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Saturday, November 7, 2015

The value of meditation

Maybe you've heard that meditation is good for you, that it can make you happier and healthier. And that's enough to get you interested but not enough to get you started.

How about this: It can save you money.

Rearchers at Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at some of the large body of research that's found health benefits from meditation and other mind-body practices, like yoga and tai chi, and found people who used relaxation techniques were 43 percent less likely to visit the hospital, be ordered a medical test by their doctor and to need emergency care, compared to those who did not use the practices.

To determine that, the researchers analyzed 4,000 records from patients between 2006 and 2014, who followed a doctor's recommendation to use relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi in addition to medical treatment for stress-related health problems. They also looked at the records of 13,000 patients whose doctors did not make these recommendations.

The researchers found that mind-body practices resulted in annual health care savings of $2,360 per patient, based on reduced emergency room visits alone.

They estimated overall annual savings -- taking into account the costs of hospital and doctor visits, and medical tests -- of up to $25,000 per patient.

"These practices can ... decrease the anxiety associated with many health conditions, lead to improved self-awareness, and may enhance other self-care behaviors," Dr. Michelle Dossett, a physician and researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post"These practices can decrease a wide range of stress-related symptoms and medical conditions."
Feel better. Save money. Become a nice person because you're less stressed. Good reasons to try meditation.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Hillary holds her seat

One of the benefits of meditation is that you become less reactive. You cultivate the ability to rest in a calm, clear space so that you can choose how to respond rather than habitually hitting back.

There may be no better illustration of that than Hillary Clinton, who was the only witness in an 11-hour highly politicized hearing having to do with the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Libya that left four Americans dead; Clinton was secretary of the state at the time.

Clinton was widely praised for her calm, somber attitude through the day of questioning by the House Select Committee on Benghazi. How did she do it?

"I tried to meditate in the breaks," an NPR reporter overheard her say.

NPR notes that there had been no formal breaks in the hearing up to that point, so Clinton was practicing what's sometimes referred to as stealth meditation -- meditating in place so that no one knows you're doing it (as opposed to going outside to sit under a tree or locking yourself in your office). It can be done by placing your attention on an object or a sensation -- your breath, the feeling of your hands holding a pen, the warmth coming off a cup of coffee, the droning sound of a politician making a statement. The trick is to stay present, not to space out. One way to do that is to become aware of all that's happening, noticing the sound, the sensation, the movement, without becoming engaged with them -- to rest in the awareness of what's happening.

Meditating in place is a skill that's helped immensely by practicing in designated meditation sessions. If your mind has practice in resting in awareness it can find that place on the spot more easily. "If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained," says one of the Lojong slogans. (Lojong is a system of Tibetan Buddhist mind-training slogans.)

If you can practice patience in the traffic jam with a sense of humor approach or whatever approach you want to use, you are training for really major difficulties in your life. So, it sounds silly, but actually, it’s true. If you’re sowing seeds of aggression in the traffic jam, then you’re actually perfecting the aggression habit. And if you’re using your sense of humor and your loving-kindness or whatever it is you do, then you’re sowing those kinds of seeds and strengthening those kinds of mental habits; you’re imprinting those kind of things in your unconscious. So, the choice is really ours every time we’re in a traffic jam. Pema Chodron

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Learning to step back

When someone pushes my buttons my instinct is to push back. That may feel right in the moment, but it doesn't lead to good outcomes -- it leads to yelling and posturing and anger and, well, nothing beneficial.

One of the benefits of meditation is that it helps me find the space between the push and the push back, to let the energy dissipate instead of escalating it.

A new study shows I'm not alone.

In a working paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research this month, researchers found that teaching Chicago high-schoolers meditation techniques designed to help them find that gap significantly lowered crime and dropout rates for participants and boosted school attendance.

According to an article on Quartz,

The study analyzed the effects of a Chicago-based program by the organization Youth Guidance called Becoming a Man (BAM). The researchers invited 1,473 Chicago teens, chosen at random from 18 public schools, to participate in BAM programming and compared them to a control group of similar students who were not invited.

The goal of the program, explains coauthor Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of its Crime Lab, was to encourage less violent behavior by slowing their automatic response.
We develop automatic responses, or habitual reactions, to save time. The Quartz article notes that  while American teenagers from privileged backgrounds learn to automatically comply with authority figures, handing over their smartphone to a mugger, or quieting down when a teacher says so, low-income teenagers may learn that submitting to authorities only invites more aggression. 

Much of the training focused on learning to work with anger by using breathing exercises and meditation techniques, such as exhaling while counting slowly to four.  A year after the program, those who participated in the BAM program were 44 percent less likely to commit violent crimes, and performed significantly better on an academic performance index that combines academic measurements including GPA, attendance rates, and dropout rates, the study found.

Learning to find the space between the stimulus and the reaction lets us decide whether the habitual response is the best one in a given situation.  It doesn't have to be a long pause, but it can be the pause that refreshes and resets the situation rather than the one that sends it tumbling into chaos.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Practice like a champion

My Buddhist teacher shared this photo of a T-shirt she saw someone wearing at the airport, commenting that it seems like a good message.

Practice like a champion.

Since my teacher suggested it, I have to think about it. That's the deal.

What does it mean to practice like a champion?

First of all, you do it a lot. You do it so many times that when you go into a competition, you don't think about where to put your hands or your feet; it's second nature.

You do it with precision. You practice to get better, not just to put in the time. You don't practice bad habits. You practice to correct bad habits. So you bring effort and intention to every session.

And you do it with courage. You try things that you're not sure you can do. You go out of your comfort zone. That's how you learn to do more than when you started.

It's more obvious in some other versions of the shirt that I found online than this one, but the whole slogan is "Practice like a champion/Act like a champion."

That's also a good reminder. You practice with diligence and clarity and intention during meditation so that you bring that to your post-meditation practice. That's why you do it, really -- not for 20 minutes of calm and escape from the torment of thoughts but for a less-stressful life. 

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about how you can't win at meditation. There's no score. There's no winner and loser -- you're succeeding when you stop comparing yourself to others, when you stop seeing that you're in competition with everything.

Practice, though, is about working with yourself, honing your instincts, correcting habits that make life harder.

So when I sat down on my cushion this week, I said to myself, Practice like a champion. And I sat straighter, applied effort more precisely, and felt more confident. For real.

While I couldn't find a source for the slogan, it seems to be connected often with cheerleading. On a lot of the shirts, the front says, "Cheer like a beast."

A garuda, maybe, or a turquoise dragon. Or, maybe, say your mantras with a Lion's roar of confidence.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Meditation changes your brain

It's hard to keep up with all of the medical studies involving meditation, which seem to universally document its benefits.

This Washington Post interview with Harvard neurologist Sally Lazar gives a clear summary of some important findings from a study that put a group of people through an eight-week mindfulness meditation program:

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:
1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.
2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.
3.  The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.
4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.
The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

You may just notice that you experience moments of calmness. Meanwhile, your brain is working hard.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Testing meditation's effects

One of the reasons for meditating -- sitting still and focusing on an object, such as the breath -- is to train in tapping into the calm space in your awareness so that you can find that space in the midst of chaos.

Like on stage during the National Geography Bee.

Karan Menon, an eighth-grader from New Jersey, won the high-pressure event on Wednesday. And meditation helped.

The Associated Press reports:

Knowledge and memorization weren't the keys to victory — Karan said it was about focus. He took deep breaths and meditated between questions.

"Everyone here is equal," Karan said. "When it comes to the competition, you have to control your mind. You have to adapt to all this, like, millions of tons of pressure that's coming on you."
If meditation could help Karan --  on stage, in front of a national television audience being questioned by Soledad O'Brien -- imagine what it can do for you when you're stuck in traffic or making a presentation or waiting for a phone call or living through any other stressful event. Or just in life.

And you'll still experience the joy.

Karan Menon reacts upon winning the National Geography Bee. (AP)

Friday, April 10, 2015


The 17th Karmapa, head of one of the Tibetan Buddhist lineages, is touring the US, visiting sites such as Google, Facebook, and a number of colleges and universities. He's also meeting with Tibetan Buddhists, and in one of his appearances offered detailed commentary on meditation:

He noted that one of the most widely known forms of meditation involves focusing one’s attention on the breath. “One of the reasons for this,” he commented, “is that we are breathing all the time. Because our breath is an ongoing, pre-existing thing, it does not have to be created for the purpose of meditation.” This underscores the fact that meditation is not aimed at seeking out new experiences or reaching some new state. Rather, he stated, we notice the breath by directing our mind to what is already present, without altering or fabricating anything. “We are simply using the awareness of breathing as a focus for developing the mind’s ability to be aware of a chosen object,” the 17th Karmapa said.

“I think there is another particular reason for focusing the mind on breathing,” he added. “The breath is critically necessary for us to remain alive — after all if we stop breathing we stop living. We normally pay no attention to it but take it for granted. Therefore when you focus your mind on the breath, this also instills in you a greater appreciation of being alive, a sense of delight or rejoicing in the fact that your life is continuing.”

He then reflected on the methods used for meditating on the breath, noting that one way is to count the breath. “But,” he observed, “counting can be difficult and actually become a distraction. This depends on the individual, but for many people, using the counting breath technique is problematic. There are other traditions in which one does not count the breath. One simply observes the in-breath and the out-breath, allowing one’s mind to be merely aware of the breathing, allowing one’s mind to rest on or in the exhalation and inhalation. I think this may be better than counting.

“As for how one breathes when directing the mind to the breath,” he continued, “one should breathe naturally as one does usually. There is no special manipulation or control of the breathing. You do not try to breathe in and out with more force or slow down the breathing or speed it up or anything like that. I mention this because sometimes people expect that a technique where the mind is focused on the breathing would involve some kind of special manipulation or control of the breath, but in this case it does not. The breathing is ordinary. No special effort is needed.”

“The point of this,” he said, “is that while we breathe tens of thousands of times every day, we usually pay no attention to it and are often completely unaware that we are breathing. We continue to breathe, but we do not notice that fact. Here what we are trying to do is notice the breath by directing our mind to it.”
Commenting on posture, he said, it should be straight and erect posture, either cross-legged or in a chair. "The point of posture is that the breathing be easy and relaxed.”

“The aim of meditation practice,” he said, “is to return to our own nature and to sustain the natural state of our mind. It is like returning home from a journey. We want to be able to come to rest and relax in that. Therefore meditation is not the alteration of the mind’s natural condition, nor is it the superimposition or exaggeration of anything. Especially in the practice of shamatha meditation, this is the most important point. We are trying to come to rest in our ordinary, natural state of mind.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mindulness at Work

Insurance companies aren't known for taking risks on unproven methods. So when Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini -- who had personal experience with the healing benefits of yoga and meditation -- wanted to spread the practices to Aetna's employees, he looked for data. As David Gelles describes in the New York Times' article, "At Aetna, A CEO's Management by Mantra," Aetna did its own research.

More than 13,000 Aetna employees -- just over a quarter of the company's 50,000 employees -- have taken the free yoga and meditation classes, and Aetna offers those programs to businesses that contract with it for health insurance.

Those who have taken part report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, and a 19 percent reduction in pain. (The study relied on self-reporting, but also checked heart rate and cortisol levels, which backed up the self-reports.) They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Additionally, Aetna's heath care costs fell after it introduced meditation and yoga classes in 2012.

Aetna's not alone in offering meditation classes -- Google, General Mills, and Coca-Cola also have programs. Janice Maturano, who developed General Mills' programs, now consults with other companies as demand for such programs has increased.

Should meditation become a standard part of the workday? Given the importance of motivation or intention to progress in meditation, what happens if meditators don't have a choice about being there? Will it reduce stress if people are stressed about having to go? Will mindfulness techniques, which encourage people to connect with and accept things as they are, discourage creative thinking or encourage people to accept unfair or abusive treatment?

In The Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist David Brendel questions whether the rush to mindfulness is being done, well, mindlessly. Brendel says some of his clients use mindfulness to avoid critical thinking about difficult situations. "I’ve worked with clients who, instead of rationally thinking through a career challenge or ethical dilemma, prefer to disconnect from their challenges and retreat into a meditative mindset. The issue here is that some problems require more thinking, not less."

It's also a problem, he says, when companies force mindfulness sessions on employees.

As Brendel writes:
Mindfulness practices should be used to enhance our rational and ethical thinking processes, not limit or displace them. ... At its very core, mindfulness culture will be a huge step forward for Western cultures if it stays focused on creating opportunities for individuals to discover their own personalized strategies for taming anxieties, managing stress, optimizing work performance, and reaching genuine happiness and fulfillment.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Meditation can help keep brains young: Study

Researchers at the Brain Mapping Center at the University of California-Los Angeles have found that meditation may be associated with better preservation of gray matter in the brain - the neuron-containing tissue responsible for processing information.

The brain -- like the rest of the body -- deteriorates as we age. But in a study that looked at 100 people -- 50 with at least four years of meditation experience and 50 non-meditators -- they found the meditators had more gray matter throughout their brains.

The red areas show brain regions affected by gray matter loss; the researchers found people who meditated had better preservation of gray matter.
Image credit: Dr. Eileen Luders

Read more here

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The scientific power of meditation

AsapSCIENCE looked at the research on meditation and created this 3-minute video. Here are seven benefits, as listed by Business Insider:

1. Meditation can help you deal with stress and negative emotions.
Multiple studies have shown that meditation can help reduce levels of depression and anxiety, along with helping people tolerate pain better. The researchers conclude that mindfulness meditation in particular might help people deal with psychological stress, though they say that more research is needed into how meditation might help lead to positive mental health (beyond reducing effects of negative stresses).
2. At the same time, meditation could boost positive skills like memory and awareness.
Research shows that meditators have unique brains with well-developed areas that might be connected to the mastery of awareness and emotional control. While it's possible that people with such brains might be more likely to meditate in the first place, other research does show that after completing a meditation program there are changes in participants' brains that are connected to memory, self-awareness, and perspective.
3. Meditating for years is associated with brain changes that help you get along with others.
Buddhist monks and other long term meditation practitioners show much more developed brain regions associated with empathy, though the reasons for that are likely complex. Researchers have seen that meditation can also change brain waves, leading to higher levels of alpha brain waves — which are generally associated with a state of wakeful relaxation. This can help reduce negative moods and feelings including anger, tension, and sadness.

4. It doesn't take long to see meditation's benefits — just weeks can change your brain.
Several studies show that after an eight-week meditation program, participants had denser brain tissue in areas connected to learning, emotion regulation, and memory processing.
Additionally, they showed decreased amounts of grey matter in parts of the amygdala, a brain area connected to fear and stress. In a study published in Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, researchers write that in general, people who stimulate an area of the brain repeatedly (generally by learning a skill) show an increase in grey matter, while not using an area of the brain decreases grey matter in that area. They write that in this case, participants who reduced their stress response the most were the ones that showed the biggest decrease in grey matter in this area of the brain.
5. The benefits of meditation extend to other parts of your body too, including your heart.
Mindfulness training has been connected to decreased blood pressure and a more variable heart rate — which is a good thing, meaning your body can better regulate blood flow depending on how much oxygen you need at the time. Researchers (and the American Heart Association) say a likely mechanism for this is that meditation could reduce the levels of stress hormones that can cause inflammation and other physical problems.
6. There are also signs that meditation can help boost your immune system — or at least help ward off the flu.
In a study, researchers took two groups of people and had one group complete an eight week meditation course. At the end of the eight weeks, the people in the meditation group showed increased left-side brain activity. At that point, the researchers injected both groups with the flu vaccine. The meditators had a stronger immune response (their bodies produced more flu-fighting antibodies), and the higher the level of left-brain activity in general, the greater the immune response.
7. Meditation may help prevent genetic damage.
One study showed that cancer survivors who completed a meditation program showed increased telomere length — telomeres are protein complexes that protect our genes, and shortened telomeres have been linked to various diseases. Researchers say that the possible mechanism for this is that reducing stress could help certain enzymes that lengthen telomeres, though more research in more diverse populations is needed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The impermanence of Benedict Cumberbatch

The ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch shockingly enough takes time for himself -- in addition to
appearing in TV, film, and on award shows for both of those. He tells the Wall Street Journal:

I meditate a lot. That’s a huge tool in trying to calm myself, get away from the crazy circus of it all, have a focused mind as well as be a kinder, considerate person in the world. I took a lot of stuff away from my experience in Darjeeling, West Bengal, right at the Nepali border. It was Tibetan Buddhist monks in a converted Nepali house in India, with a view of Bhutan. It was a profoundly formative experience at a very young age. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in my life. It features already.
(Cumberbatch took a semester off from college to teach English to Tibetan monks in India."
"There's an ability to focus and have a real sort of purity of purpose and attention and not be too distracted. And to feel very alive to your environment, to know what you are part of, to understand what is going on in your peripheral vision and behind you, as well of what is in front of you. That definitely came from that."
But I think it's a question about fear of failure, not meditation directly, that shows how it works:

Also, it’s important sometimes to step back and not take it too seriously, in order to be free and light and remember the childish innocence. You should be alive to the moment, you should be able to play. While a hell of a lot of work goes into the most seemingly off-the-cuff stuff in our industries, I think it’s really important in those moments when you’re delivering that lightness to be free of all of that. You play the scene. You really look into people’s eyes, what they’re saying, and everything else sort of falls back. You get those wonderful moments of clarity – they’re not Eureka! moments but they’re as close to it as acting gets, where you are lost in the moment. I challenge any actor, whatever methodology, to say that that’s a permanent state.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Meditation helps students cope

During the four years since Vistacion Middle School in San Francisco instituted twice-daily 15-minute meditation sessions, suspensions dropped by 79 percent and attendance and academic performance improved, NBC reports.

Nearby Burton High School, once nicknamed "Fight School," has seen similar results. The principal, Bill Kappenhagen, was skeptical -- and he didn't want to take time from academic instruction for students to do nothing. He made the school day 30 minutes longer to provide time for meditation. The result, he said, is better academic performance and a 75 percent decrease in suspensions. And students say they're more conscious of their actions, calmer, and less angry. 

The San Francisco Public School District partnered with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education for the meditation program, called "Quiet Time," in four schools. 

NBC News
The schools are in neighborhoods where violence is part of daily life. Kappenhagen says he can't change that environment, but he's glad meditation "helps our students find ways to deal with violence and the trauma and the stress of everyday life." 

For details on Quiet Time go here.