What is the Vagus Nerve in Meditation?

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

vagusThe Vagus Nerve and meditation are intertwined. The Vagus Nerve roughly translated means “wandering nerve”. It travels from the brain stem down to the abdomen and connects with many major organs participating in many of our bodily functions such as breathing, digestion, heart rate and many more. It is intimately connected to the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic(automatic) nervous system and therefore plays a big role in regulating stress. The autonomic nervous system runs our bodies automatically without us having to participate. Functions such as heart rate are a function of the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is responsible for putting us in fight or flight and the parasympathetic branch is responsible for taking us out of fight or flight and regulating our bodies when not involved with a fight or flight event.

Stress levels are at historic highs and one of the reasons for that is the phenomena of getting stuck in fight or flight. For a number of reasons our nervous systems are getting stuck in the sympathetic mode meaning that the changes that take place in our body/mind during fight or flight are not being resolved after the event happens. Consequently those changes, to varying degrees, stay with us for extended periods of time. This results in chronic stress which leads to a host of physical, mental and emotional symptoms.

Science has given us a number of tools whereby we can measure various bodily functions to determine stress levels. One of the most effective ways to measure these stress levels is by studying the Vagus Nerve stimulation. When the Vagus Nerve gets stimulated it influences the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system to come out of fight or flight thereby reducing stress. Here’s how that happens through meditation.

We know that meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation(full attention to the present moment) is effective in lowering stress. Mindfulness meditation is the most studied approach to meditation having over 2500 studies published worldwide with an average of 200 more per month being published. I consider it to be the hub of the meditation wheel in that it enhances all the other meditation approaches and can be a stand alone practice itself. These studies show that meditation can increase energy, reduce stress, slow breathing, decrease anxiety, reduce pain, increase blood flow and provide a sense of peace to name a few. When the Vagus Nerve receives the signals from these meditation effects it sends a message to the brain that all is well, there is no danger and there is no need to be in fight or flight. The brain then sends the message to the autonomic nervous system which stimulates the parasympathetic branch to come out of fight or flight and regulate the systems into balance. This is an example of the Vagus Nerve and the brain working together. The brain can send messages to the body and the body to the brain through the Vagus Nerve.

It is interesting to note that a function of the body previously thought to run automatically can in fact be influenced consciously through meditation. This is very important and gives us insight into the possibility of many ways that we can consciously participate in our health and well being.  This is yet another demonstration of the mind/body connection and how our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations are interconnected and how meditation can assist in the smooth running of the system.

How Does Mindfulness Help Enhance Memory?

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

memory-concept-fbWe are currently experiencing an epidemic of memory loss…short and long term. With such diagnoses as Dementia and Alzheimer’s we can track how widespread the problem is. These two diagnoses are usually associated with the older population but we are seeing varying degrees of memory loss in people of all ages. The causes are multifaceted and range from stress to diet /nutrition, lack of exercise, over stimulation from technology, genetics and environmental pollution. I’m sure I left some out but these seem to be the ones that come to my attention most frequently.

Most of these issues that contribute to memory loss can be addressed by making lifestyle changes. Environmental pollution is a tough one as we are often times held captive by our environment and environmental issues express themselves in air quality, water quality and the food chain. It is important to mitigate these issues as much as possible by making wise choices when possible. Genetics is the only one that is seemingly out of reach although I have come across studies recently that suggest that even genetics can be modified under the right circumstances. Besides scientific genetic engineering and re engineering we have found that mindfulness meditation lengthens telomeres, the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. The result is the ability to keep our brains younger, longer and we look at our brains as the focal point for memory.

Other mindfulness meditation studies have shown some impressive results with different parts of the brain that influence memory.

The Hippocampus is a part of our brain that is directly involved with short and long term memory. Through age and stress we know that the Hippocampus shrinks and gets less dense over time. A 2011 Harvard study showed significant increased thickness of the Hippocampus with the 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) program pioneered by Jon Kabat -Zinn.

We have also seen mindfulness meditation benefits in the frontal cortex area of the brain. The frontal cortex is responsible for functions such as concentration, attention, learning and memory. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital showed the that mindfulness meditation caused the brain’s grey matter of the frontal cortex area to thicken because  mindfulness meditation increases the size of blood vessels and the blood flow in the region.

There is enough scientific evidence now to conclude that mindfulness meditation has a positive effect on memory.

A great book on Neuroplasiticity, the effects of mindfulness on the brain is: http://amzn.to/2qrp9pT

Three related studies/articles of interest are: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/study-meditation-improves-memory-attention/275564/

 http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/meditation-and-memory.html

Can Mindfulness Meditation Increase Longevity?

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

110222_640For thousands of years people have been searching for ways to increase life span. What drives us to want to live longer? Many would argue that there is a biological impulse that motivates us to live as long as possible. Perhaps it is part of our survival instinct that is hard wired into our autonomic nervous system. That instinct is expressed through our fight or flight response which drives us to live as long as possible. The fight or flight response is driven by fear so perhaps we can say that fear plays a role in our quest for longevity. Even without the fear we seem to seek longevity particularly if there is also quality of life.

Ideally we want to increase quality of life along with life span and usually the two go together. Great strides have been made over the past 50 years to increase both. Medical breakthroughs, increased knowledge about healthy lifestyle changes in diet, nutrition, exercise, emotional intelligence and stress reduction have pushed the envelope of our ability to increase longevity along with quality of life. For many years meditation has been thought to increase quality of life and longevity. Up until about 35 years ago we relied on our experience to confirm the link between meditation, quality of life and longevity. Now we have a body of evidence that is confirming this and one of the most interesting discoveries recently has to do with the effects of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation on longevity.

Mindfulness meditation seems to affect longevity of the physical body in a few different ways, starting at the cellular level. One that I find to be of great significance is that scientists have isolated length of telomeres and telomerase as indicators of cellular aging. Our cells contain chromosomes, or sequences of DNA. Telomeres are “protective protein caps” at the end of our DNA strands that allow for continued cell replication. The longer the telomere, the more times a cell can divide and refresh. Each time a cell replicates, its telomere length, and therefore its lifespan, gets shorter in a natural aging process.

Telomerase is an enzyme in the body that prevents telomere shortening and can even add telomeric DNA back to the telomere and help our body’s cells live for a longer period of time.

Shorter telomere length in cells is linked with poorer immune system functioning, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative conditions like osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. The shorter the length of our telomeres, the more susceptible our cells are to dying and the more susceptible we are to disease, as we get older.

Telomere shortening happens naturally as we age, but research now shows that it can be accelerated by stress, speeding up the aging process of the body. Meditation is known to reduce stress so research was designed to see if meditation could affect telomeres.

In 2013 Elizabeth Hoge, MD a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, investigated this idea by leading a study comparing telomere length of experienced loving-kindness meditation (LKM) practitioners with that of non-meditators. Results revealed that those with more years of meditation practice had longer telomere length overall, and that women meditators had significantly longer telomeres as compared to women non-meditators. These findings further support meditation’s positive effect on healthy cellular aging and provide fodder for future longitudinal research that could track change in telomere length over time.

Other studies using mindfulness meditation have also made the connection between longer telomeres and sustained meditation practice. These studies are at the forefront of mindfulness meditation and longevity research. As more studies are published I think we will confirm without a doubt that mindfulness meditation definitely increases longevity.

Simple Ways You Can Practice Mindfulness At Work

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Mindful-at-Work-KieferpixIt is very advantageous to extend your mindfulness meditation practice to the workplace. There are many different kinds of meditation and frankly most of them don’t lend themselves to the workplace because they involve practicing in such a way as to separate you from the interactions of the workplace. Approaches like chanting, visualization and deep relaxation are great practices but are not at home in certain environments particularly at work. Mindfulness meditation on the other hand is perfect for bringing into the workplace because it is simply paying attention to the present moment on purpose. It is a great way of extending your meditation practice into your daily life and because so many of us spend at least eight hours a day at work it gives us that much more time to practice the important present moment attention skills. Here are some simple ways you can bring your mindfulness meditation practice into the workplace.

1. When you first get to work sit at your desk for a minute or two connecting with your breath and physical sensations. This can be done with the eyes open or closed as present moment attention does not require the eyes being closed like we do in other forms of meditation. Bring awareness to how you are feeling as you prepare to begin your workday activities.

2. Use your phone as a reminder to be in the present moment. When the phone rings, instead of rushing to answer it let it ring three times all the while using those three rings as an opportunity to fully experience your breath as it is in the present moment.

3. When taking a food or drink break use the time as an opportunity to mindfully eat or drink by using all five senses to experience the food and/or drink. This too can be done with the eyes open and can be done at any speed. If you have time do it slowly, if you don’t have time, do it quickly. Present moment attention is available at any speed.

4. While talking with others be fully attentive while listening. There is a tendency to think about what you want to say while listening to others. This results in only a partial understanding of what is being said. Be fully present as you listen and that will enable you to be fully present while you speak. Your words will make more sense and you will become an excellent communicator.

5. From time to time make a point of stretching mindfully. You can do this while sitting or standing. Stretching is a great stress reducer and is an opportunity to fully experience how your body is feeling in the present moment. At the same time use the stretching as a reminder to pay close attention to your posture as you are working. The stretching will remind you how your body should feel and those feelings will guide you to the correct posture.

Begin with these five practices and you will shortly discover other ways to bring you mindfulness meditation practice into your workday activities.

Using Mindfulness as a Tool to Build Self-Confidence

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

Stress MBSRMindfulness is one of the best ways to develop true self confidence. I’m talking about being self confident versus acting self confident. I’ve seen a lot of seminars that will teach you how to behave “as if” you are self confident but ignore developing the inner qualities that project the true energy of self confidence. We can sense when someone has this self confidence and when they are just pretending….and it has nothing to do with behavior. The dictionary defines self confidence as “A feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment. “ Let’s examine how we can develop this quality and what role meditation can play in helping us develop it.

I have discovered through my own mindfulness meditation practice that my self confidence has increased. I notice that there is a direct relationship between my fear levels and my self confidence. In order to truly have a feeling of trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgment one must have the level of self awareness that informs us that there is nothing to fear. Once that lens of fear is removed we are able to see clearly and function at levels of competence that put us in a peak performance mode. Our energy increases and our ability to put that energy to good use is magnified as our fear levels go down resulting in a natural rise in self confidence.

Mindfulness has been my greatest tool for reducing fear and there have been a number of studies published around this subject that come to the same conclusion. The relationship of mindfulness meditation to stress reduction has been well documented and since fear exists as the predominant experience in stress it makes perfect sense that mindfulness is a very effective tool in lowering fear and thereby raising self confidence.

In conclusion it is important to briefly discuss the concept of human potential. When the fear goes away what is left? What is the true nature of the human experience? Human nature is a multi faceted thing. Once we tip the scales away from fear we have the capacity to bring out all of the positive qualities such as kindness, compassion, gratitude, love, connection, forgiveness and so forth. When we experience these qualities and express them outwardly we are embracing true self confidence which flows naturally and effortlessly from within. Our potential to move in this direction is always present. All we have to do is cultivate it and it will continue to unfold. 

How Mindfulness/Meditation Changes the Brain and Body

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

mindfulnessWhy should we meditate? Is it really worth the effort to learn something new that we are not sure will help us? There are many kinds of meditation and most of them have been studied scientifically to some degree pointing us to the many reasons why we should meditate. It is also important to note that there must be a good reason why millions of people have been doing meditating for thousands of years.

Meditation does change the brain/mind and body in profound positive ways so there are plenty of reasons as to why we should meditate. Besides the “millions of people for thousands of years” rationale we are seeing more and more that science is applying rigorous standards to studies of meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation. The scientific rigor up until lately has been questionable but recently we are seeing studies that are using randomized, double blind placebo control groups. This approach is considered the gold standard of research and is finally finding it’s way into much of the new meditation/mindfulness research.

An example of this new rigor is demonstrated by “J. David Creswell, who led a study on mindfulness meditation and is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. The results of this rigorous study were that there was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm. Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating. “

These results suggest some remarkable reasons why we should be practicing mindfulness meditation. As we discuss the benefits let’s keep in mind the interface between the body and the mind. If the body is affected in a positive way then so is the mind and vice versa.

Brain health. Meditation is affecting the brain in many positive ways including but not limited to memory, longevity and cognitive functioning. Brain neuroplasticity studies are also showing us that meditation can help to re build and mold the way our brains function.

Influencing addictions. We are seeing addictive personalities respond well to meditation. The studies that show a decrease in cortisol and adrenaline suggest that these two stress related pre cursors to addiction are reduced therefore reducing the drive toward addiction.

Lowering blood pressure has been a noticeable benefit of meditation for years and one that happens relatively quickly with steady practice.

Pain reduction. Some of the early studies have demonstrated acute and chronic pain reduction. These studies have been repeated over the years and continue to demonstrate positive results.

Quality sleep. We are a society of sleep deprived people. Most of us don’t get enough sleep and those of us who do don’t get quality sleep. Meditation has shown to increase the quality of our sleep so that less sleep is necessary. Six to eight hours seems to be the sweet spot for sleep.

Attention. We are also a society of people who have an inability to pay attention. ADD and ADHD is rampant in both adults and children and the studies show vast improvement in this area with steady practice of meditation.

Reduction of depression and anxiety. We are seeing impressive reductions in anxiety and depression particularly with mindfulness meditation. People who have experienced this distress for years are responding well to a steady practice of meditation.

Stress reduction. Stress can be considered the hub of the wheel of a lot of issues that we deal with. If you reduce stress you will also be influencing in a positive way a lot of the other issues that we deal with and cause us problems. Meditation reduced stress.

So we see that there are plenty reasons for everyone to practice mindfulness meditation. With a little bit of practice we can begin to see results over a short period of time. The time it takes for the effects of meditation to be felt differs substantially from person to person but I have seen impressive results over a period of two to eight weeks for many.

Find yourself a qualified teacher who can guide you into the correct way to meditate mindfully. The approaches vary to some degree but a good teacher can save you time and effort in putting you on the path to effective meditation.

How To Meditate With Your Kids

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

how-to-meditate-with-your-kids-770x402From 1999-2001 I developed one of the first mindfulness meditation programs for kids in schools. I taught first, second and third graders for two years.  It was done as a research study in partnership with Arizona State University Department of Social Work. The results were very positive. Since then I have continued to work with children and with groups that teach mindfulness in the schools. Part of the program consisted of also teaching the teachers and the parents. Therein lies the key.

The following general suggestions apply for children of all ages:

Children copy adults behavior and so it is important to set the example by learning to meditate yourself. I prefer mindfulness meditation as it is the simplest to teach and the most effective as evidenced by the hundreds of published studies attesting to the positive effects. Once you’ve learned to meditate let the children follow you by example. When they become curious or just open to joining in it is a good time to meditate together. It is also beneficial to learn with the kids if you haven’t already learned by yourself assuming they are open to it.

Silence is the next step in teaching kids to meditate. We are surrounded by sound most of the time which in the beginning of learning can be a distraction. With some practice it won’t be as necessary to maintain silence if it’s not possible. Silence however is preferable when meditating.

Keeping it simple and short in the beginning is most effective. Most children(and many adults) have some challenges when it comes to paying attention in a sustained way. For that reason it is beneficial to start with short meditations of 5 minutes or less keeping in mind that everyone is different and you can’t cookie cut this. With practice you can increase the time to fit the situation. Starting by paying attention to the breath as you breathe in and out through the nose is a simple and effective way to begin mindfulness meditation. Stay with the breath noting where and when the attention wanders to and then bringing the attention back to the breath.

Mindful meditation in movement is also great for kids. When I taught my school program The Attention Academy in the second year I did it as a physical education class. Kids love to move and combining meditation with movement was fun for the kids. After starting with paying attention to the the breath we eventually added the body, thoughts, emotions and five senses in fun, imaginative ways.

Whether being still or in movement, mindfulness meditation should be taught slowly and with patience. It’s an opportunity to have “special time” with your kids so take advantage of that deeper connection that you share as you meditate together. Pick words that resonate with you as you guide your kids into the meditation practice. Let the words flow from your own personal experience and keep it simple. A few gently spoken words from time to time is best, allowing for spaces of silence to prevail during the meditation. Remember…we are not trying to change anything…only fully experience the present moment as it is now.

Beginners Guide to Mindfulness Meditation: Learning How to Pay Attention Moment by Moment

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

mindfulnessMindfulness meditation is very different from the other many kinds of meditations. There are meditations that use chanting, imagery, progressive relaxation, affirmations and numerous other approaches that are designed to alter what is present. Mindfulness meditation is the only approach that is designed to enable our experience of the present moment to be unaltered. For some of us that is good news and for some of us it is not so good. If your present moment experience is not working for you then a little practice and patience can turn that around for you. The irony with mindfulness is that by paying attention to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences we can gradually transform the unpleasant ones. So let’s get started.

The first step to practicing mindfulness meditation is to find a quiet place where you can sit in a comfortable position for a period of time ranging from 10 minutes to 30 minutes. Pay close attention to your posture so that you can comfortably maintain that position for the designated time. Pick a time of the day when you are not tired as mindfulness meditation is designed to increase alert attention not go to sleep. It is better to not have eaten recently nor be too hungry. By doing this the digestive system can more easily co operate with the meditation.

With mindfulness meditation we use the body as the focal point for the present moment. The way we do this is by taking turns paying attention to different parts of the body. These parts include the breath, the actual physical sensations of the body and the five senses. We also include thoughts and emotions because they too are part of the body even though we often speak about them as though they are not. As we develop our ability to connect with the body in the present moment we will notice many things. Some of these things will be pleasant, some will be unpleasant and some will be neutral. It is important to greet all of these experiences with open arms.

Now that we are ready to start let’s begin with the breath. Eyes can be open or closed in mindfulness meditation but most people find it easier to close them as that will decrease distractions. Breathing in and out of your nose notice whatever there is to notice about the breath. Also notice when your attention wanders away from the breath. Note where it wanders to….perhaps a thought, an emotion or another physical sensation and include that wandering as part of the meditation. Once you’ve taken note of the attention wandering bring it back to the breath. Do this as often as needed. The wandering is an important part of building the mindfulness muscle….much like the starting blocks for a sprinter or doing repetitions with weights if you are body building. In addition to fully experiencing the nose breathing you can also note the movement of the belly with each in and out breath. This simple mindful breathing is a profound way to transform your life. The breath is always present and I consider it to be the “hub of the wheel” of practicing mindfulness meditation.

Can Mindfulness Help Overcome OCD and Anxiety?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

ocdcycle2OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety can be addressed in multiple ways and mindfulness meditation is a very effective way that can enhance any other approach of your choosing. Both of these conditions respond well to positive lifestyle changes and certainly mindfulness meditation is a positive lifestyle change.

The research connecting mindfulness meditation and anxiety and OCD is plentiful. I wouldn’t know where to begin to reference different studies because there are so many that show positive outcomes with anxiety and OCD using mindfulness meditation. A lot of the research comes from Jon Kabat Zinn’s 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program(MBSR)developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. It is being taught all over the world and is present in practically all healthcare settings. To date there are over 2500 studies published worldwide. For those of you interested in the research I would suggest doing a specific internet search.

For those of you not inclined towards research and for the sake of brevity I will summarize the factors connecting OCD/anxiety, stress and mindfulness. I will do that by connecting them to mindfulness meditation and it’s use as a stress reduction program.

To begin with, we have discovered in the world of stress that we are not processing stress like we should. The big news in research is that the stress reaction(fight,flight or freeze) doesn’t resolve itself in many situations. The result is acute stress hanging around sometimes for years and becoming chronic stress. During fight,flight or freeze there are many physical, mental and emotional changes that take place. Imagine if those changes hung around for years and were pushed below the surface to keep them out of the way. It would create a host of issues.

One of the characteristics of fight or fight is fear. Fear in the short run is a very positive response. Fight or flight is our survival mechanism and without fear we wouldn’t be as effective at surviving. The problem comes when the fight or flight doesn’t resolve itself and the fear becomes chronic producing many iterations/expressions of itself over time. Anxiety and OCD are simply iterations/expressions of fear that hasn’t been resolved. Anxiety is generalized fear and OCD is a behavior that is designed to create the feeling of control. The need for control is driven by fear.

So how does mindfulness reverse chronic stress and fear thereby addressing the root driver to OCD and anxiety? When we go into fight or flight our main coping mechanism is our ability to disconnect from the present moment. It is very common to feel disconnected from our bodies, thoughts and emotions in this situation. In a short term situation it works well. In a long term situation it perpetuates the phenomena of being stuck in the fear/fight or flight mode. It’ s as if the body senses that because we are disconnected there is still danger and so it keeps us in fight or flight.

Mindfulness meditation is the process of paying attention to our bodies, thoughts and emotions in the present moment. We actually reconnect to those same things that we disconnected from in fight or flight. At this point it is as if the body senses that because we are re connecting, the danger must no longer be present. The result is that the body shifts the nervous system to come out of fear/fight or flight. The system gradually normalizes and fear goes away. Fear, the potent driver of anxiety and OCD resolves itself and is no longer energizing the anxiety and OCD. It is at this point that many mindfulness meditation practitioners discover the connection between fear, anxiety and OCD. As the fear from being stuck in fight or flight subsides so does anxiety and OCD.

Mindfulness and the Future of Relaxation

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

archery_storyRelaxation is a highly sought after experience in our world today. Many have turned to mindfulness as a way to provide relaxation in addition to the many other benefits mindfulness can provide. What I have discovered is that relaxation is a highly nuanced experience and just the starting point for new ways of experiencing our lives.

When seen as the opposite of chronic fight or flight, relaxation is certainly a welcome relief and helps to restore order to a system buckling under the weight of extended stress. Once the system has re booted and is functioning smoothly, the craving for relaxation subsides and the curiosity of adventure returns. There is a transitional period where relaxation takes on a new meaning…it expands. Relaxation can be a great way to disconnect and go to our happy places. That certainly can be fun and interesting. What happens though when relaxation is experienced as part of a process to connect to the present moment? These are two completely different approaches to relaxation and ultimately redefines what relaxation is and how it relates to the future of human potential.

People have been experiencing these differences for thousands of years but science hasn’t caught up to explaining them fully yet. In today’s terms it is the difference between relaxing and being in the “peak performance” mode. In the peak performance mode we take relaxation and combine it with acute alertness and dynamic flow of energy to create an experience which is very different than the traditional definition of relaxation. You could say that traditional relaxation is a temporary transition from chronic stress to peak performance mode. In the field of human potential this peak mode is the starting point into a whole new way of being.

In my experience I have found mindfulness to be essential in the creation of this peak experience. There are unlimited ways of using mindfulness to broaden the peak mode by combining it with other methods or just using it as a stand alone approach. So relaxation as it is commonly known may be a by product of mindfulness practice but it is important to understand that it is a temporary by product, gradually being replaced by this new way of being which renders today’s definition of relaxation as quaint.