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EASING OUT OF COMPULSION, EASING IN TO CHOICE

brainThere are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic.

For instance, we may initially have found some short term relief in the pleasure of eating, in particular rich comfort food laden with simple carbohydrates. These foods produce feel-good chemicals in our body and we get a quick surge. Unfortunately, and just as rapidly, we then get a marked drop in energy and mood. The same is true of addictions of all kinds, alcohol, cigarettes, too much TV, too much social media…the list is endless. And it can be an endless loop unless we step out of the ring.

Beginning and maintaining a mindfulness practice has shown to bring healthful and lasting relief to the stress in our lives that is simply part of daily living and relief from the compulsions and bad habits that are largely maladaptive coping strategies.

women meditatingIn an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (2015), short term meditation was shown to significantly enhance cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain critical for self-regulation. These are the areas of the brain that support us in good decision making and in overcoming unhealthy habits and addictions of all kinds.

Collaborating researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Texas/Austin and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at Dalian University in China discovered changes in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in the brains of those who had been only meditating for 5 days (30 minutes a day). These parts of the brain have also been reported to be associated with positive mood.

The study showed neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) demonstrated with fMri imaging and consistent mood improvement reported by participants as well.

These findings provides hopeful news that regulating our emotions and responses doesn’t have to be an arduous, protracted process but it does take discipline. The benefits reported are only maintained by continued practice.

And there are many mindfulness practices you can engage in. It can be helpful to begin with guided meditations. It can be a little tricky starting out on your own and a guide gives instruction and support. You can find several of them here on this website for free. There is no sign up or commitment involved, except a commitment to yourself to show up and practice and trusting in that.

Wherever you are on your journey, may you have compassion for yourself. May you healthy and happy.   IMG_0050

THE MUSE, MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.muse2

The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead. With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little bird icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily. 020206_trdp_s6 (1)

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just as our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising, our brain shrinks when not being work and trained.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.
If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try. 060405_cr_2559 (1)

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

THE MUSE: MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.

muse

The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead.

With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.080322a8447 (1)

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little birdy icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily.

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just like our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.

If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try.

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

MINDFUL HUGGING PRACTICE

There is truly no greater gift to give someone than your full, pure presence. We intuitively know this to be true. Perhaps you can recall a time in your own life when you’ve had the experience of someone’s complete and undivided attention. What did it feel like? The feelings may have been profound or subtle, but are almost universally life-affirming.

How were they embodying that presence? We often recognize that the body is relaxed and quiet; the emotional energy is clear and focused. Their shared thoughts back to you reflect a deep state of listening. meditation_selfcompassion

Yet we also know this is a rare occurrence. How often do we really give our full attention to someone? Our child is sharing their day and we are only partially listening while we cook dinner, fold laundry, return a work text. We are having a conversation with a friend or a coworker and simultaneously remembering a task undone or impatiently waiting for them to finish so it’s ‘our turn’. This is a human tendency. Fortunately, we can choose to communicate in a more skillful, even transformative way. Read more

THE COMMUNITY OF CONTEMPLATION

IMG_1248Last November, I attended the International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in Boston. There were lots of luminaries in the fields of neuroscience, psychology, education, philosophy, and the humanities. Counted among these were the Dalai Llama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, Arianna Huffington, and so many more who are well-known to those in the field, reflecting the explosion really of mindfulness into all aspects of our modern society.

Some presenters shared results of mindfulness programs they have implemented in particular clinical settings or in business. Several neuroscientists provided the latest in their research on what is happening in the brain during contemplative practices and where in the brain it is happening. The goal of all this being the very mission of the conference: to “advance our understanding of the human mind, reduce human suffering, and enhance our well-being.”

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REWIRING YOUR BRAIN

2006-3-8-tree-pathUsually we start a new personal development program (whether that be practicing mindfulness, getting physically fit,  eating more healthfully) with a great burst of enthusiasm. Yet after the initial “excitement” wears off, and despite our best intentions, we sometimes find we don’t follow through on our commitment. We don’t persist. Perhaps we don’t see immediate results so we become disheartened. Our efforts dwindle or we stop altogether.

And the not so helpful habits…they’re right there. So instead of feeling bad about this, perhaps even a little guilty, what to do? How do we re-engage in this moment our commitment to be more present?

We can remember that we are re-wiring our brain and that this takes time. Mindfulness practices are among the most powerful agents of brain change known to modern science. Practitioners have know this for centuries from their own lived experience: feeling less stress, having a better memory, enjoying greater happiness. And now in a growing number of research studies, we are seeing actual changes in brain structure that confirm these experiences in the lab, in a relatively short period of time.    The first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter was led by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Participants in an 8 week program who practiced mindfulness an average of 27 minutes a day at least 6 days a week were shown in MRI imaging to have measurable changes in brain structure, the regions associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and compassion were growing (grey matter increasing), and those regions involved with stress and anxiety were shrinking (grey matter) decreasing.

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FOLLOWING YOUR INTUITION

This summer, I went out to Northern California to attend a silent retreat for a week at the Spirit Rock Center.  There was a lot of guffawing from friends and family back East, about me being silent for a whole week.  I am a talker! A shamelessly fast talking flamboyant one at that….at times.  But I wanted to deepen my daily meditation practice, shake off the daily dust that was gumming up the works in my mind.  Image

Have you ever had that experience with records (yes, I’m dating myself), where something almost invisible to the naked eye gets caught in the grooves, the needle gets stuck, and you keep hearing the same few lines again and again?  Well, the daily little things of life were like those mites, stanching the flow of my inner voice, so I was only hearing it in bits and pieces. Hard to trust a voice with the annoying habit of repeating itself mid-sentence, with occasional volume amplification.

There were some persistent “gut feelings” I had been experiencing regarding major decisions on a particular work issue and the direction of a couple of close relationships. And it should be noted that I am an intuitive type, who has often acted on the sheer intensity of my perceptions. Still I wasn’t clear on how to respond.

In other words, I wasn’t sure if I could trust my intuition. I mean, what is intuition exactly?  Carl Jung said that intuition was “perception via the unconscious.”  He called it the right-brained ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning (left-brained activity).

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Checking one half of your brain at the door while making some of life’s most important decisions doesn’t seem, well, logical, right?

Well, not so fast. This is only partially correct.  They are different ways to know things and many kinds of knowledge. The knowing I was seeking was not why moths are attracted to light or why is it that my washing machine is shrinking everything lately, but self-knowledge and perhaps with that, wisdom.

All the great spiritual traditions, as well as the latest findings in the areas of neuroscience, have consistently demonstrated that awakenings or the ability to “see” clearly, occur during long periods of meditation and consistent daily meditation over a long period of time.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Contemplative who sought to bridge Western and Eastern philosophies, said, “Without realizing it, life without (daily) meditation desensitizes us so that we can no longer perceive grace, listen to our inner voice, or receive intuition.”

After about day 3 into my retreat, sitting and walking and working in silence, my own innate capacity to glean right action was reawakened, reactivated. Through the task of ‘just’ being present in every moment (simple but not easy), clarity bubbled up naturally, without effort. The solutions I had struggled for meant great change and serious vulnerability for me. (Perhaps this was part of the reason for my reticence in looking deeply?)

This is what I “know.” We all have this intrinsic ability.  While we learn much about the world around us by others, this we discover experientially. Intuition is a combination of empirical data and a heightened sense of observation.  And while speculation and deduction have vital roles in many of our everyday decision making process, so does intuition.

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Abella Arthur said, “Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks”. She called it, “Cutting through the thickness of surface reality.” It is the Sherlock Holmes approach to mindfulness. Others can share their opinions or guide us, and they can be valuable. Yet we do have the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision-making. Our direct intuition will rarely fail us if we are tapping into a reservoir of experience combined with a conscious awareness. Trust yourself.

In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th BCE), “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”