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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.