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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Resting your PCC

Researchers at Brown University used meditators' reports of what they experience in mindfulness meditation to discover subtle effects. The purpose, according to the researchers, is to better identity which techniques may work best with particular psychological issues.

For example, while focusing on the breath is a widely used technique, researchers found differences between meditators who focused on the breath in the belly and those who focused on the breath at their nostrils -- both traditional techniques used in different schools.
"We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations," the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. "When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention 'felt' when they sensed it."

Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown's Contemplative Studies Initiative and one of the researchers, said researchers would expect to find that the belly-focused group would have more "ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity ... across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called 'gut feelings'."

Which would mean less emotional reactivity.

That seems to be the finding of a team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, which included Kerr other Brown researchers, which worked with experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), part of the limbic area of the brain that's been linked to pain and episodic memory.

When meditators reported feelings of "effortless doing" and "undistracted awareness" during their meditation, their PCC showed little activity, they found, but when meditators reported feeling distracted and having to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. When they were given the chance to observe their brain scans as they took place, some meditators were able to control activity in the PCC.

"You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another," researcher Juan Santoyo said. "Within 10 one-minute session they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal."
That's not surprising. Experienced meditators know that noticing distraction, letting it go, and returning to the focus can stop a train of thought that's picking up speed. The scans just provide a more-subtle clue to when that's starting to happen.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Can Thich Nhat Hanh win the mindful competition?

In the world of corporate mindfulness, Google -- which is so ubiquitous that its name is synonymous with "search online" -- has an equally impressive teacher: Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay, as he is known by followers, has sold more than 2 million books in the U.S. and is deeply admired and respected.

He recently spoke to The Guardian about his message to Google and other tech companies.

It doesn't matter, he said, if companies begin promoting mindfulness to make their workers more effective of increase profits. If they are practicing "true" mindfulness, it will fundamentally change their perspective, opening the door to greater compassion.

"If you know how to practice mindfulness you can generate peace and joy right here, right now. And you'll appreciate that and it will change you.

In the beginning, you believe that if you cannot become number one, you cannot be happy, but if you practice mindfulness you will readily release that kind of idea. We need not fear that mindfulness might become only a means and not an end because in mindfulness the means and the end are the same thing. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way."
Thay's optimism that mindfulness will transform business people rather than corporations transforming mindfulness isn't universally shared. David Loy and Ron Purser write that   "McMindfulness," the watered-down, stress-relieving version taught in some companies, is not what the Buddha intended.

According to the Pali Canon (the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha), even a person committing a premeditated and heinous crime can be exercising mindfulness, albeit wrong mindfulness. Clearly, the mindful attention and single-minded concentration of a terrorist, sniper assassin, or white-collar criminal is not the same quality of mindfulness that the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist adepts have developed. Right Mindfulness is guided by intentions and motivations based on self-restraint, wholesome mental states, and ethical behaviors -- goals that include but supersede stress reduction and improvements in concentration.
Their essay was published on The Huffington Post, whose founder, Ariana Huffington, a meditator herself, wrote there about using yoga and meditation to reduce work stress. "I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations -- by emphasizing the notion that what's good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America's bottom line."

Huffington pointed to Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, who practices yoga and meditation. Bertolini was paid $30 million in 2013. How can you be mindful of $30 million? Aetna is headquartered in Hartford, Conn. If you head a few miles east, you'll come to Bolton, a town whose entire budget is less than $20 million.

Thay told the Guardian that if executives are in the practice for selfish reasons, then they are experiencing a mere pale shadow of mindfulness.

"If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose," he says. "It may look like the practise of mindfulness but inside there's no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It's just an imitation. If you don't feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness."

As he puts it: "If you're happy, you cannot be a victim of your happiness. But if you're successful, you can be a victim of your success.
... What is the use of having more money if you suffer more? They also should understand that if they have a good aspiration, they become happier because helping society to change gives life a meaning."

But how is suffering understood in these corporate environments? Or happiness? Do these meditators get the idea that happiness cannot be found in impermanent, material things but only from within?

Here's Huffington: There's nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy, and it's going to be that way for a long time. Stress-reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.

Mindful competition. So much for releasing the idea of being No. 1.