Develop Wisdom with Meditation

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we’re closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance.” – Pema Chodron


Wisdom is considered to be an extremely desirable characteristic in humans. People who are thought of as wise are revered. People throughout their lives strive for wisdom and hope that they will develop wisdom. Wisdom is thought to endow the individual with the ability to successfully engage with life and conquer its challenges. To some extent, wisdom is considered the pinnacle of human cognitive development. At the same time, most people would be hard pressed to state exactly what it is. This may be why many find it elusive, as it is difficult to find something when it’s not known what is being sought.


In today’s Research News article “The Relationship between Mental and Somatic Practices and Wisdom”

Williams and colleagues describe wisdom as “a unified construct composed of interrelated cognitive, reflective, and affective characteristics. In this model, wisdom is characterized as a deep and accurate perception of reality, in which insight into human nature and a diminished self-centeredness are acquired through life experience and practice in perspective taking.”


This description of wisdom indicates that there are a number of different components and capacities that go into wisdom. Firstly, it states that it is acquired through life experiences. As such, it involves learning ability. Next it states that it is a “deep and accurate perception of reality.” This involves cognitive capacities, thinking, and the ability to see things as they are. It involves “diminished self-centeredness” which involves the development of compassion and empathy for others. Finally, it “insight into human nature.” This involves reflective ability to look inside oneself and objectively observe and determine what are the true characteristics being human.


It would appear to be a daunting challenge, then to acquire wisdom. But, there may be help. Contemplative practices have been shown to improve virtually all of the capacities that lead to wisdom. In particular, contemplative practices improve learning ability, cognition, compassion and empathy, self-awareness, and regulate emotions. Hence, it would seem that engaging in contemplative practices would develop wisdom. This is exactly what the Buddha promised about 2500 year ago, that meditation and contemplation would led to wisdom.


Williams and colleagues investigated the relationship between a number of practices, including meditation, on the development of wisdom. They recruited participants who were meditators, who engaged in somatic practices to develop mindful coordinated movements, and who practiced classical ballet. They recruited and measured participants on-line. They measured wisdom with a survey called the “Three-Dimensional Wisdom Scale.” It is a measure of cognitive, reflective, and affective dimensions of wisdom, with questions such as “A person either knows the answer to a question or he/she doesn’t;” “I try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision;” and “It’s not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help.”


They found that the meditators had significantly higher wisdom scores than any of the other groups. The years of practice of meditation was found to be significantly, positively related to wisdom and that this relationship was mediated by lower anxiety levels. In other words, the more years of meditation practice, the lower the levels of anxiety, and as a result, the higher the levels of wisdom. These results clearly suggest that the effects of meditation on emotion regulation are key to the development of wisdom.


These results are important and interesting. It makes sense that the ability to regulate emotions would be important for developing wisdom. In order to learn from life experiences, it is important that emotional reactions are not allowed to overwhelm the individual or to cloud the cognitive processing of the experience’s lessons and meaning. By being able to fully experience the emotions, the meditator can learn about human nature, but, being able to react to the emotions adaptively and effectively, the meditator can keep the emotional reaction from interfering with an objective appraisal of the experience. This would allow the development of wisdom.


So, develop wisdom with meditation.


“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ― Aristotle


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Fight Osteoporosis with Yoga

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.” – Loren Fishman


Bone is living tissue that, like all living tissues, is constantly being broken down and replaced. Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone. This results in a loss of bone mass, causing bones to become weak and brittle. It can become so brittle that a fall or even mild stresses like bending over or coughing can cause a fracture. These fractures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine. Osteoporosis, particularly in its early stages, is difficult to diagnosis as there are typically no symptoms of bone loss. But once bones have been weakened, signs and symptoms may include: back pain, caused by a fractured or collapsed vertebra, loss of height over time, a stooped posture, or a bone fracture that occurs much more easily than expected.


Osteoporosis is estimated to affect 200 million women worldwide; approximately 10% of women aged 60, 20% of women aged 70, 40% of women aged 80 and 70% of women aged 90. In the United States 54 million adults over 50 are affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass; 16% of women and 4% of men. Worldwide, osteoporosis causes more than 8.9 million fractures annually, including 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over age 50. Most fractures occur in postmenopausal women and elderly men. Osteoporosis takes a huge personal and economic toll. The disability due to osteoporosis is greater than that caused by cancers and is comparable or greater than that lost to a variety of chronic diseases, such as arthritis, asthma and high blood pressure related heart disease.


The most common treatments for osteoporosis are drugs which slow down the breakdown of bone, combined with exercise. The side effects of the drugs are mild, including upset stomach and heartburn. But, there is a major compliance problem as the drugs must be taken over very long periods of time. In fact, only about a third of patients continue to take their medications for at least a year. Even when drugs are taken, exercise is recommended to improve bone growth.


In today’s Research News article “Effects of Yogasanas on osteoporosis in postmenopausal women”

Motorwala and colleagues studied the effects of yoga practice on bone density of postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. The women were treated with a 1-hour yoga practice, 4-days per week for 6-months, including postures and breathing exercises. Bone density was measured before and again after treatment with dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA). They found that yoga practice resulted in a significant improvement in bone density. Without treatment, bone density generally becomes worse over this period of time. So, it would appear that yoga practice improves bone density in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis.


This is an important outcome, but it probably understates the benefits of yoga practice for these postmenopausal women. It has been shown that yoga practice produces a number of physical and psychological benefits that were not measured in the present study. In addition, yoga is a generally safe treatment with few adverse consequences. Hence, various weight bearing as well as nonweight bearing yoga postures along with breathing exercises are effective in improving bone density and integrated yoga exercises should be an important component of any osteoporosis treatment exercise regime.


So, fight osteoporosis with yoga.


“We often consider the frailty and disability associated with osteoporosis and osteopenia (bone loss that is not as severe as osteoporosis) as a normal part of aging. Medical research shows, however, that it’s not aging, but inactivity that causes bones to weaken and easily break. Although medications may be necessary to treat severe osteoporotic conditions, the best preventative strategy is to engage in bone-strengthening exercise, like yoga” – Gary Kaplan


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Keep Health Care Professionals from Burning Out with Mindfulness

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Through practicing mindfulness we become more aware of subtle changes in our mood and physical health, and can start to notice more quickly when we are struggling. Rather than waiting for a full meltdown before we take action, we can read the signals of our minds and bodies and start to take better care of ourselves.” – The Mindfulness Project


Stress is epidemic in the western workplace with almost two thirds of workers reporting high levels of stress at work. In high stress occupations burnout is all too prevalent. This is the fatigue, cynicism, emotional exhaustion, and professional inefficacy that comes with work-related stress. Healthcare is a high stress occupation. It is estimated that over 45% of healthcare workers experience burnout with emergency medicine at the top of the list, over half experiencing burnout. Currently, over a third of healthcare workers report that they are looking for a new job. Nearly half plan to look for a new job over the next two years and 80% expressed interest in a new position if they came across the right opportunity.


Burnout is not a unitary phenomenon. In fact, there appear to be a number of subtypes of burnout. The overload subtype is characterized by the perception of jeopardizing one’s health to pursue worthwhile results, and is highly associated with exhaustion. The lack of development subtype is characterized by the perception of a lack of personal growth, together with the desire for a more rewarding occupation that better corresponds to one’s abilities. The neglect subtype is characterized by an inattentive and careless response to responsibilities, and is closely associated with inefficacy. All of these types result from an emotional exhaustion. This exhaustion not only affects the healthcare providers personally, but also the patients, as it produces a loss of empathy and compassion.


Regardless of the reasons for burnout or its immediate presenting consequences, it is a threat to the healthcare providers and their patients. In fact, it is a threat to the entire healthcare system as it contributes to the shortage of doctors and nurses. Hence, preventing existing healthcare workers from burning has to be a priority. Mindfulness has been demonstrated to be helpful in treating and preventing burnout. One of the premiere techniques for developing mindfulness and dealing effectively with stress is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is a diverse mindfulness training containing practice in meditation, body scan, and yoga. As a result, there have been a number of trials investigating the application of MBSR to the treatment and prevention of health care worker burnout.


In today’s Research News article “Outcomes of MBSR or MBSR-based interventions in health care providers: A systematic review with a focus on empathy and emotional competencies”

Lamothe and colleagues summarize the published literature on the effectiveness of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for healthcare worker burnout. They found that the preponderance of evidence from a variety of different trials indicated that MBSR treatment is effective for burnout. In particular, the research generally reports that MBSR treatment significantly improves mindfulness, empathy, and the mental health of healthcare workers. It was found to significantly relieve burnout, and reduce anxiety, depression, and perceived stress.


Hence, the published literature is highly supportive of the application of MBSR for the prevention and treatment of healthcare worker burnout. It appears to not only help the worker, but the improvement in the empathy of the worker projects positive consequences for the patients. In addition, the reduction in burnout suggests that MBSR treatment may help to reduce healthcare workers leaving the field, helping to relieve the systemic lack of providers. These are remarkable and potentially very important results.


Mindfulness training makes the individual more aware of their own immediate physical and emotional state. Since this occurs in real time, it provides the individual the opportunity to recognize what is happening and respond to it effectively before it contributes to an overall state of burnout. Indeed, mindfulness training has been shown to significantly improve emotion regulation. This produces clear experiencing of the emotion in combination with the ability to respond to the emotion adaptively and effectively. So, the healthcare worker can recognize their state, realize its origins, not let it affect their performance, and respond to it appropriately, perhaps by the recognition that rest is needed.


So, keep health care professionals from burning out with mindfulness.


“It helps people to undo some of the sense of the time pressure and urgency that makes it so hard to feel present for your patient, and it helps your patients feel like you’re really there, really listening and that you really care. What you learn is to undo the distractedness that comes with worrying about what happens next, and the concern with what’s already over and done with. It doesn’t take more time; it takes an intention and practice to do it successfully.” –  Dr. Michael Baime


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Change Major Depression Brain Chemistry with Mindfulness

MBCT Major Depression2 Li

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helps participants in the classes to see more clearly the patterns of the mind; and to learn how to recognize when their mood is beginning to go down. It helps break the link between negative mood and the negative thinking that it would normally have triggered. Participants develop the capacity to allow distressing mood, thoughts and sensations to come and go, without having to battle with them. They find that they can stay in touch with the present moment, without having to ruminate about the past, or worry about the future.” – Center for Suicide Research


Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a severe mood disorder that includes mood dysregulation and cognitive impairment. It is estimated that 16 million adults in the U.S. (6.9% of the population suffered from major depression in the past year and affects females (8.4%) to a great extent than males (5.2%). It’s the second-leading cause of disability in the world following heart disease. It has also been shown that depression is, to a large extent, inherited, but can also be affected by the environment. Since the genes basically encode when, where, and how chemicals are produced, it is likely that there are changes in brain chemistry produced by the genes responsible for Major Depressive Disorder.


The usual treatment of choice for MDD is drug treatment. This supports the altered brain chemistry notion for MDD since the most effective treatment for MDD, drug treatment, changes brain chemistry. In fact, it is estimated that 10% of the U.S. population is taking some form of antidepressant medication. But a substantial proportion of patients (~40%) do not respond to drug treatment. In addition, the drugs can have nasty side effects. So, there is need to explore other treatment options.


Mindfulness meditation is a safe alternative that has been shown to be effective for major depressive disorder even in individuals who do not respond to drug treatment. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed specifically to treat depression and has been shown to be very effective in treating existing depression and preventing relapse when depression is in remission. It makes sense that if altered brain chemistry underlies MDD and that MBCT is an effective treatment for MDD, then MBCT must in some way change brain chemistry. In today’s Research News article “Evaluating metabolites in patients with major depressive disorder who received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and healthy controls using short echo MRSI at 7 Tesla”

Li and colleagues explore brain chemistry changes in Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and the effects of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) on those brain chemistry changes.


They recruited patients who were diagnosed with MDD but who were not currently taking antidepressant drugs and who were not practicing meditation or yoga. The brains of these patients and healthy controls were scanned with a powerful imaging technique called Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopic Imaging (MRSI). It is capable of non-invasively detecting levels of particular chemicals in the brain. The patients then received an 8-week MBCT group therapy followed by rescanning of the brains for the same chemicals.


They found that the MDD patients compared to healthy controls had elevated levels of choline-containing compounds and decreased levels of N-acetyl aspartate, myo-inositol, and glutathione.

These chemicals are breakdown products of active brain chemicals (metabolites). These are all markers of brain function. The heightened levels of choline-containing compounds suggests that there is with increased cell density and/or membrane turnover in MDD. The decreased levels of N-acetyl aspartate suggest that there is a loss of neurons or neuronal function in MDD. The decreased levels of myo-inositol suggest that there is a loss of or dysfunction of glial cells in MDD. Finally, the decreased levels of glutathione suggest that there is a lower level of neuron excitation in the brain in MDD.


Importantly, Li and colleagues found that MBCT significantly reduced depression levels and at the same time normalized the levels of all of the metabolites that had abnormal levels in the patients. These are potentially important results. They demonstrate altered brain chemistry in MDD suggestive of dysfunction in the normal activities of the nervous system and point to potential causal factors in MDD. They also provide suggestions as to how MBCT changes the brain to effectively treat MDD.


It should be noted that the changes in metabolites in Major Depressive Disorder may be the result of the depression rather than its cause. The fact that the changes vanished after treatment reduced depression tends to support this contention. It is a complex disease effecting the most complex entity in the universe, the human brain. Hence, there is still a lot of work to do to determine the causal factors in MDD.


Regardless, change major depression brain chemistry with mindfulness.


 “Mindfulness is the only thing I know to do that can dig me out of despair and give me even a few seconds of time out from me,” – Ruby Wax


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies




By John M. de Castro


“To rise from history to mystery is to experience the resurrection of the body here now, as an eternal reality; to experience the parousia, the presence in the present, which is the spirit; to experience the reincarnation of the incarnation, the second coming; which is his coming in us.”
— Norman O. Brown


The Christian holy day of Easter is a celebration of the biblical story of the resurrection of the Christ from death. This death was a release from massive suffering inflicted upon him in life and his resurrection was a rebirth of the Christ as pure, everlasting, spirit. Similarly, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, reports experiencing a resurrection while meditating under the Bodhi tree around 2500 years ago, well before the time of the reported resurrection of the Christ. This also released him from suffering and he was reborn as pure everlasting awareness, spirit. Whether these stories are to be believed literally or as metaphors for spiritual awakening may be very important for the deep religious faith of some. But, regardless of their religious contexts the stories can be regarded as a profound teaching regarding existence and our true nature.


The power of these stories are magnified by the fact that death is greatly feared. In fact, humans rank death as their second greatest fear. That fear is based in part of a fear of the process of dying, with possible great pain and suffering over extended periods. Most of us have witnessed such a death and those who haven’t have heard horrible stories. So, this fear is based upon data and can be seen as reasonable, if maybe overdone. But, the fear of death is also based upon an existential fear; the fear of extinction or a fear of the unknown. The only data that we have available regarding what transpires after death are from stories of resurrection. For those who have faith and believe the stories, they produce great comfort in promising a pleasing existence after death. For those who don’t believe them, existential fear is very real. As a result, we are fascinated and intrigued by the idea of resurrection.


Indeed, we love the idea of resurrection so much that we have a mock practice once a year. We treat each New Year’s Day as a resurrection, a time of renewal and resolutions to better oneself. Christians revel in the idea of being born again, not a physical but a spiritual rebirth, a spiritual resurrection. Both of these, though, are artificial resurrections that don’t involve actual death and are completely under the minds control. But, they do emphasize the importance to people of the idea of being reborn, to fundamentally change, to change what is into something better.

Near death experiences (NDEs) are looked on by many as indicators of what lies beyond death, as the individual gets very close to absolute death. The nervous system flat-lines, but is revived, resurrected and the nervous system returns to relatively normal activity. The individual can then retrospectively report on their experiences. Stories of NDEs are often celebrated in books such as “Proof of Heaven” and “To Heaven and Back” and can become very popular movies such as “Heaven is for Real.” These “resurrections” fascinate people, evidencing our powerful need to relieve our deep fear of death. People who have experienced NDEs report a variety of experiences including sensations of floating up and viewing the scene around them; experiencing a beautiful, otherworldly place; meeting other beings sometimes identified as angels, God, and lost relatives or friends; recall of events in their lives; feelings of oneness and connection, and an overwhelming, transcendent love.


People who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) feel that they were very real and a spiritual revelation. They are often profoundly changed by them. But, in science, in order for an observation to be judged reliable and valid it must be able to be observed by more than one person at the same time and reliably and repeatedly reproduced. NDEs are subjective experiences and as such cannot be validated in this way. Science also requires tests of interpretations and again NDEs have not be amenable to scientific testing. One experiment with lab rats demonstrated that as the brain is dying there is an amazing spike of high levels of activity. Some scientists believe that NDEs are what is experienced as the brain spasms just prior to shutting down. There is currently no evidence to confirm or deny the spiritual nature of NDEs. But, if they are to be believed, they point to a wondrous, blissful, life after death


We tend to forget that every evening our consciousness ceases, dies, and every morning it is reinstated, resurrected. The new day is a brand new existence with opportunities to experience, grow, and develop. As the sage Thich Nhat Hanh states in his morning Gatha “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.” This rebirth every morning is a wondrous opportunity to begin anew, to reinvent ourselves, and work toward ending suffering in ourselves and others. If it doesn’t work today, keep in mind that tomorrow morning another resurrection will occur. What a precious gift!


Resurrection is seen as involving a reemergence from a physical death. But our bodies, including our brains, are dying and renewing constantly. Over varying amounts of time every cell in the body dies and is replaced with a new cell. We have completely different bodies than we had a few years ago. In a sense we’re undergoing a constant continuous process of resurrection.

But, it’s not just our bodies that undergo resurrection, so do our experiences. In fact, our experiences are reborn (resurrected) in every moment. Each moment only exists for a flash and then ceases, dies, never to be repeated, and a new conscious experience replaces it, is resurrected. This underscores the importance of present moment awareness. It emphasizes how critical it is to fully experience and enjoy the precious onetime moments of our existence. To be unaware is like having a Christ or Buddha like resurrection and not noticing! So, death and resurrection are going on constantly. They occur routinely due to the impermanence of all experiences. A resurrection occurs in every moment with both the body and experience.


The Buddha described his resurrection as an awakening. As he described it, we all live in a state of complete delusion. We believe that there is an external physical world containing life and death that we only experience and witnesses. He taught that if we can break through this veil of delusion we can emerge with an understanding of our true nature and the nature of the universe where there is no birth, life, and death. Instead, we emerge as pure awareness. What we experience as life is simply a construct of that awareness and nothing more. In other words, our concept of reality dies and is resurrected in a new form that reveals a completely different reality. Actual experiences are not different, only how we view and interpret them. This is the state that he called awakened or enlightened. It transcends life and death, so there is no need for a resurrection as there is never a true birth nor a true death, only those that are experienced in an everlasting awareness. It’s a shift in what is being experienced but not a loss of anything.


The Buddha taught that no one should take this on faith. No one should believe him. Rather, try out his path and see for yourself what happens. In a sense, this is scientific, as it’s truth or falseness can only be judged by one’s own experience. There are clues that occur along the way as meditation is practiced. Changes start occurring almost immediately as meditator begins to see and understand, better and better, the nature of experiences, and the reactions, thoughts, and emotions that are evoked by them. These improvements occur gradually as meditation is practiced over time. But, the individual becomes more integrated, better able to cope with emotions and stress, and far happier. These benefits are sufficient reward even if the ultimate change of enlightenment should never occur.


So, we are confronted with a number of different accounts of resurrection. The notion of a resurrection after death cannot ever be confirmed except after death. NDE resurrections can only be personally confirmed if you’re unlucky enough (or lucky enough) to come very, very, close to actual physical death. But, the resurrection of the moment you can confirm in every moment. The resurrection each morning you can confirm daily. The enlightenment resurrection is much more difficult to confirm. But, if the effort is made, the Buddha assures us that it can be confirmed and verified by everyone who engages in the practice, follows the path, and experiences awakening. He urges everyone to find out for themselves.


All of these ideas and notions of resurrection can help the individual to become more and more relaxed and perhaps a bit excited at the idea of their own personal resurrection. Something will happen eventually, regardless of our desires otherwise, so, we might as well greet it and welcome it as an opportunity for an answer to an eternal question.


“The symbolic language of the crucifixion is the death of the old paradigm; resurrection is a leap into a whole new way of thinking.” – Deepak Chopra
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

The Power of Retreat 6 – Darkness, Light, and Nothingness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Silent retreats are a kind of crucible that reveal the workings of the mind in a unique and illuminating way.” James Baraz


This essay is the 6th of a continuing series of essays about the experience of silent meditation retreat. Click on the numbers to follow the links to the prior essays, titled “The Power of Retreat 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5”. This essay is written as we are about to embark on another 7-day silent retreat at one of our favorite retreat sites located in the beautiful smoky mountains in North Carolina. In a sense we’ll be on vacation as everything will be taken care of for us, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared for us, and our time will be dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All we have to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. We’re terribly spoiled!


That seeming ease, however, is deceptive. Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it runs from 7:00 in the morning till 10:00 at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in sitting meditation repeatedly over the day is guaranteed to produce many aches and pains in the legs, back, and neck. But the real challenges are psychological, emotional, and spiritual. Retreat can be a real test.


Retreat isn’t all relaxation and fun. Far from it. The darkness can descend. During silent retreat deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. There are plenty of tissues available at the site as many will spontaneously burst out in tears. Others may become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety and break out in cold sweats, and still others are sleepless and tormented. How can this be, that something so seemingly peaceful as silent retreat can be so emotionally wrenching? The secret is that the situation removes the minds ability to hide and distract.


Humans have done a tremendous job of providing distractions for the mind including books, movies, magazines, music, television, sports, amusement parks, surfing the internet, tweeting, texting, etc. Any time troubling thoughts or memories of traumatic experiences begin to emerge in everyday life, we can easily change the subject by engaging in a distraction. So, we never have to truly confront the issues. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. For some people this may be the first time in their entire life that they’ve had to directly face themselves and their darkest thoughts. It’s no wonder that retreat can be so wrenching.


So, why, you might ask, should someone put themselves into such a position? Simply put, you can’t address problems until you recognize them. Retreat is a safe place to do so. Many other people there, have gone through similar experiences and as a result, there’s a great deal of acceptance and compassion from others. It is, however, advised to not intervene but to let anyone in crisis simply work it through themselves. They’ll let you know if they really need help. In the warm and accepting environment of retreat it is actually possible to work on these issues that may have been impossible to address elsewhere. This can lead to substantial personal growth. This is the benefit, that individuals can begin to resolve the very issues that may have, unbeknownst to themselves, been holding them back for their entire life. This is very powerful, and confronting the darkness begins to let the light through.


There are much more positive and pleasant sides to silent retreat. One simple one is that many modern adults are overworked, stressed, and as a result sleep deprived. The opportunity to rest and sleep is priceless. Many people fall asleep during meditations and talks early in the retreat. This is not only OK, it’s desirable. If need be it is encouraged to skip sessions and take naps.

The positive benefits of retreat can only emerge when the individual is sufficiently rested to have the energy available to meditate deeply, to look inside, and to begin to remove the veil of delusion that blinds us all.


The opportunity to have repeated meditation sessions over prolonged periods of time in a quiet, accepting, and peaceful setting provides the ability to build from meditation to meditation. It allows for deep, repeated engagement into the inner realms, to begin to peel away the layers of awareness, and to begin to dissolve the delusions standing between the individual and their true nature. This progressive process can reveal the light, the positive and pleasant side of retreat. The individual begins to feel happier, more peaceful, and more mindful of themselves and their environment. They can even develop into deeply blissful states. Many people can go no further, but this is far enough. They emerge from retreat feeling peaceful, happy, insightful, having a better understanding of themselves, being better able to deal with their emotions, and with a sense of well-being. In fact, toward the end of retreat the most frequent question asked is how can this be held onto as the process of reintegration into everyday life unfolds.


Just going this far makes the retreat worthwhile, but there is a possibility for much deeper experiences and realizations. It is possible to enter the realm of nothingness. It seems like five to ten people in each retreat have some form of spiritual awakening. It is, however, not predictable who will this happen too. It sometimes occurs to long-time veterans of retreat and meditation practice, but it also often happens to complete novices on their first retreat. One has to always be open to the possibility. It is sometimes a nearly complete enlightenment, but sometimes a relatively shallow but real awakening. Again it is unpredictable. The teacher, Adyashanti, calls it falling into grace.


What is the nature of these experiences? They tend to have a common property of an experience of oneness, an experience that everything is singular, there is no distinction between subject and object, such that the sound and the listener, the sight and the seer, and the feeling and the feeler, are one and the same. These can be what are termed extrovertive awakening experiences wherein one experiences and observes the entire environment, sights, sound, smells, feelings, thoughts, etc. as simply an experience that all are one, with no distinction or separation. They can also be very deep experiences of nothingness that are termed introvertive awakenings. In these experiences everything dissolves into a void a nothingness, in which only pure awareness exists.


These are shattering experiences revealing a reality that was entirely unseen previously. People having had these experiences frequently state that death is not to be feared but rather seen as part of the fabric of existence, not an ending, but simply a change. These are frequently life changing experiences, forever altering the individual. They are never the same again. Needless to say, these are powerful spiritual experiences that many people previously believed were only open to special enlightened beings such as the Buddha. They are glimpses into our true nature and the workings of the universe.


There is no requirement that a retreat is necessary for these awakening experiences. Indeed, they occur spontaneously, quite frequently in everyday and even unlikely settings. But, retreat appears to greatly increase the probability that an awakening, a descent into the void, the nothingness, that is the basis for all existence, will happen. We have no expectations regarding what will happen on our upcoming retreat. We have enough experience to know that every retreat is different and to expect to repeat or build on an experience from a prior retreat is a fundamental error. Whatever, happens, if anything, can’t be predicted. On a previous retreat I went with great expectations only to get terribly sick and missed about half of the retreat sick in bed. You never know what will happen. But, know that whatever it is, it will move you in a positive direction.


So, go on retreat and feel its power, it’s power to fundamentally change you in mundane ways and sometimes in the most profound ways imaginable.


“One of the most powerful aspects of retreat in aiding the factor of determination is the collective energy of the community that is inherent to the retreat setting. When the bell rings and 150 people make their way into the meditation hall to sit, again and again, it becomes evident that this impulsion is like a powerful, gentle, loving force calling us back to remember again and again that we are loving, connected, resilient and forgiving. We, like so many others carry the responsibility of influencing the overall humanness of our totality.” – Scott Francis


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Reduce Reward-Driven Eating with Mindfulness

Mindfulness eating reward2 Mason

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Mindless eating is looking at environmental cues and triggers around eating. Mindful eating is about awareness of internal and external cues that trigger eating.” – Megrette Fletcher


Obesity is epidemic in the industrialized world. In the United States the incidence of obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above has more than doubled over the last 35 years to currently around 35% of the population. Although the incidence rates have appeared to stabilize, the fact that over a third of the population is considered obese is very troubling.


It is particularly troubling because of the effects of obesity on health. Being obese has been found to shorten life expectancy by eight years and in extreme cases by 14 years. This results from the fact that obesity is associated with cardiovascular problems such as coronary heart disease and hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and other diseases. Unfortunately, the epidemic of obesity has been resistant to prevention and treatment. Despite copious research and a myriad of dietary and exercise programs, there still is no safe and effective treatment. Hence, there is a need to explore alternative methods to prevent or treat obesity.


Mindfulness is known to be associated with lower risk for obesity. This is promising but much more research is needed to understand the mechanism by which mindfulness affects obesity in order to optimize its effectiveness. In today’s Research News article “Reduced Reward-driven Eating Accounts for the Impact of a Mindfulness-Based Diet and Exercise Intervention on Weight Loss: Data from the SHINE Randomized Controlled Trial”

Mason and colleagues randomly assigned male and female obese participants to either of two interventions; mindfulness or control. Both contained 12 weekly 2.5-hour diet and exercise weight loss programs conducted in a group format. The mindfulness group included additional training in mindful eating, stress reduction, and emotion regulation while the control group included additional training in nutrition and physical activity. They measured reward-based eating, perceived stress, and weight loss at the end of the intervention and 6 and 12 months later.


They found that both groups lost weight over the intervention and maintained that weight loss a year later. There was a trend toward greater weight loss in the mindfulness group. Significantly, the mindfulness group demonstrated significantly greater reductions in reward-driven eating which were associated with great weight loss. There were no significant changes in perceived stress. These results suggest that mindfulness training may supplement diet and exercise in weight loss programs by improving the individual’s ability to refrain from reward-driven eating.


Reward-driven eating is characterized by a lack of control over eating, a preoccupation with food, and a lack of satiety. Craving is a key driver of this kind of behavior producing a drive to overeat highly palatable food for reward. This is a major obstacle to weight loss. Mindfulness training may improve the individual’s awareness of and attention to their internal state, thereby reducing responses to outside stimuli. Hence, mindfulness training may be effective for weight loss by reducing this obstacle of reward-driven eating, producing more normal eating in response to physiological cues of hunger and satiety.


It is interesting that mindfulness training did not reduce perceived stress as mindfulness has been repeatedly shown to reduce perceived stress. This may indicate that the stress of engaging in a diet and exercise program for weight reduction is immune to mindfulness intervention.


A strength of this study is that the control condition was so carefully crafted to be very similar to the mindfulness condition in all ways except for the mindfulness training itself. This is an unusually good control condition which accounts for the majority of potential confounding variables that could contaminate the results. As a result, it can be concluded with reasonable certainty that mindfulness training when added to a diet and exercise weight reduction program improves the outcome by reducing reward-driven eating.


So, reduce reward-driven eating with mindfulness.


“mindful eating does not have to be an exercise in super-human concentration, but rather a simple commitment to appreciating, respecting and, above all, enjoying the food you eat every day. It can be practiced with salad or ice cream, donuts or tofu, and you can introduce it at home, at work, or even as you snack on the go (though you may find yourself doing this less often).” – Jenni Grover


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Blink Less with Long-Term Meditation

Meditation Eye Blink2 Kruis


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The emotional effects of sitting quieting and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness” – Chopra Center


Contemplative practices produce improvements to the practitioners’ ability to think (cognition), their ability to regulate emotions, and to their mental health. They also produce marked changes to the nervous system including the size, activity, and connectivity of structures in the brain. All of these brain structures rely on neurotransmitters for communications between their cells (neurons). These are special molecules that transmit the signals between neurons. Without them, the brain would cease to function.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is distributed throughout the brain and appears to be involved in a wide variety of brain functions. It is classified as a neuromodulator. That is, it alters the overall activity levels of widespread areas of the nervous system. As a result, it is involved in a wide variety of functions including pleasure, motor function, thinking, memory, motivation, arousal, and activation. In other words, its involved in most everything. Dysfunction in the dopamine system has been associated with a number of physical and mental diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease, Schizophrenia, and ADHD.


Dopamine, like most neurotransmitters is difficult to measure as it is released in miniscule quantities and is broken down very quickly. In living humans its activity can be indirectly measured by measuring the rate and pattern of eye blinks. It has been shown that dopamine is particularly involved in the control of the eyelid and blinking, with high blink rates associated with high levels of dopamine and low rates with low levels. In today’s Research News article “Effects of meditation practice on spontaneous eyeblink rate”

Kruis and colleagues take advantage of this association of dopamine with eye blink rates to indirectly measure the effects of meditation on brain dopamine levels. They compared long-term meditators (at least 3-years of experience with meditation naïve participants. The naïve participants were then randomly assigned to an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training, and 8-week health education program, or a no-treatment control group.


They found that long-term meditators had significantly slower blink rates than meditation naïve participants and also they had a different pattern of blinks, with longer periods without eye blinks, interrupted by short periods of frequent blinks. It didn’t matter what type of meditation that they engaged in. The slower rate and different pattern of eye blinks are indicative of lower levels of dopamine in the brains of long-term-meditators. Eight-weeks of MBSR or health education did not change eye blink rates or pattern. This suggests that short-term meditation practice is insufficient to significantly alter dopamine levels.


The results are interesting and suggest that in addition to the known effects of meditation on brain structures it also appears to affect neurochemistry. In particular, the results suggest that meditation can change the overall levels of an important neuromodulator, dopamine. It can be speculated that this effects of long term meditation on a transmitter with widespread activity and function may, at least in part, be responsible for meditations widespread effects on physical and mental health of practitioners. It should be pointed out, however, that 8-weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training is sufficient to produce many of the effects of meditation on physical and mental health. Since, Dopamine levels were not affected by 8-weeks of MBSR training the change in dopamine levels are probably not responsible for these effects. It remains for future research to further explore this tantalizing speculation.


So, blink less with long-term meditation.


“if you learn how to properly meditate, and commit to a daily practice, you will alter concentrations of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine.  There is evidence in particular that mindfulness meditation is capable of increasing signaling in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation and control of attention.” – Mental Health Daily


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Improve Mind-Body Connection with Mindfulness



By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” – Sarah Lazar


The mind and body are intrinsically intertwined. The old distinction between mind and body has been shown to be a false distinction. The brain, the organ of the mind, also controls the physiology, while the activity of the physiology affects the brain. So, mind and body are interconnected. Hence, mind practices should also affect the physiology just as physiological changes affect the mind.


Contemplative practices have been shown to influence both the mind, brain, and the physiology. Among the many physiological effects of contemplative practices are alterations of the cardiovascular system, producing reductions in heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood pressure. Contemplative practices have also been shown to alter the nervous system changing the size, activity, and connectivity of brain structures. These changes can be measured in many ways, but a convenient and inexpensive non-invasive method to document changes in brain activity is by recording the electrical activity of the nervous system from the scalp, known as the electroencephalograph or EEG. Indeed, the changes in brain activity produced by contemplative practices can be seen in the EEG.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was one of the first contemplative practices to be applied to improving human well-being. It is an amalgam of practices, including meditation, yoga, and body scan. It has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular function and to change neural activity. One way to look at the integration of mind-body activity is to measure the relationship between brain activity and cardiovascular activity over time. In today’s Research News article “Entrainment of chaotic activities in brain and heart during MBSR meditation”

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

Gao and colleagues investigated the effects of an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program on the coordination of electrical activity from the nervous system (EEG) with the electrical activity from the heart (Electrocardiogram, ECG). The EEG and ECG were recorded during 10-minutes of mindful breathing both before and after MBSR training.


They measured the chaotic nature of the activity in both the EEG and ECG employing a measure of wavelet entropy. This measure documents the unpredictability and random nature of the signals. They found that after MBSR training there was a reduction in the entropy of both the brain waves, EEG, and the heart electrical activity, ECG. This demonstrates that MBSR training results in reduced variability and randomness of the electrical activities of both the heart and brain. Significantly, they found that the entropy of the EEG and EKG were highly correlated as a result of MBSR training. That is, the lower the entropy of the EEG, the lower the entropy of that ECG. In other words, as the brain activity became less chaotic, so did the activity of the heart. They were coordinated.


One way that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training might produce these effects on the level of entropy and its coordination of the heart and brain activities is by its effects on the autonomic nervous system. This system has two roughly opposing systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic activation tends in activate the heart and brain while parasympathetic activity tends to reduce activation of both. If these two systems oppose one another instead of acting in a coordinated fashion, then greater variability of the EEG and ECG would be expected. MBSR has been shown to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system both centrally and peripherally and increase parasympathetic activity. The current results, then, could well have occurred by MBSR producing better coordination of the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) appears to improve the coordination between the mind and body. This is emphasized in the body scan and yoga components of MBSR where attention to sensations from the body is emphasized. It is also emphasized during meditation as a result of learning to attend to the sensations associated with breathing. So, MBSR would seem well suited to increasing the coordination of mind and body. Today’s Research News results support this idea.


So, improve mind-body connection with mindfulness.


“We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial.” – Richie Davidson


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Change Brain Activity in Depression with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.”Alice Walton


In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought. Areas in the brain can change, either increase or decrease in size, connectivity, and activity in response to changes in our environment or the behaviors we engage in. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity. The nervous system is constantly changing and adapting to the environment. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals.  Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. Hence experience changes size, activity, and connectivity of the brain. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity.


Over the last decade neuroscience has studied the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has demonstrated that these practices produce neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. Indeed, mindfulness practices have been shown to not only alter how we think and feel but also to alter the nervous system, producing changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of specific structures and systems in the nervous system. Depression has been shown to also involve changes to the nervous system and is significantly improved by mindfulness practices. As a result of mindfulness practices’ ability to alter the brain and relieve depression, these practices have been incorporated into various psychotherapies for depression.


Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was specifically developed to treat depression. It has been shown to be remarkably effective. Putting all these pieces together, it would seem likely that MBCT relieves depression by altering neural systems. In today’s Research News article “Multi-dimensional modulations of α and γ cortical dynamics following mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in Major Depressive Disorder”

Schoenberg and Speckens investigated changes in brain activity produced by MBCT using sophisticated techniques to explore the electrical activity that can be recorded from various regions of the scalp (Electroencephalogram, EEG). They compared patients with major depressive disorder who were randomly assigned to receive 8-weeks of group Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or treatment as usual, waitlist control. They found that MBCT treatment produced clinically significant improvements in depressive symptoms, self-compassion, over identification with painful thoughts and feelings, and mindfulness. This is not surprising, and replicates the well-established finding that MBCT is highly effective in treating depression.


They recorded the EEG of both groups while they performed a Go/NoGo task. Performance on this task has been shown to be deficient in depressed patients and indicates deficient executive function. They found that MBCT significantly downregulated α and γ power in the electrical activity of the brain. This indicates that there was and increase the excitability of the cerebral cortex. This is generally associated with greater positive mood and decreased negative emotions. This suggests that MBCT may relive depression by its effects on the neural systems underlying the depressed mood.


They also found an enhancement of the α-desynchronisation occurring in response to the Go/NoGo task when negative material was presented, but decreased α-desynchronisation when positive material was presented. This suggests that MBCT activates the neural networks underlying positive emotion. These are the systems that are usually relatively inactive in depression. This again suggests that MBCT may relieve depression by enhancing the activity of neural systems responsible for positive mood, thus working in opposition to the negative mood so characteristic of depression.


Finally, they found that MBCT increased intra-hemispheric α-coherence of the fronto-parietal circuit. This coherence has been shown to be related to improved attention and reduced mind wandering. In depression, mind wandering is highly related to rumination which tends to reinforce and support the depressed state. This suggests that MBCT may relive depression by enhancing the coherence of neural systems responsible for attention, thus inhibiting the mind wandering and rumination so characteristic of depression.


Hence the present study found evidence for changed electrical dynamics in the cortex of depressed patients following Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The changes that were observed reflect changed processing of emotional information and attention, such that positive mood was enhanced, negative mood was reduced, and mind wandering and rumination decreased. All of these processes tend to counteract depression and may at least in part be responsible for the effectiveness of MBCT in treating depression.


So, change brain activity in depression with mindfulness.


“Being in the present moment, accepting what is, without wanting to change or interpret it, will greatly enhance emotional well-being, leading to healthier thinking patterns that will touch and better every other aspects of your life.” – Jonathan Banks


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies