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.

Mindfulness: Thinking…..Another Common Misconception

Friday, August 26th, 2016

stressAs the misconceptions about mindfulness continue to mount another instance comes to my attention. The need to stop thinking in order to successfully practice mindfulness is an age old misunderstanding.

Perhaps this has become a misunderstanding because so many of us experience constant sometimes compulsive thinking and it wears us down. Many of the people I teach have as their main goal of mindfulness the ability to stop thinking. To compound the issue it turns out that those of us who experience “excessive” thinking also complain that a lot of it is negative.

First let me say that mindfulness has nothing to do with stopping thinking. It merely involves being present and attentive to thoughts that are there. Excessive thinking usually involves a degree of being on automatic pilot/unconscious thereby losing our ability to choose our thoughts and how they influence us. The mere act of being present with our thoughts completely changes not only how they affect us but the very nature of those thoughts. Paradoxically, being present with our thoughts also tends to slow them down in addition to modifying the quality of them. The practice of mindfulness reduces fear and with reduced fear the nature of our thoughts take a turn for the better.

As we progress with our mindfulness practice we also begin to notice space between our thoughts. That space becomes a fruitful opportunity for experience and examination. It gives us entree into the world of silence and stillness, a world that so many of us have not had the opportunity to experience in a long time. With the fast paced lives that so many of us lead it is imperative to balance it off with silence and stillness…. the ultimate goal of mindfulness being the blending of doing and being. This allows us to bring the experience of peace into all actions.

With practice we can choose when and what to think about. In the meantime embrace all of your thoughts as an opportunity to be present.

Mindfulness: Two Common Misconceptions

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

indexThe good news: Mindfulness has become very popular.

The bad news: Mindfulness has become very popular.

Due to mindfulness’ explosive popularity there exists in the field of study and practice what I call “drift”. Did you ever play that game where you whisper something in someone’s ear and then down the line it goes from person to person. By the time it reaches the 4th or 5th person the message has completely changed. This is what is happening to mindfulness and because of the “drift” there has emerged a lot of misunderstanding. I will deal with two of the most common misunderstandings now.

Being non judgmental is necessary for mindfulness. This is actually very far from the truth and in fact an impediment to practice. The truth is that as you practice mindfulness you become less judgmental. Fear is what drives being judgmental and there is no fear in the present moment. Getting rid of fear is a process… not an event so be patient with that. As your fear subsides you will notice you are less judgmental. It is important to realize that we get to that point not by denying fear and judgment but by embracing it and fully experiencing it.

We need to cultivate the observer in order to be mindful. For most of us, developing the observer is a new concept. We have spent most of our lives immersed in our experiences without awareness. We are on auto pilot going from one experience to the next without the benefit of awareness. A common misunderstanding involves over developing the observer at the expense of the experiencer. When that happens we become disconnected, end up observing our lives and not participating in them. That results in a great deal of stress. So at first glance we see a conundrum. How do we observe and experience at the same time?? It doesn’t seem to make sense and at first glance even seems counter intuitive. However, as Alice said about Wonderland “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” The good news is you can simply be in the present moment and things that didn’t make sense at first can make sense. One of those things is the blending of the observer and the experiencer. Not only is it possible but it is the result of mindfulness practice. In the world of sports it is called being in the zone or the flow/peak performance. In the world of mindfulness it is called being in the present moment.

Going Into And Coming Out of Meditation…..Mindfully:

Friday, July 8th, 2016

fp-banner1There are many meditation traditions that involve establishing almost ritualistic approaches to starting and stopping the experience. There are a number of reasons this is done but the primary is probably to prepare oneself to shift into whatever state of consciousness is being aimed for. These small rituals are designed to set the tone for the shift and can be as simple as wearing symbolic clothing, entering a prepared place, ringing a bell or adhering to a specific time.

This is an excellent way to condition oneself into shifting gears and going into the meditative experience. Dare I say it is much like Pavlov’s dog when at the hint of food it begins to salivate. These kinds of meditations are generally used to explore “altered states” and can be a rich and educating experience.

Mindfulness meditation on the other hand is used to create “unaltered states”. Before exploring “altered states” it is my strong recommendation to be grounded in the body in the present moment. Since altered states generally involve “going elsewhere” it is important to have a road map back to the here and now. It is possible to combine the two but that will be the subject of a future blog. With mindfulness meditation we actually want to blur the lines between meditation and not meditation.

I’ve known many people who are excellent meditators but lose the benefit of meditation when not meditating. With mindfulness meditation it is important to immediately build the bridge between meditation and every day activity. One of the ways of doing this is to break habits associated with going into and coming out of meditation. No bells, no traditional garb etc. just complete fluidity of the meditation practice into daily activity. Perhaps start and end with eyes open and a little movement helping to bridge the experience. Be mindful in daily activity and combined with meditation you will have a 24×7 experience of mindfulness.

Mindfulness: Secular vs. Non-Secular

Friday, June 17th, 2016

Can mindfulness exist in non secular environments as well as secular?

Mindfulness: Happiness Versus Peacefulness

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

peaceAt first glance it’s easy to assume that happiness and peacefulness go together….if you have one you have the other. I’ve discovered through my mindfulness practice that they don’t necessarily co exist. I have yet to meet anyone who is happy all the time including myself. Yet, I have met people who have a constant sense of peace all the time including myself.

Prevalent in our culture now are many ways to achieve happiness. I see it being advertised everywhere with approaches to happiness running the full gamut. It’s as if without happiness we are failing as human beings. In fact, the intense striving for happiness is putting enormous pressure on us and ironically making us unhappy. With mindfulness practice we learn how to be present with unhappiness as well as happiness.It is a given that there will be times that we are unhappy and the willingness to be present for that is what brings peace. It doesn’t necessarily bring happiness but the peace certainly makes the unhappiness more tolerable and lays the foundation for the possibility of happiness.

Peace comes with practice. Practicing active acceptance of what is present allows peace to be experienced. We are no longer fighting ourselves and the world to be something other than what we are. Also our ability to let go of each moment clears the way for the acceptance of the next moment. This sequence of acceptance and letting go is what takes away the friction/stress of life. Without that friction we discover that peace was always there just on the other side of the friction. So staying in the present moment gives peace the opportunity to arise in our experience and allows that peace to become the underpinning for all experiences whether they be happy or unhappy.