Simplify to Break Through


As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” – Henry David Thoreau


Science has been a tremendous success. It has produced the knowledge and understandings that have allowed us to control our environment, prevent and cure diseases, communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, feed billions of people, and understand our universe. The accelerating rate of development can be directly traced to the practice of science. How did science achieve so much? What allowed us to unravel the mysteries of our universe and existence? What is the essence of such a successful practice? In a word, it’s simplify! Science simplified phenomena in order to break through to understanding.


Science studies phenomena by simplifying them. In a good scientific experiment only one thing is studied at a time and everything else is either removed or held constant. To study gravity it must be done in a vacuum, removing the resistance to movement provided by air molecules. Other objects have to be removed so that only two objects are interacting, and all other forces have to be removed or controlled. Once, this is accomplished gravity can be studied in as pure a form as possible. This simplification is the essence of the scientific method. It successfully investigates phenomena by isolating them from the surrounding complexities.


Similarly, the essence of contemplative practices is to simplify. This allows us to investigate what resides at the core of our being by removing complexities or holding them as constant as possible. To achieve spiritual breakthroughs, contemplative practices, like science does to produce breakthroughs in the physical realm, removes as many distractions as possible to allow for the study of our essence in its purest form possible.


This is particularly clear with meditation practices. The beginner is taught to remove themselves to a quiet environment, to sit as comfortably as possible while still maintaining alertness, to quiet the mental chatter, and to concentrate on a single simple thing such as the breath or a mantra. In a body scan meditation, the concentration is on the feelings emanating solely from particular areas of the body. It is difficult to do hold the concentration required, especially for a beginner. It is the challenge of meditation. But, once achieved, even for brief periods of time, the practitioner becomes in essence a scientist of awareness. S/he becomes an explorer of the essential nature of their being. If the meditation is contemplative prayer, then the individual becomes an explorer of the nature of the Deity.


Similarly, mindful movement practices such as qigong or tai chi simplify by concentrating the mind on specific movements and the energetics (chi) revealed in their execution. The practitioner becomes an explorer of chi, the energy of existence. Yoga practice combines a number of these components with meditation at its core, but using body postures, asanas, as sometimes the point of concentration, sometimes the breathing, and sometimes just pure meditation. But, in essence, yoga simplifies the mind so that the core of being becomes exposed.


If we are successful in the practice and have simplified our mental landscape what is revealed? Once we pare away the distractions from the environment, from the thoughts, plans, and memories, from the internal speech, and from the body, what is left?  First we realize that try as we may we can never really quiet our minds. The internal chatter continues. We can quiet it for brief periods, but, not for long. This is uncomfortable for the beginning meditator who sees it as a failure. But, reflection can result in the first breakthrough; the understanding that we do not and cannot control our minds. If we can’t control it, then what is it? Is it the mind that defines us or is it simply something no different than the wind blowing, something outside of our essence that is simply there? It’s just another stimulus, just a thought arising and falling away, that only has power if we believe it comes from our essence. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.


By simplifying in mindfulness practice we are able to see things as they really are, not as we think they should be, or as ideas of labels, but simply as ever changing experiences. One of the next breakthroughs is the realization of impermanence. Once simplified it is easy to see that everything is changing, increasing or decreasing, arising, or falling away, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but never constant or stationary. Our minds and our sensory systems are programmed to produce constancy and only when we can eliminate these processes can we clearly see the impermanence of all things. These include our sensations, feelings, our physical body, and even thoughts. This reveals the fleeting nature of our experiences and even our lives and brings us to the realization that reality exists only in the present moment, that the past is simply a faulty memory and the future is a fanciful speculation. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.


Once we have these breakthroughs and we have simplified our view of experience we are open to the next breakthrough, the realization that the only thing that is not changing, that is constant is our awareness. What is aware of impermanent reality is always aware and has always been aware, never changing, always present. Once we see that this is the only constant we can begin to understand that this is our essence, that awareness is what we are. We are not fleeting experience or a constructed sense of self, but rather that which is viewing these things, awareness. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.


There are other breakthroughs that await when the process of simplification is complete. These we call awakening or enlightenment or as a teacher of mine likes to say, a moment of clarity. These like the other breakthroughs depend upon our simplifying everything so that the truth of existence can shine through.


So, simplify to break through!


The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. – Hans Hofmann


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Improve Attention in the Elderly with Tai Chi


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age.” – Peter Wayne


We all want to live longer. We celebrate the increasing longevity of the population. But, aging is a mixed blessing. The aging process involves a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body, the brain included. It cannot be avoided. Our mental abilities may also decline with age including impairments in memory, attention, and problem solving ability. These are called age related cognitive decline. This occurs to everyone as they age, but to varying degrees. Some deteriorate into a dementia, while others maintain high levels of cognitive capacity into very advanced ages. One of the key deficits that develops with age is in attention. It becomes easier to get distracted and harder to focus. This is, to some extent, responsible for some of the memory loss as the elderly person is not paying close enough attention to what’s going on to store and consolidate memories about it.


There is some hope for those who are prone to deterioration as there is evidence that these cognitive declines can be slowed. For example, a healthy diet and a regular program of exercise can slow the physical decline of the body with aging. Also, contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging. Tai Chi is an ancient eastern practices involving slow mindful movements. It is a gentle exercise and a contemplative practice that improves mindfulness. Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve cognitive processes while Tai Chi practice has been shown to slow age related cognitive decline. It would seem reasonable to hypothesize that Tai Chi practice might decrease age related cognitive decline including deficits in attention.


In today’s Research News article “The mental-attention Tai Chi effect with older adults.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Kim and colleagues recruited individuals between 50 and 80+ years of age and separated them into two groups, Chinese and non-Chinese (English speakers) samples. They had both samples practice Tai Chi twice a week for 16 weeks for 1 to 1 ½ hours per session. The participants were measured both before and after the 16 weeks of practice with three attentional tasks and a measure of fluid intelligence.


They found that the effects of Tai Chi practice were different for the two groups. The Chinese sample had significant improvements in attentional capacity and attentional inhibition and also in fluid intelligence, while both groups showed improvements in attentional balance. The differences in the effects of Tai Chi practice might have been due to a number of differences between the groups. The Chinese group was significantly younger, less well educated, had lower incomes, and had more prior practice with Tai Chi than the non-Chinese sample. The results were not correlated with age so it is unlikely that this is the explanation for the differences but the results were significantly correlated with education, income, and experience with Tai Chi. So, these group differences may have been responsible for the differential effects.


The authors interpret the differences as due to motivational differences, where the Chinese sample were more motivated to practice Tai Chi as it is common in China. The two groups did not differ in attendance to Tai Chi practice, however, indicating that they may have been equivalently motivated. It is also possible that the Chinese participants through their culture had a stronger belief that Tai Chi is effective and thus had greater expectations that Tai Chi would improve attention. There is no way to assess which of the possible explanations might be true. That will require further research.


Mindfulness practices, in general, have been shown to improve attention and decrease cognitive decline in the elderly. So, the fact that Tai Chi, a mindfulness practice increases attention and fluid intelligence is not surprising.  Since, Tai Chi practice is a gentle practice with no significant negative side effects, that appears to have both physical and psychological benefits, and can be implemented at a very low cost, it would appear to be an ideal practice for the elderly to slow physical and cognitive decline.


So, practice Tai Chi to slow age related declines in attention and fluid intelligence.


“Tai Chi goes to the root system of the majority of health and wellness issues by unwinding the muscular tissues and mind, aligning the spine posture and stabilizing the energy devices that run via the body, giving them with life energy.”


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Kim, T. H. M., Pascual-Leone, J., Johnson, J., & Tamim, H. (2016). The mental-attention Tai Chi effect with older adults. BMC Psychology, 4, 29.


Background: Tai Chi practice has some fitness, wellness, and general cognitive effects in older adults. However, benefits of Tai Chi on specific mental-attentional executive processes have not been investigated previously. We studied older Canadian adults of Chinese and non-Chinese origin and from low socioeconomic areas.

Methods: Sixty-four adults (51–87 years old) took part in a 16-week Tai Chi program. There were two groups: Chinese-background (n = 35) and Non-Chinese-background (n = 29). They received four mental-attention executive tasks before and after the 16-week period. These tasks measured visuospatial reasoning, mental-attentional activation (working memory), attentional inhibition, and balance between these attention factors (field-dependence-independence).

Results: Chinese participants showed significant gain on Figural Intersections Task (mental-attentional capacity), Antisaccade (attentional inhibition), and Matrix Reasoning (fluid intelligence measure). Both groups evidenced gain on the Water Level Task (attentional balance).

Conclusions: These gains suggest that Tai Chi can improve mental-attentional vigilance and executive control, when practitioners are sufficiently motivated to pursue this practice, and apply themselves (as our Chinese participants seem to have done). We found that Tai Chi enhanced mental attentional executives in the Chinese sample. The largely negative results with Non-Chinese participants might be explained by less strong motivation and by the relatively short Tai Chi practice period, which contrasts with the prior familiarity with Tai Chi of the Chinese participants.


Reverse Osteoporotic Bone Loss with Yoga


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Yoga’s emphasis on strength-building, balance and alignment can help people with osteoporosis avoid injury. Low-impact weight-bearing yoga poses stimulate bone growth to build stronger bones. Standing poses can build strength in your hips, an area commonly affected by osteoporosis. Light back-bending back extension poses decompress the vertebrae and build spinal strength.” – Kristin Shea


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.


Yoga is a relatively gentle low-cost exercise that can be adjusted to the capabilities of elderly individuals. “By pitting one group of muscles against another, yoga exposes bones to greater forces and, therefore, might enhance bone mineral density more than other means.” So, it would seem reasonable to suspect that yoga practice might be effective in the treatment of osteoporosis. In today’s Research News article “Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Lu and colleagues recruited participants over the internet who had recent bone density measures and were willing to practice yoga for 12 minutes per day. Only participants who complied and practiced yoga at least every other day were included in the final sample. In the four years prior to the study the participants lost bone density with an average loss per month of −0.0036 g/cm2 for the spine, −0.00008 g/cm2 for the hips, and −0.009 for the femora and 109 bone fractures were reported. After practicing yoga for two years the participants increased bone density with an average gain per month of 0.048, 0.088, and 0.0003 g/cm2, for spine, hips, and femora and only 19 bone fractures were reported.


These are exciting results and suggest that the practice of yoga has long-term benefits for bone health. These results suggest that osteoporotic bone loss can be reversed with yoga. The people studied were from all over the world, making the results highly generalizable to disparate populations. Also, yoga practice has many additional benefits for psychological and physical health and it is safe, low-cost, and can be adapted for individuals at varying ages and physical conditions.


Hence, practice yoga for bone health.


”yoga poses, have improved bone strength and mineral density significantly. . . .They showed a dramatic rise in the bone mineral density of those that practiced yoga. The people that did not do any yoga had the expected modest fall in their bone mineral density.” – Lauren Fishman


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Lu, Y.-H., Rosner, B., Chang, G., & Fishman, L. M. (2016). Twelve-Minute Daily Yoga Regimen Reverses Osteoporotic Bone Loss. Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation, 32(2), 81–87.




Assess the effectiveness of selected yoga postures in raising bone mineral density (BMD).


Ten-year study of 741 Internet-recruited volunteers comparing preyoga BMD changes with postyoga BMD changes.

Outcome Measures:

Dual-energy x-ray absorptiometric scans. Optional radiographs of hips and spine and bone quality study (7 Tesla).


Bone mineral density improved in spine, hips, and femur of the 227 moderately and fully compliant patients. Monthly gain in BMD was significant in spine (0.0029 g/cm2, P = .005) and femur (0.00022 g/cm2, P = .053), but in 1 cohort, although mean gain in hip BMD was 50%, large individual differences raised the confidence interval and the gain was not significant for total hip (0.000357 g/cm2). No yoga-related serious injuries were imaged or reported. Bone quality appeared qualitatively improved in yoga practitioners.


Yoga appears to raise BMD in the spine and the femur safely.


Build a Cooperative Brain with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“With mindfulness, we learn to truly stand in our own shoes. From this perspective, mindfulness is a practice of self–empathy. This kind of self-awareness allows us to develop empathic connections to others. As we experience the landscape of our inner life with more detail and richness, our ability to understand the inner lives of others expands.” – Matthew Brensilver


Humans are social animals. This is a great asset for the species as the effort of the individual is amplified by cooperation. In primitive times, this cooperation was essential for survival. But in modern times it is also essential, not for survival but rather for making a living and for the happiness of the individual. This ability to cooperate is so essential to human flourishing that it is built deep into our DNA and is reflected in the structure of the human nervous system.


This cooperation is reflected in the modern workplace where the enterprise is founded on a large number of employees each playing their individual role in the totality of the business. Complex organizations such as modern corporations produce interpersonal challenges and stresses on the individual. Fortunately, the human has considerable social skills including the abilities to be compassionate and understanding of others, helping to cope with these challenges. This involves a considerable ability to regulate emotions, to not react to the individual’s momentary emotions to consider the greater good.


Mindfulness may be of great assistance. It is known to produce better emotion regulation and to promote compassion and empathy. Hence, mindfulness improves the individual’s ability to work cooperatively with others. As a result, mindfulness training has been shown to improve performance and satisfaction in the workplace. In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness training increases cooperative decision making in economic exchanges: Evidence from fMRI.” See:

or below, Kirk and colleagues explore the effects of mindfulness training on economic cooperation and the underlying neural systems. They recruited adults to participate in a stress reduction program. They were randomly assigned either to an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or an 8-week progressive muscle relaxation program. All participants were measured before and after training for mindfulness and mood states. They also played an “Ultimatum Game” in which they were asked to accept or reject offers of splits of $20 all of which produced a gain for participants but varied in fairness of the split. Surprisingly participants frequently reject unfair offers even when it is in their best interest to accept all non-zero offers. Finally, participants’ brains were scanned with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while playing the game.


They found that mindfulness training significantly increased the acceptance of splits particularly with the most unfair but profitable splits, increasing from 24% to 44% after training. This resulted in a significant increase in the total distribution of money to both the participant and their supposed partner. Hence, mindfulness training produced greater profit for both. There was no change for the relaxation group. Both groups increased in mindfulness and the greater the increase in mindfulness, the greater the acceptance rates of the offers. In terms of the nervous system activity they found that pre-training unfair offers led to increased activity of the Insula, but this activity was lower after mindfulness training. In addition, in the mindfulness trained participants, cooperation led to increased activity of the Septum. Mindfulness training was also found to increase the functional connectivity between the Insula and the Septum.


These results suggest that mindfulness training produces greater cooperation to the benefit of all participants and that these changes are reflected in changes in neural processing. Why would mindfulness training increase cooperation in the “Ultimatum Game.” Rejecting any off in the game actually reduces the gain for everyone including the participant. So, it is an irrational action. The offers that are rejected are those that are seen to gain more for another than the participant, to be unfair. So, it is this emotional reaction to the perceived unfairness that prompts the counterproductive action of rejecting the offer. Mindfulness training is known to improve emotion regulation, making the individual better able to respond adaptively to emotions. This is probably what made the mindfulness trained group better at cooperation in the face of perceived unfairness, responding rationally and adaptively, increasing profit for all. These effects of mindfulness training are reflected in changes in the brain.


So, build a cooperative brain with mindfulness.


“We are emotional beings and we can’t help but be affected by the varying moods and interactions we have with others. Life is always changing and this constant change can create difficult thoughts and emotions, which can flow into the workplace. The silver lining is that if we can meet suffering at work with concern and care, compassion naturally arises. Work environments that cultivate compassion create a much more positive and productive place to work.” –  Carley Hauck


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Kirk U, Gu X, Sharp C, Hula A, Fonagy P, Montague PR. Mindfulness training increases cooperative decision making in economic exchanges: Evidence from fMRI. Neuroimage. 2016 Jun 4. pii: S1053-8119(16)30189-6. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.05.075



Emotions have been shown to exert influences on decision making during economic exchanges. Here we investigate the underlying neural mechanisms of a training regimen which is hypothesized to promote emotional awareness, specifically mindfulness training (MT). We test the hypothesis that MT increases cooperative economic decision making using fMRI in a randomized longitudinal design involving 8 weeks of either MT or active control training (CT). We find that MT results in an increased willingness to cooperate indexed by higher acceptance rates to unfair monetary offers in the Ultimatum Game. While controlling for acceptance rates of monetary offers between intervention groups, subjects in the MT and CT groups show differential brain activation patterns. Specifically, a subset of more cooperative MT subjects displays increased activation in the septal region, an area linked to social attachment, which may drive the increased willingness to express cooperative behavior in the MT cohort. Furthermore, MT resulted in attenuated activity in anterior insula compared with the CT group in response to unfair monetary offers post-training, which may suggest that MT enables greater ability to effectively regulate the anterior insula and thereby promotes social cooperation. Finally, functional connectivity analyses show a coupling between the septal region and posterior insula in the MT group, suggesting an integration of interoceptive inputs. Together, these results highlight that MT may be employed in contexts where emotional regulation is required to promote social cooperation.


Tamp Down Impulsivity and Aggression in Youth with Mindfulness


“When you are angry, when you feel despair, you practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, to generate the energy of mindfulness. This energy allows you to recognize and embrace your painful feelings.“ – Thich Nhat Hahn


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


It is a sad fact that late adolescence and young adulthood are dangerous times in life. The body is either fully developed or close to it, but the brain lags behind, especially the frontal areas that inhibit and control basic instincts and reactions. As a result, youth often react aggressively and impulsively without higher level control of these behaviors. This is responsible for some troubling statistics. Young people ages 15-24 represent only 14% of the U.S. population, but they account for 30% of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males. Regarding youth violence and aggression, 46% of males, and 26% of females reported they had been in physical fights, one million U.S. students took guns to school and six thousand were kicked out of school for packing weapons, the annual death toll from school shootings has more than doubled, the youth homicide rate increased by 168 percent, and juvenile arrest for possession of weapons, aggravated assault, robbery, and murder have risen more than 50 percent.


It is important for society to control violent and aggressive behavior and late adolescence and young adulthood are periods when the likelihood is high. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce violence and aggression in adults. So, it would seem reasonable to investigate whether mindfulness may be effective in helping to control the aggressive tendencies of youth. In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness-Based Program for Management of Aggression Among Youth: A Follow-up Study.” See:

or below, Sharma and colleagues investigate this idea. They provided training in mindfulness meditation to youth who were having difficulty controlling aggression. Prior to the training 22% involved themselves in physical violence, 12% also used weapons during aggression, and 14.2% had experienced injuries due to fights. They found that after the training, there were significant decreases in physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, hostility, rumination, and a decrease in urges to smoke, and significant increases in physical and environmental quality of life, well-being, relaxation, and interpersonal interactions.


These results are encouraging that meditation training can help in controlling hostility and aggression in difficult youth. But, without a control comparison condition, the findings have to be viewed cautiously. There is a need for a randomized controlled clinical trial to provide unambiguous evidence that meditation practice can reduce aggressive and impulsive tendencies in youth. It makes sense that mindfulness could do this as it’s been demonstrated that mindfulness training improves executive function and frontal lobe activity which are deficient in youth. The results of this study, although flawed, make a compelling case that further research is warranted.


So, tamp down impulsivity and aggression in youth with mindfulness.


“After 20 years of working with mindfulness I’ve begun to notice that aggression and reactivity still arise.  Yay.  The difference? Practising the practice has given me the little bit of gap I need to see my desire to jump down someone’s throat, before I actually do it.” – Elaine Smookler


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Sharma, M. K., Sharma, M. P., & Marimuthu, P. (2016). Mindfulness-Based Program for Management of Aggression Among Youth: A Follow-up Study. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 38(3), 213–216.



Background: Youth have shown indulgence in various high-risk behaviors and violent activities. Yoga-based approaches have been used for the management of psychological problems. The present work explores the role of mindfulness-based program in the management of aggression among youth.

Materials and Methods: Sociodemographic information schedule, Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire, and World Health Organization quality of life were administered on 50 subjects in the age range of 18-25 years at pre- and post-mindfulness-based program level.

Results: It revealed the presence of feeling of well-being and ability to relax themselves; changes in score of anger, hostility, physical, and verbal aggression; and enhancement of quality of life in the physical and environment domains at 1 month follow-up.

Conclusions: Mindfulness-based program has shown changes in aggression expression/control and implies integration of it in available program for the management of aggression among youth.


Improve Self-Control and Emotionality with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“I noticed that people who have addictions and those who teach mindfulness speak the same language. Mindfulness teachers will tell you that stress is caused by craving. If you can let go of that craving, then your stress will dissolve, and practicing mindfulness is the way to do that.” – Judson Brewer


There are many addictions, from exercise, to alcohol, to sex, to drugs, to gambling, to cigarettes. There are a number of differences produced by the specific nature of each addiction. But, there are also some general features. The core components of addiction include an enhanced incentive for the activity or substance (craving), impaired self-control (impulsivity and compulsivity), emotional dysregulation (negative mood) and increased reactivity to stress.


Mindfulness training has been shown to be helpful with each of these components, decreasing cravings, impulsiveness, and psychological and physiological responses to stress, and increasing emotion regulation.  It is no wonder then that mindfulness training has been found to be effective for the treatment of a variety of addictions.  Addictions appear to act via changes to the brain systems affecting self-control; activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and adjacent medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC). Mindfulness training has also been shown to alter the activity of these structures in the opposite direction through a process called neuroplasticity. This makes a case that mindfulness acts to help in the treatment of addictions by altering the same structures involved in addictions.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness meditation improves emotion regulation and reduces drug abuse.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Tang and colleagues review a number of their studies on the relationships between mindfulness, the psychological properties of addictions, and the neural systems underlying self-control and addiction. They employed a mindfulness meditation training technique called integrative body–mind training (IBMT) and found that it improved executive function, emotions, and responsiveness to stress.


In other studies, they investigated the brain’s response to IBMT and found that it increased activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) which is known to be involved in emotion regulation and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, that is known to be an antidote to stress responses. These results strongly suggest that mindfulness training (IBMT) acts in ways that would tend to counteract the effects of addictions including self-control and stress responsiveness. Tang and colleagues went on to test IBMT on students who were addicted to cigarettes (nicotine). They found that smokers had lower activity in Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and the medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC). But, IBMT training significantly reduced cigarette smoking and increased both ACC and mPFC activity.


These results suggest that mindfulness meditation increases activity in ACC and mPFC which are involved in emotion regulation and self-control. The improvements in these areas, in turn, assist in the prevention and treatment of addictions. These studies have produced an integrated theory of how mindfulness effects addiction by altering the nervous system in such a way as to counteract the psychological issues that underlie addictions. These studies are leading to a better understanding of how mindfulness training produces improvements in addictions.


So, improve self-control and emotionality with mindfulness and reduce addictions.


“mindfulness is likely an effective tool in helping people with addiction because it’s a single, simple skill that a person can practice multiple times throughout their day, every day, regardless of the life challenges that arise. With so much opportunity for practice—rather than, say, only practicing when someone offers them a cigarette—people can learn that skill deeply.” –  James Davis


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Tang YY, Tang R, Posner MI. Mindfulness meditation improves emotion regulation and reduces drug abuse. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016 Jun 1;163 Suppl 1:S13-8. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.11.041



  • We review the effects of mindfulness meditation on emotion regulation and addiction.
  • We propose the brain mechanism of mindfulness meditation.
  • We examine addiction treatment using mindfulness meditation.


BACKGROUND: The core clinical symptoms of addiction include an enhanced incentive for drug taking (craving), impaired self-control (impulsivity and compulsivity), emotional dysregulation (negative mood) and increased stress reactivity. Symptoms related to impaired self-control involve reduced activity in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), adjacent prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and other brain areas. Behavioral training such asmindfulness meditation can increase the function of control networks including those leading to improved emotion regulation and thus may be a promising approach for the treatment of addiction.

METHODS: In a series of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), we tested whether increased ACC/mPFC activity is related to better self-control abilities in executive functions, emotion regulation and stress response in healthy and addicted populations. After a brief mindfulness training (Integrative Body-Mind Training, IBMT), we used the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and Profile of Mood States (POMS) to measure emotion regulation, salivary cortisol for the stress response and fMRI for brain functional and DTI structural changes. Relaxation training was used to serve as an active control.

RESULTS: In both smokers and nonsmokers, improved self-control abilities in emotion regulation and stress reduction were found after training and these changes were related to increased ACC/mPFC activity following training. Compared with nonsmokers, smokers showed reduced ACC/mPFC activity in the self-control network before training, and these deficits were ameliorated after training.

CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate that promoting emotion regulation and improving ACC/mPFC brain activity can help for addiction prevention and treatment.



Get out of the Dumps with Yoga

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“One of the chapters in my life included a 10-year bout with deep depression. This depression became compounded when I was confronted with loss and grief. I took antidepressants of varying kinds for many years and attempted talk therapy. For me, none of these approaches worked. It was only when I began practicing yoga that I started to see and feel concrete, sustained shifts in my mental patterns, emotions, and internal state of being.” – Monique Minahan


Clinically diagnosed depression is the most common mental illness, affecting over 6% of the population. In general, it involves feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness, irritability or frustration, loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, sleep disturbances, tiredness and lack of energy, anxiety, agitation, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself for things that aren’t your responsibility, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide. Needless to say individuals with depression are miserable.


Depression appears to be the result of a change in the nervous system that can generally only be reached with drugs that alter the affected neurochemical systems. But, depression can be difficult to treat. Of patients treated initially with drugs only about a third attained remission of the depression. After repeated and varied treatments including drugs, therapy, exercise etc. only about two thirds of patients attained remission. In, addition, drugs often have troubling side effects and can lose effectiveness over time. In addition, many patients who achieve remission have relapses and recurrences of the depression. So, it is important to investigate alternative treatments for depression.


There are some alternative activities that can be helpful for depression. Regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression. Mindful meditation training including yoga practices have also been shown to be viable alternative treatments for depression. They have been shown to be an effective treatment for active depression and for the prevention of its recurrence. They can even be effective in cases where drugs fail. In addition, the combination of exercise with meditation has been shown to be effective for treating depression.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness-based yoga intervention for women with depression.” See:

or below, Schuver and Lewis investigate the relative effectiveness of yoga and walking exercise for the treatment of depression. They randomly assigned depressed women to either a 12-week mindfulness based yoga practice or walking exercise. Both treatments were practiced twice a week for 65 minutes for 12 weeks. Measurements of depression and rumination were taken before and after treatment and one-month after the completion of the 12-week practice period.


They found that both treatments produced significant decreases (34% and 38% respectively) in depression that were maintained at follow-up. Both groups also showed significant decreases in rumination but, the yoga group had a significantly greater decrease (30%) than the walking group (19%) at the end of treatment. But, by the one-month follow-up there were no significant differences between the groups. Hence, both treatments successfully improved depression and rumination in the depressed women.


So, it appears that exercise, regardless of whether it’s in the form of yoga or walking relieves depression. In practice, however, depressed people lack energy and it can be quite challenging for them to initiate or keep up an exercise practice. The current study employed a home yoga practice. It is possible that a yoga practice in a group would be more enjoyable and promote adherence to the exercise. More research is needed to investigate this conjecture.


Regardless it is clear that you can get out of the dumps with yoga.


“Yoga gives us an active role in healing. And by slowing down mental chatter through breath work, it helps facilitate self-acceptance. In other words, through practicing yoga, we become quieter and more grounded. Yoga can help perfectionists as well as those who tend to be self-critical or lack self-confidence.” – Janeen Locker.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary

Schuver KJ, Lewis BA. Mindfulness-based yoga intervention for women with depression. Complement Ther Med. 2016 Jun;26:85-91. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2016.03.003. Epub 2016 Mar 14.



  • Efficacy of a 12-week yoga intervention, in comparison to a walking group, on mood and rumination among depressed women.
  • Participants in both groups demonstrated similar decreases in depressive symptoms from baseline to post-intervention.
  • The yoga condition reported significantly lower levels of rumination than the walking group at post-intervention.


OBJECTIVES: The purpose of this study was to examine the efficacy of a 12-week mindfulness-based yoga intervention on depressive symptoms and rumination among depressed women.

DESIGN: Prospective, randomized, controlled 12 week intervention pilot study. Depressive symptoms were assessed at baseline, post-intervention (12 weeks), and one-month follow-up.

SETTING: Women with a history of diagnosed depression and currently depressed were randomized to a mindfulness-based yoga condition or a walking control.

INTERVENTIONS: The mindfulness-based yoga intervention consisted of a home-based yoga asana, pranayama and meditation practice with mindfulness education sessions delivered over the telephone. The walking control condition consisted of home-based walking sessions and health education sessions delivered over the phone.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: The Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Ruminative Responses Scale (RRS).

RESULTS: Both groups reported decreases in depressive symptoms from baseline to post-intervention, f(1,33)=34.83, p<0.001, and from baseline to one-month follow-up, f(1,33)=37.01, p<0.001. After controlling for baseline, there were no significant between group differences on depression scores at post-intervention and the one-month follow-up assessment. The mindfulness-based yoga condition reported significantly lower levels of rumination than the control condition at post-intervention, after controlling for baseline levels of rumination, f(1,31)=6.23, p<0.01.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that mindfulness-based yoga may provide tools to manage ruminative thoughts among women with elevated depressive symptoms. Future studies, with larger samples are needed to address the effect of yoga on depression and further explore the impact on rumination.


Awakening-like Experiences Occur with Epilepsy in the Insula

mystical experiences epilepsy2 Gschwing

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Dostoevsky described his seizures in a letter to a friend: “I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss one would gladly give up 10 years of one’s life, if not one’s whole life.”” – Anil Ananthaswamy


Millions of people worldwide perform practices, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer, to achieve a spiritual awakening. Others use drugs such as peyote, ayahuasca  and psilocybin to induce spiritual awakenings. If successful, these people report unique profound experiences that permanently alter their lives and the way they perceive the world. These experiences have many characteristics many of which are unique to the experiencer, their religious context, and their present situation. They include a state of ecstasy, bliss, love and joy, a sense of ultimate freedom and belonging, a transcendence of space and time, a sense of lacking control over the event, a greater sense of meaning and purpose of life, a sense of timelessness, a sense of having encountered ultimate reality, a sense of sacredness, a sense that one cannot adequately describe the richness of this experience. But, the common, central feature of all of these experiences is a sense on oneness, that all things are contained in a single thing, a sense of union with the universe and/or God and everything in existence.


The fact that these experiences can be induced by drugs and that drugs have their effects by altering the chemistry of the nervous system, has led to the notion that perhaps these experiences are not actually spiritual but rather simply an altered state of the brain produced by drugs or intense spiritual practices. An important observation in this regard is that alterations of the brain can make it more likely that an individual will have a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences can occur occasionally with epileptic seizures. This may provide clues as to what neural structures are involved in spiritual experiences.


In today’s Research News article “Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Gschwind and Picard review published cases of individuals who report spiritual experiences with the onset of an epileptic seizure. Their review led them to hypothesize that the focal area for the production of spiritual experiences is the insular cortex. This is a large piece pf cerebral cortex that has been enfolded with growth of the cortex and does not appear on the surface. It has been covered and is buried deep inside at the juncture of the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. The insula is highly interconnected with a wide variety of other cortical and subcortical areas of the brain. It has been implicated in consciousness and appears to play a role in diverse functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis. These functions include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. So, the insula would appear to be well situated to produce and affect higher level experiences.


Gschwind and Picard review cases of spiritual (ecstatic) experiences that occur with epileptic seizures either located in or affecting the activity of the insula. In addition, they review cases where direct electrical stimulation of the insula produce reports of spiritual-like experiences in awake humans. This together with the widespread interconnectivity of the insula and its suspected role in higher conscious experience, makes a case that the insula is the area of the brain that is central to spiritual (ecstatic) experiences.


The reviewed information is highly complex and the conclusions are speculative. They are far from proving the case that the insula is responsible for spiritual (ecstatic) experiences. But, it provides sufficient enticing evidence that further scrutiny of this area and its association to these experiences should be undertaken. It should be mentioned that no area in the brain works alone. Rather complex behaviors and experiences are produced by the joint action of large numbers of areas throughout the brain. So, pointing to the insula only suggests that it may be central to the disparate neural system underlying spiritual (ecstatic) experiences.


That spiritual (ecstatic) experiences can be produced by epileptic seizures and by electrical stimulation of the brain, combined with the fact that drugs that alter brain chemistry can also produce these experiences, suggests that neural systems may underlie all spiritual experiences. This should not be surprising as the experiences are physical in nature, very unusual sensory experiences, but physical experiences nonetheless. So, it should be as no surprise that a physical entity, the brain, may underlie them. It has yet to be conclusively shown, however, the experiences produced by epilepsy, stimulation, or drugs is the same as that reported by mystics and spiritual seekers. This also leaves open the question as to what it is that’s registering and aware of. these experiences. It appears that regardless of what produces them, the underlying awareness registering them is unchanged.


“The anterior insula may be where all manner of feelings, including bodily pleasures and pains; sights, sounds and smells; emotions, expectations and intentions; and even the sense of one’s physical surroundings are integrated into a unified sense of a “self” moving through time.

If this hypothesis is true, then disturbances to the anterior insula would likely cause disturbances to the usual sense of self-awareness.Jim Schnabel


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available at the Contemplative Studies Blog


Study Summary

Gschwind, M., & Picard, F. (2016). Ecstatic Epileptic Seizures: A Glimpse into the Multiple Roles of the Insula. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10, 21.



Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and “enhanced self-awareness.” They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients. The functional neuroanatomy of ecstatic seizures is still debated. During recent years several patients presenting with ecstatic auras have been reported by others and us (in total n = 52); a few of them in the setting of presurgical evaluation including electrical brain stimulation. According to the recently recognized functions of the insula, and the results of nuclear brain imaging and electrical stimulation, the ecstatic symptoms in these patients seem to localize to a functional network centered around the anterior insular cortex, where we thus propose to locate this rare ictal phenomenon. Here we summarize the role of the multiple sensory, autonomic, affective, and cognitive functions of the insular cortex, which are integrated into the creation of self-awareness, and we suggest how this system may become dysfunctional on several levels during ecstatic aura.


Improve Arthritis Depression, Pain, and Disability with Mindfulness

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“People in pain often react automatically to [what’s going on]. “You think I feel pain, and then the body tightens and you have a flurry of other thoughts like Pain is ruining my life. Mindfulness allows you to notice this distress as it happens and to intentionally step back, shifting awareness to the body and adjusting it in a way that can bring ease.” – Steven Rosenzweig


Arthritis is a chronic disease that most commonly affects the joints. Depending on the type of arthritis symptoms may include pain, stiffness, swelling, redness, and decreased range of motion. It affects an estimated 52.5 million adults in the United States. It is associated with aging as arthritis occurs in only 7% of adults ages 18–44, while 30% adults ages 45–64 are affected, and 50% of adults ages 65 or older. Due to complications associated with arthritis, the lifespan for people with RA may be shortened by 10 years.


The pain, stiffness, and lack of mobility associate with arthritis produce fatigue and markedly reduce the quality of life of the sufferers. It can have very negative psychological effects diminishing the individual’s self-image and may lead to depression, isolation, and withdrawal from friends and social activities. It even affects the individual’s physical appearance. As the quality of life deteriorates the individual can feel a loss of control and become anxious about the future. Stress can build and influence the individual’s attitude toward life and can lead to frustration, anger, and hopelessness. The physical disability produced by arthritis, reduces the individual’s ability to function at work and may require modifications of work activities. This can lead to financial difficulties. The normal chores at home may take much longer to accomplish and the individual may need the help of a relative or caregiver. Hence, it can produce stress on the entire family system.


There are no cures for arthritis. Treatments are primarily symptomatic, including weight loss, exercise, braces, pain relievers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and corticosteroids. Recently, mindfulness practices have been found to be effective in coping with the symptoms of arthritis. In today’s Research News article “Chronic pain experience on depression and physical disability: The importance of acceptance and mindfulness-based processes in a sample with rheumatoid arthritis.” See:

or below, Costa and colleagues studied the relationship between mindfulness, acceptance, disability, and depression in adult rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. They measure them for mindfulness, pain, pain acceptance, health impact of arthritis, depression, anxiety, and stress.


They found, not surprisingly, that the greater the level of pain the greater the levels of disability and depression. Higher levels of both mindfulness, especially the non-reacting facet of mindfulness, and acceptance were found to be associated with lower levels of pain, disability and depression. Performing a mediational analysis, Costa and colleagues found that the effects of pain on depression were reduced by both acceptance and non-reacting while pain’s effects on disability was reduced by only acceptance.


The results show that being non-reactinge and accepting of experience were associated with lower levels of arthritis symptoms, with acceptance associated with lower levels of both depression and physical disability and mindful non-reacting to experience associated with lower levels of depression. Depression is amplified by rumination about past pain and worry about future pain. Mindfulness focuses the individual on the present moment and thereby reduces worry and rumination. This, to some extent explains, mindfulness’ association with lower depression. Accepting the situation is also important for pain management, as fighting against pain amplifies the pain. As a result, acceptance can reduce attempts to control the pain and thereby reduce the experience of pain and the resultant symptoms of depression and physical disability.


So, improve arthritis depression, pain, and disability with mindfulness and acceptance.


“mindfulness training, which teaches people to push away troublesome thoughts, helped improve well-being in people with rheumatoid arthritis and similar diseases. Patients . . . who received the training didn’t have less pain compared to those who didn’t, but they coped better, were less tired and showed less stress. “Yes, they still have pain, but they are able to manage their pain in more constructive ways,” – Randy Dotinga

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Joana Costa, José Pinto-Gouveia, and João Marôco. Chronic pain experience on depression and physical disability: The importance of acceptance and mindfulness-based processes in a sample with rheumatoid arthritis. J Health Psychol, 1359105316649785, first published on June 15, 2016



The mediating effect of acceptance and mindfulness in the relationship between pain, depression, and physical disability was examined in 55 rheumatoid arthritis patients. Results showed that the relationship between pain and depression was mediated by both nonreact and acceptance. By contrast, the relationship between pain and physical disability was mediated by acceptance but not by nonreact. This study provides evidences that the influence of these processes is different on depression and on physical disability. These findings support models that take both general measures of mindfulness and content-specific measures of acceptance into account when conceptualizing rheumatoid arthritis. Theoretical and clinical implications are discussed.

Change your Perception of Time with Mindfulness

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


 “taking time to be mindful and focusing fully on the present moment — in other words, actively noticing new things — can actually slow down our brain’s perception of time. And just as powerfully, mindless distraction can easily create the feeling that we’re losing whole hours, days and months.” – Carolyn Gregoir


There are times in life when time just seems to wiz by and others when it seems to creep. There are also times when it seems like a minute passing feels like 5 minutes and others when it feels like only a few seconds. In other words, our sense of the speed of time passing and the amount of time that has passed varies from occasion to occasion. One factor that effects the perception of time is the content of the interval and the frequency of events occurring. If the interval is relatively packed with events and stimuli, then the time period is overestimated, suggesting that time seemed to pass more slowly. If, on the other hand, there are few things occurring in the interval, then time is underestimated, suggesting that time seemed to pass more quickly.


Mindfulness training involves paying close attention to the contents of the present moment. This suggests that being mindful would enhance the perception of the amount of things occurring and would thus predict that the interval would appear longer than otherwise and that time would seem to pass more slowly. In today’s Research News article “Dispositional Mindfulness and Subjective Time in Healthy Individuals.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Weiner and colleagues investigate these issues. They measured adult participants for mindfulness, impulsivity, mood and rumination and asked them to estimate the duration of an interval and the speed of time passage under different experimental conditions of actual duration (32 or 128 seconds) and contents of the interval (number presented every 4 seconds or 16 seconds). They were also asked in another similar task to stop the presentation of numbers when either 30 or 60 seconds had elapsed.


They found that in general participants tended to overestimate the duration of the interval regardless of its actual length and that the greater the contents of the interval the faster time seemed to pass. They also found that participants, when asked, tended to produce intervals longer than the 30 or 60 seconds that were called for and that the amount of error was larger with the 60 second duration and with less content. As has been seen in other research, participants who were more mindful, were less impulsive, ruminated less, and were less depressed. They also found that the higher the mindfulness facets of observing and acting with awareness, the longer the estimated duration.


These results are interesting and suggest that, in a laboratory setting people tend to overestimate the duration of a time interval. It would be interesting to know if this were also true in “real world” settings also. The results also suggest that being mindful tended to make the intervals seem even longer, but that time seemed to pass more quickly. This would seem to fit with the fact that meditators frequently report that they felt like they meditated longer than they actually did. Mindfulness may produce this elongation of time estimation by making the stimuli occurring during the interval more salient and interesting. The fill up of the interval in this way may make it seem that more has happened and thus more time has passed. It remains for future research to clarify this issue.


So, change your perception of time with mindfulness.


“Mindfulness allows people to appreciate their surroundings and can lead to the feeling that time is passing more slowly.” – Steven Meyers


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+


Study Summary

Weiner, L., Wittmann, M., Bertschy, G., & Giersch, A. (2016). Dispositional Mindfulness and Subjective Time in Healthy Individuals. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 786.



How a human observer perceives duration depends on the amount of events taking place during the timed interval, but also on psychological dimensions, such as emotional-wellbeing, mindfulness, impulsivity, and rumination. Here we aimed at exploring these influences on duration estimation and passage of time judgments. One hundred and seventeen healthy individuals filled out mindfulness (FFMQ), impulsivity (BIS-11), rumination (RRS), and depression (BDI-sf) questionnaires. Participants also conducted verbal estimation and production tasks in the multiple seconds range. During these timing tasks, subjects were asked to read digits aloud that were presented on a computer screen. Each condition of the timing tasks differed in terms of the interval between the presentation of the digits, i.e., either short (4-s) or long (16-s). Our findings suggest that long empty intervals (16-s) are associated with a relative underestimation of duration, and to a feeling that the time passes slowly, a seemingly paradoxical result. Also, regarding more mindful individuals, such a dissociation between duration estimation and passage of time judgments was found, but only when empty intervals were short (4-s). Relatively speaking, more mindful subjects showed an increased overestimation of durations, but felt that time passed more quickly. These results provide further evidence for the dissociation between duration estimation and the feeling of the passage of time. We discuss these results in terms of an alerting effect when empty intervals are short and events are more numerous, which could mediate the effect of dispositional mindfulness.