatment programs would relapse, a study by researchers at the University of Washington says. Mindfulness may work better than group meetings or education because it helps people understand what's happening when they have cravings, researchers said.

The study looked at 286 recovering addicts who were divided among three groups: a program that involved group discussions, one that taught relapse prevention strategies (such as avoiding triggers), and one that included mindfulness meditation. Researchers note that 40 to 60 percent of those in recovery relapse.

After six months, participants in the strategy group and the meditation group had a reduced risk of using drugs or heavy drinking compared to the talk-only group, the study said. After a year, those in the meditation program had used substances on fewer days and had a reduced risk of relapse, compared to both other groups. This suggests meditation may have a more lasting effect, researchers said.

Study researcher Sarah Bowen, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences , and her colleagues designed "mindfulness-based relapse prevention," which she described as a "training in awareness."

In this program, each session is about two hours, with 30 minutes of guided meditation followed by discussions about what people experienced during meditation and how it relates to addiction or relapse, Bowen said. The meditation sessions are intended to bring heightened attention to things that patients usually ignore, such as how it feels to eat a bite of food, or other bodily sensations, as well as thoughts and feelings.

The mindfulness program may work to prevent relapse in part because it makes people more aware of what happens when they have cravings.

"If you're not aware of what's going on, you don't have a choice, you just react," Bowen said. quotes Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., who was not involved in the study, who says people with addiction often have difficulty regulating emotion, resulting in states like depression, anxiety, or self-harm. People may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with those feelings.

Mindfulness meditiation helps teach people to "tolerate feelings of emotional distress, so when they feel like they're going to use [drugs], they don’t," Krakowe said.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

You are not your craving -- and neither is the chocolate

A new study by Canadian researchers says that mindfulness can reduce chocolate cravings.

Lead study author Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec, told Reuters that practicing mindfulness meditation, which emphasizes identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts -- without judging them -- weakened chocolate cravings among people with a self-declared sweet tooth.

It's an interesting study for reasons that go beyond simply decreasing food cravings. The researchers worked with almost 200 subjects -- who admitted they were prone to strong cravings for chocolate and wanted to diminish them -- to determine which aspect of mindfulness had the greatest effect. 

Participants were divided into five groups, four of which received training in mindfulness meditation techniques and were told to practice specific ones when they craved chocolate over a two-week period. Those in the fifth group were told to distract themselves when craving arose.

The researchers focused on three distinct aspects of mindfulness meditation: Awareness (simply noticing one's thoughts); acceptance (not passing judgment on one's thoughts), and disidentification (seeing thoughts as separate from oneself.) Participants were assessed before and after the study to determine how effectively they practiced the techniques.

After two weeks, participants were given a piece of chocolate to unwrap and touch for one minute; after it was taken away, they rated their craving. Those trained in disidentification reported less-intense cravings, the study found. Further analysis showed that the specific craving for chocolate, as well as the general state of craving, was reduced for who learned to see cravings as thoughts.

While that's an interesting breakdown of skills, it doesn't suggest to me that you should train only in recognizing thoughts. Awareness and acceptance are keys to being able to do that skillfully. Without first seeing that the thought exists, you can't recognize it as a thought. If you don't accept it but try to push it away or deny it, you're still attached.

Several Buddhist teachers, including Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg, teach a process with the acronym RAIN -- Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-attachment (which equates to disidentification).

The extra step -- Investigate -- refers to giving yourself a chance to explore the thought: Is it habitual? When does it arise? How does it feel in the body? What does chocolate represent -- an indulgence, a reward, a hug?

It's also important to note that there's nothing wrong with the chocolate -- it's our attachment to it that may benefit from modification. As long as you know that the chocolate won't bring lasting happiness -- and enough of it over time may lead to added pounds -- go ahead and enjoy it in the moment.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meditation is not entertaining

Meditation is not entertaining. That's kind of the point -- our constant craving to be entertained distracts us from how things actually are. Meditation is about getting in touch with that, finding calm by seeing the ways we stir up chaos so we can be entertained.

But lack of entertainment in the practice is deterring some people from trying it, says David Romanelli. “It’s still just a very old practice, and most people can’t relate to it,” he tells Well&Good.

So Romanelli, who helped popularize yoga with his Yoga and Chocolate workshops, is out to make meditation more entertaining. He's partnered with to create a seven-day Meditation Vacation "that will teach you to soothe your mind, embrace or enhance a meditation practice, and have a BLAST in the process," the class description says.

"Dave’s fun and thought-provoking stories will capture your attention before he guides you through a series of short, sweet audio meditations, all set to soothing musicscapes created by East Forest."

And if it reminds you of Stuart Smalley .... well, the similarities are there.

The Buddha flat-out said that sarcasm is not Wise Speech, so I'll speak plainly. Don't do it. If you're taking an entertainment break, be honest and play Angry Birds. Watch a music video. Don't confuse entertainment and meditation.

Meditation is about getting rid of the entertainment and distractions to see the truth of who you are and what the world is. It's about listening to and questioning your self talk, not new-agey piano music. Being bored is a valuable experience, most Buddhist teachers would tell you, because it teaches you to sit with discomfort and find the clear blue sky behind the cloud of distractions.

You could look for shapes in the clouds -- or you could relax into the endless clarity of the sky.

Trungpa Rinpoche used to praise boredom in sitting. He said that you have to sit to the point where you’re just bored. You’ve worn out all the entertainment value and you’re just bored. And you have to go through the restlessness of boredom. Because boredom is just another word for this fundamental restlessness--it’s hot, you want to get out of there. And he said you have to sit through with as much loving kindness towards yourself and compassion, relaxation, anything that enables you to kindly and gently and continually stay present. Learning to stay with the boredom. Until, at some point, it shifts to what he called cool boredom, which is that it doesn’t make you want to jump up anymore or fill up the space. -- Pema Chodron