Improve Connectivity of Brain Areas Underlying Executive Cognitive Function with Mindfulness

Improve Connectivity of Brain Areas Underlying Executive Cognitive Function with Mindfulness

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Think of mindfulness practices as short routines or “gym” sessions that exercise your executive functions. Performed consistently, mindfulness practices strengthen your executive function muscles and help you to be more mindful when you need to be. “ – Casey Dixon

 

There has accumulated a large amount of research demonstrating that mindfulness has significant benefits for psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It even improves high level thinking known as executive function. Its positive effects are so widespread that it is difficult to find any other treatment of any kind with such broad beneficial effects on everything from thinking to mood and happiness to severe mental and physical illnesses. This raises the question of how mindfulness training could produce such widespread and varied benefits. One possibility is that mindfulness practice results in beneficial changes in the nervous system.

 

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489372/ ), Taren and colleagues examine the effects of mindfulness training on the underlying brain systems responsible for high level thinking, executive function. They recruited “stressed unemployed job-seeking community adults” and randomly assigned them to participate in a 3-day residential retreat either of intensive mindfulness meditation training or of relaxation training. The meditation retreat was a condensed version of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that contains discussion, meditation, yoga, and body scan practices. The relaxation retreat called Health Enhancement through Relaxation (HER) included walking, stretching, and didactics performed in a relaxed manner. Before and after training the participants were measured for mindfulness and underwent brain scanning with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), while engaged in either meditation or relaxation respectively.

 

They found that following the retreat, in comparison to baseline and the relaxation group, the mindfulness group had increased functional connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal network consisting of the superior parietal lobule and supplementary eye field, and also increased functional connectivity with the ventral network consisting of the inferior frontal gyrus and the angular gyrus. These interconnected structures have been demonstrated to be important in high level, executive function, thinking. It’s quite striking that these changes in the brain can be produced by a relatively short-term, 3-day, mindfulness retreat.

 

Hence, mindfulness training appears to strengthen the connections between the brain structures that underly the highest levels of human thinking. These results suggest that intensive mindfulness training even over a relatively short period of time can produce neuroplastic changes in the brain that improve the sharing of information between these structures and these changes, in turn, produce improved thinking. This suggests the underlying neural mechanism by which mindfulness training improves thought processes.

 

So, improve connectivity of brain areas underlying executive cognitive function with mindfulness.

 

“The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.” – Jennifer Wolkin

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … Creswell, J. D. (2017). Mindfulness Meditation Training and Executive Control Network Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 79(6), 674–683. http://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000466

 

Abstract

Objective

Mindfulness meditation training has been previously shown to enhance behavioral measures of executive control (e.g. attention, working memory, cognitive control), but the neural mechanisms underlying these improvements are largely unknown. Here, we test whether mindfulness training interventions foster executive control by strengthening functional connections between dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) – a hub of the executive control network – and frontoparietal regions that coordinate executive function.

Methods

Thirty-five adults with elevated levels of psychological distress participated in a 3 day RCT of intensive mindfulness meditation or relaxation training. Participants completed a resting state fMRI scan before and after the intervention. We tested whether mindfulness meditation training increased resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) between dlPFC and frontoparietal control network regions.

Results

Left dlPFC showed increased connectivity to the right inferior frontal gyrus (T = 3.74), right middle frontal gyrus (T = 3.98), right supplementary eye field (T = 4.29), right parietal cortex (T = 4.44), and left middle temporal gyrus (T = 3.97; all p<0.05) following mindfulness training relative to the relaxation control. Right dlPFC showed increased connectivity to right middle frontal gyrus (T = 4.97, p < 0.05).

Conclusions

We report that mindfulness training increases rsFC between dlPFC and dorsal network (superior parietal lobule, supplementary eye field, MFG) and ventral network (right IFG, middle temporal/angular gyrus) regions. These findings extend previous work showing increased functional connectivity amongst brain regions associated with executive function during active meditation by identifying specific neural circuits in which rsFC is enhanced by a mindfulness intervention in individuals with high levels of psychological distress.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5489372/

 

Improve the Brain’s Attentional Ability with a Meditation Retreat

Improve the Brain’s Attentional Ability with a Meditation Retreat

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Here’s where meditation begins to show itself as a biohacking marvel. Learning how to interrupt one’s reaction pattern – and then doing that over and over – can reshape behaviour. And if behaviour is changing, then the brain is changing.” – Zoe Schlanger

 

Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, it is quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late at night every day. It can also be physically challenging as engaging in 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.

 

The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, meditation practice appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.

 

Hence, an intensive meditation retreat would be expected to produce neuroplastic changes in the brains of the participants. In today’s Research News article “Effects of a 7-Day Meditation Retreat on the Brain Function of Meditators and Non-Meditators During an Attention Task.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6004402/ ), Kozasa and colleagues recruited meditation naïve and long-term meditators ( > 3 years of experience) and had them engage in a 7-day intensive Zen meditation retreat. Sessions of sitting and walking meditation, yoga, text reading, and meals were scheduled nearly non-stop from 5:10 in the morning till 11:30 at night each day. Before and after the retreat the participants underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f-MRI) brain scanning while performing and attention demanding task (Stroop test).

 

They did not find any difference between the novice and experienced meditators in performance of the attention task either before or after the retreat. But, they found considerable differences in their brains. Prior to the retreat during the attention task with distraction the experienced meditators and not the novices had reduced activity in the anterior cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate, caudate/putamen/pallidum/temporal lobe (center), insula/putamen/temporal lobe (right) and posterior cingulate. Following the retreat, the novices evidenced similar reductions in activity in these structures.

 

These structures are for the most part components of the so-called default mode network that is activated during mind wandering and self-referential thought. So, the experienced meditators with years of meditative attention training had differences in their brains suggesting better ability to concentrate on the task at hand, with less interference from mind wandering. Surprisingly, novice meditators had similar changes after only 7-day of participation in a meditation retreat. These results suggest that meditation changes the brain to improve concentration and attention. It does so, in part, by reducing the ability of the brain to let the mind wander away from the task at hand.

 

It is interesting that the neuroplastic changes in the brains of the novices essentially caught up to those of the experienced meditators with just 7 days of meditation training. This underscores the power of retreat. It also suggests that meditation can alter the brain relatively quickly. Hence, for improvement of attention, it doesn’t take years of training, it can be accomplished in an intensive week.

 

Improve the brain’s attentional ability with a meditation retreat.

 

“One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” — Leonardo da Vinci

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Kozasa, E. H., Balardin, J. B., Sato, J. R., Chaim, K. T., Lacerda, S. S., Radvany, J., … Amaro Jr., E. (2018). Effects of a 7-Day Meditation Retreat on the Brain Function of Meditators and Non-Meditators During an Attention Task. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 222. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00222

 

Abstract

Meditation as a cognitive enhancement technique is of growing interest in the field of health and research on brain function. The Stroop Word-Color Task (SWCT) has been adapted for neuroimaging studies as an interesting paradigm for the understanding of cognitive control mechanisms. Performance in the SWCT requires both attention and impulse control, which is trained in meditation practices. We presented SWCT inside the MRI equipment to measure the performance of meditators compared with non-meditators before and after a meditation retreat. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of a 7-day Zen intensive meditation training (a retreat) on meditators and non-meditators in this task on performance level and neural mechanisms. Nineteen meditators and 14 non-meditators were scanned before and after a 7-day Zen meditation retreat. No significant differences were found between meditators and non-meditators in the number of the correct responses and response time (RT) during SWCT before and after the retreat. Probably, due to meditators training in attention, their brain activity in the contrast incongruent > neutral during the SWCT in the anterior cingulate, ventromedial prefrontal cortex/anterior cingulate, caudate/putamen/pallidum/temporal lobe (center), insula/putamen/temporal lobe (right) and posterior cingulate before the retreat, were reduced compared with non-meditators. After the meditation retreat, non-meditators had reduced activation in these regions, becoming similar to meditators before the retreat. This result could be interpreted as an increase in the brain efficiency of non-meditators (less brain activation in attention-related regions and same behavioral response) promoted by their intensive training in meditation in only 7 days. On the other hand, meditators showed an increase in brain activation in these regions after the same training. Intensive meditation training (retreat) presented distinct effects on the attention-related regions in meditators and non-meditators probably due to differences in expertise, attention processing as well as neuroplasticity.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6004402/

 

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

 

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts

 

In a prior essay ‘The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence’ (https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/insights/?section=navPosts), the effects of the container in which retreat is conducted were explored. But, the point of retreat is not the container, it is what transpires within it. Meditation and contemplation are the primary practices of the retreat. The amount varies with different types of retreats. The one we just returned from the amount of meditation varied between 3 to 4+ hours per day occurring in 6 to 8 periods beginning at 7:30 in the morning through 9:30 in the evening. The retreat not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself.

 

The specific type of meditation practiced can vary with different retreats (see links below for explanations of meditation techniques). But, all practices emphasize quieting the mind, reducing the internal conversation and chatter, in order to better see and understand the operation of the mind. The amount of meditation is important as it is a ‘practice’ and over time the mind gets quieter. When the mind quiets all sorts of things can emerge, some expected, some a complete surprise, some sublime, but some very uncomfortable and upsetting. Be forewarned, meditation can produce wrenching experiences. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively, confronting and experiencing troubling experiences and the attached strong emotions. This is actually a very good thing as it can help to heal inner wounds that may have festered for decades. But, some participants are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat. Don’t be put off, these are important experiences and may constitute breakthrough moments, leading to self-transformation.

 

The intent of meditation is not to elicit thinking or emotions, even though thinking and emotions occur frequently during meditation. The intent is to allow inner silence to prevail. At the retreat we attended we all wore tags stating “I am observing silence.” This can be viewed very practically as a message to everyone around who may not be participating in the retreat, that we’re not open to conversation, or even everyday niceties. But, it’s true meaning is deeper. It suggests that we are observing silence itself, the silence within that is ever present and the foundation upon which all experiences emerge. It is a wonderful experience to be deeply immersed in the silence.

 

A powerful component of retreat is the commitment and intention that the participants bring. Most people coming to a retreat are very committed. The investment of money and especially a week’s time is a concrete expression of that commitment. The week taken away from work and everyday activities is dear to many. It could have been used to take a cruise, tour a foreign country, go to a beach or theme park, visit friends and family, etc. So, the choice to go on retreat instead is meaningful. This commitment provides the motivation for the individual to focus on the work of the retreat and particularly on their intention. Most come with an intention to work on self-understanding, which may paradoxically include a loss of self! In addition, the fact that there is a group of committed individuals with a shared intention present energizes the retreat.

 

For many the intention is for spiritual development. Some come to retreat with a specific intention to experience spiritual awakening or to experience a union with God. But, even those who come for personal development reasons often migrate toward spiritual development. This is a natural outgrowth of meditation. It is impossible to look deeply inside, particularly at the silence and emptiness and not be spiritually affected, to not glimpse the deeper aspects of existence. In fact, it is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences. These frequently occur not in the meditation itself but during the contemplative time. That’s frequently where the fruits of meditation ripen. Additionally, the supportive environment of retreat can promote awakenings as the individual knows that these unusual experiences will be accepted and understood, whereas in everyday life they are not.

 

Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them. Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our life with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, wishes that they had spent more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially, to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.

 

We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional and spiritual dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.

 

As gold purified in a furnace loses its impurities and achieves its own true nature, the mind gets rid of the impurities of the attributes of delusion, attachment and purity through meditation and attains Reality. – Adi Shankara”

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

Retreat for Health

Retreat for Health

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“retreat confirmed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to quietly reflect and connect with ourselves. I learned countless lessons that could have only happened through direct experience. Perhaps most importantly, I deeply accepted myself and vowed to continue leaning into my fears.” – Alyssa Siefert

 

Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, in some ways, is like being on vacation. Everything is taken care of, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared, and time is dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All the individual has to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. The retreatants are terribly spoiled! That seeming ease, however, is deceptive.

 

Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late 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. The darkness can descend. Deep emotional issues can emerge and may even overwhelm the individual. Many participants 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, the subject can easily be changed by engaging in a distraction. So, the issues never have to truly be confronted. But, in silent retreat there is no escape. Difficult issues emerge and there is no place to hide. They must be confronted and experienced. With all these difficulties, why would anyone want to put themselves through such an ordeal and go on a meditation retreat? People go because they find that retreat produces many profound and sometimes life altering benefits.

 

In today’s Research News article “The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761096/ ), Naidoo and colleagues review and summarize the effects on health of attending a retreat. They discovered 23 scientific studies of the health effects of retreat of which 8 were randomized controlled trials. These studies included a wide range of participants including healthy individuals and people with mental and physical disorders. The retreats lasted from 2.5 to 15 days with most around a week.

 

They found that without exception the studies reported statistically significant improvements following the retreat in some outcome measures of mental or physical health. These benefits included significant improvements in quality of life, perceived physical health and health symptoms, as well as psychological and spiritual well-being, and even genetic markers of longevity. These benefits appear to last long after the completion of the retreat. So, retreat appears to produce substantial and lasting health benefits.

 

It is very difficult to find appropriate comparison conditions for a retreat or have a retreat with blind participants or researchers. So, there is a considerable risk of bias in all of these studies. Nevertheless, the universal findings of the scientific studies that have investigated the effects of participating in a retreat find significant psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits for healthy or sick individuals.

 

So, retreat for health.

 

“A 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat may yield improvements in mindfulness, affect and personality, even in experienced meditators.” – Montero Marin

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Dhevaksha Naidoo, Adrian Schembri, Marc Cohen, The health impact of residential retreats: a systematic review. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2018; 18: 8. Published online 2018 Jan 10. doi: 10.1186/s12906-017-2078-4

 

Abstract

Background

Unhealthy lifestyles are a major factor in the development and exacerbation of many chronic diseases. Improving lifestyles though immersive residential experiences that promote healthy behaviours is a focus of the health retreat industry. This systematic review aims to identify and explore published studies on the health, wellbeing and economic impact of retreat experiences.

Methods

MEDLINE, CINAHL and PsychINFO databases were searched for residential retreat studies in English published prior to February 2017. Studies were included if they were written in English, involved an intervention program in a residential setting of one or more nights, and included before-and-after data related to the health of participants. Studies that did not meet the above criteria or contained only descriptive data from interviews or case studies were excluded.

Results

A total of 23 studies including eight randomised controlled trials, six non-randomised controlled trials and nine longitudinal cohort studies met the inclusion criteria. These studies included a total of 2592 participants from diverse geographical and demographic populations and a great heterogeneity of outcome measures, with seven studies examining objective outcomes such as blood pressure or biological makers of disease, and 16 studies examining subjective outcomes that mostly involved self-reported questionnaires on psychological and spiritual measures. All studies reported post-retreat health benefits ranging from immediately after to five-years post-retreat. Study populations varied widely and most studies had small sample sizes, poorly described methodology and little follow-up data, and no studies reported on health economic outcomes or adverse effects, making it difficult to make definite conclusions about specific conditions, safety or return on investment.

Conclusions

Health retreat experiences appear to have health benefits that include benefits for people with chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, various cancers, HIV/AIDS, heart conditions and mental health. Future research with larger numbers of subjects and longer follow-up periods are needed to investigate the health impact of different retreat experiences and the clinical populations most likely to benefit. Further studies are also needed to determine the economic benefits of retreat experiences for individuals, as well as for businesses, health insurers and policy makers.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5761096/

No Escape

No Escape

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

Contemplative practice is, for the most part, a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful endeavor. Engaging in it makes us feel refreshed and rested. This is wonderful, but can be a trap. We can use it as another in our arsenal of tactics to escape from a reality. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity.

 

Our lives are generally full of problems, from work, to family, to relationships, to health, to the challenges of getting it all done in a 24-hour day. In addition, we bring baggage from the past in the form of unresolved issues from childhood, or traumatic experiences, or deep emotional hurts. We also are confronted with fears and anxieties about an uncertain future. The totality of all of these problems can be overwhelming.

 

A frequent response is to try to escape them through various distractions such as the media, the internet, sports, alcohol and drugs, etc. It is useful to give ourselves a break once in a while and relieve some of the stress. But, if this is all we do, then it prevents us from addressing the problems and these distractions become an additional problem.

 

Our contemplative practice should not be added to the list of escape tactics. Indeed, contemplative practice is not an escape. Many people believe that spiritual awakening, aka enlightenment, will be an escape from their human problems. That is simply not the case. After awakening, all our problems are still there.

 

Contemplative practice should be employed to quiet the mind and allow for space for the emotions to be fully and honestly experienced. This sets the stage for being able to confront our problems, contemplate resolutions, and work through unresolved issues with a calm clarity. With the mind’s incessant chatter at least slightly muted and the emotions reduced to manageable intensity, we have to opportunity to honestly address our problems.

 

Contemplative practice is not the time to try to address the problems. It is the time to set the stage for addressing the problems. So, do not enter contemplative practice with the intent of thinking about the issues. Enter it as a time to allow the mind and physiology to settle and to enter into a present moment mindset. Regardless, the mind will inevitably wander and our deepest issues will emerge.

 

This can be seen in the amplified context of a silent meditation retreat. Here we cannot escape from our problems. They frequently emerge with full force and we are forced to confront them. Retreat can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Most can deal with it and benefit greatly by bringing them into the light of day and confronting them. But others can be overwhelmed. Retreat must be entered into with caution and with the presence of an understanding and experienced staff, to help us when the emotions become too strong to handle.

 

Hence, contemplative practice is not another escape but a means to get us prepared to fully address our deepest issues.

 

So, engage in contemplative practice and engage in dealing with the problems of life. The two endeavors complement each other.

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

Improve Psychology and Physiology with a Meditation and Yoga Retreat

Improve Psychology and Physiology with a Meditation and Yoga Retreat

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Yoga is fantastic for decreasing stress levels, and research has also shown that those who practice yoga regularly have higher levels of leptin and adiponectin in their bodies. Both of these natural chemicals work to alleviate inflammation in the body.” –  Julie Montagu

 

The immune system is designed to protect the body from threats like stress, infection, injury, and toxic chemicals. One of its tools is the Inflammatory response. This response works quite well for short-term infections and injuries. But when inflammation is protracted and becomes chronic, it can itself become a threat to health. It can produce autoimmune diseases such as colitis, Chron’s disease, arthritis, heart disease, increased cancer risk, lung disease, sleep disruption, gum disease, decreased bone health, psoriasis, and depression. Needless to say, chronic inflammation can create major health problems. Indeed, the presence of chronic inflammation is associated with reduced longevity. So, it is important for health to control the inflammatory response, allowing it to do its job in fighting off infection but reducing its activity when no external threat is apparent.

 

Of course, it is far better to prevent chronic inflammation in the first place than to treat it later. Mind-body techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi and meditation have been shown to adaptively reduce the inflammatory response. Most of these results were obtained from treating diseased individuals. It is important to establish if Mind-body techniques can be effective in preventing chronic inflammation also in healthy individuals. In today’s Research News article “Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/, Cahn and colleagues investigate the effects of a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat on the functioning of the immune and activation systems.

 

They recruited male and female experienced yoga and meditation practitioners (average of 2 hours practice per day for 4.5 years) who were participating in a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat. The retreat involved daily yoga (about 1.5 hours per day), meditation (about 2 hours), and chanting (about 1 hour) practices and a vegetarian diet. They were measured before and during the last week of the retreat for mindfulness, psychological symptoms, and absorption. They also provided a saliva sample for cortisol assay and a blood sample for markers of the inflammatory processes.

 

They found that although the participants had high psychological health before the retreat that following the retreat there were significant reductions in psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and bodily symptoms and an increase in mindfulness. There were also significant increases in the neurotrophic factor, BDNF, pro-inflammatory factors, and cortisol levels immediately after waking up in the morning. Hence participation in the retreat produced improved psychological health, brain protection and development factor, and increased inflammatory system activity, and morning activation. The study did not have a control condition. So, the results could be due simply to the passage of time or expectancy or attentional effects. Future studies should include a control condition.

 

The improved mental health is similar to prior research findings that mindfulness practices improve anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms. They are, however, a bit surprising as the participants were very psychologically healthy at the beginning of the retreat. This underscores the power of mindfulness practices in improving mental health. The increase in BDNF levels also underscores the ability of mindfulness practices to improve brain processing as BDNF is a neurotrophic factor that promotes neuroplasticity and brain health. The biological results are quite surprising. They conflict with previous research that has shown that mindfulness practices decrease inflammatory factors and cortisol levels. It is possible that because the participants were experienced practitioners that the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices were already high and further improvements would be difficult to detect. In addition, the retreat was physically demanding. As such, increased inflammation would be adaptive.

 

So, improve the physiology to control inflammation and stress with a meditation and yoga retreat.

 

“The more we learn about yoga, the more we realize the benefits aren’t all in the mind. . . Yoga helps people to relax, making the heart rate go down, which is great for those with high blood pressure. The poses help increase flexibility and strength, bringing relief to back pain sufferers. Now, . . . it seems that those meditative sun salutations and downward dog poses can reduce inflammation, the body’s way of reacting to injury or irritation.” – Susan Brink

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch

 

Study Summary

 

Cahn, B. R., Goodman, M. S., Peterson, C. T., Maturi, R., & Mills, P. J. (2017). Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression after a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 315. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00315

 

Abstract

Thirty-eight individuals (mean age: 34.8 years old) participating in a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat were assessed before and after the intervention for psychometric measures, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), circadian salivary cortisol levels, and pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines. Participation in the retreat was found to be associated with decreases in self-reported anxiety and depression as well as increases in mindfulness. As hypothesized, increases in the plasma levels of BDNF and increases in the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) were also observed. The normalized change in BDNF levels was inversely correlated with BSI-18 anxiety scores at both the pre-retreat (r = 0.40, p < 0.05) and post-retreat (r = 0.52, p < 0.005) such that those with greater anxiety scores tended to exhibit smaller pre- to post-retreat increases in plasma BDNF levels. In line with a hypothesized decrease in inflammatory processes resulting from the yoga and meditation practices, we found that the plasma level of the anti-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-10 was increased and the pro-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-12 was reduced after the retreat. Contrary to our initial hypotheses, plasma levels of other pro-inflammatory cytokines, including Interferon Gamma (IFN-γ), Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF-α), Interleukin-1β (IL-1β), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), and Interleukin-8 (IL-8) were increased after the retreat. Given evidence from previous studies of the positive effects of meditative practices on mental fitness, autonomic homeostasis and inflammatory status, we hypothesize that these findings are related to the meditative practices throughout the retreat; however, some of the observed changes may also be related to other aspects of the retreat such as physical exercise-related components of the yoga practice and diet. We hypothesize that the patterns of change observed here reflect mind-body integration and well-being. The increased BDNF levels observed is a potential mediator between meditative practices and brain health, the increased CAR is likely a reflection of increased dynamic physiological arousal, and the relationship of the dual enhancement of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokine changes to healthy immunologic functioning is discussed.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5483482/

Improve Personality and Well-being with a Meditation Retreat

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Improve Personality and Well-being with a Meditation Retreat

 

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Even if you’re terrified, even if you have no interest in being a monk and you’re not an extremist by nature, I know that sitting in silence for 10 days will blow your mind.” – MeiMei Fox

 

Retreat can be a powerful experience. But, in some ways, is like being on vacation. Everything is taken care of, beds made, towels and linens provided, all meals prepared, and time is dictated by a detailed schedule of meditations, talks, question and answer periods, and reflective time. All the individual has to do is show up, meditate, relax, contemplate and listen. The retreatants are terribly spoiled! That seeming ease, however, is deceptive. Retreat is actually quite difficult and challenging. It can be very tiring as it can run from early in the morning till late 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. Many participants 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, the subject can easily be changed by engaging in a distraction. So, the issues never have to truly be confronted. 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.

 

With all these difficulties, why would anyone want to put themselves through such an ordeal and go on a meditation retreat? People go because retreat has many profound and sometimes life altering benefits. The benefits of retreat were investigated in today’s Research News article “Psychological Effects of a 1-Month Meditation Retreat on Experienced Meditators.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1469065896450665/?type=3&theater

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

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01935/full?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Psychology-w51-2016

Montero-Marin and colleagues recruited experienced meditators who participated in a 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat, with 8-9 hours of meditation and 1-2 hours of teaching each day, and compared them to a control group of experienced meditators matched on gender, age, ethnicity, educational, and type of meditation practice. They were measured before and after the retreat for non-attachment, decentering, mindfulness, loving kindness, compassion, joy, and acceptance toward both the self and others, positive and negative affect, satisfaction with life, temperament, and character.

 

They found that following the retreat participants, compared to controls, showed increased non-attachment, observing, mindfulness, positive-affect, balance-affect, and cooperativeness; and decreased describing, negative-others, reward-dependence and self-directedness. Employing a sophisticated statistical technique, they were able to show that non-attachment had a mediating role in decentring, acting aware, non-reactivity, negative-affect, balance-affect and self-directedness; and a moderating role in describing and positive others, with both mediating and moderating effects on satisfaction with life. Hence, attending a 1-month retreat produced improvements in non-attachment, which, in turn, produced improvements in mindfulness, positive emotions, temperament and character.

 

These are important results demonstrating the ability of participation in retreat to powerfully affect an individual beyond what is accomplished by long-term experience meditating. Concentrated practice over an extended period during retreat appears to magnify the effects of meditation, producing even greater positive benefits to the individual. Hence, even though retreat can be difficult, physically and emotionally, it is clear that its benefits, for many, far exceed its costs. This isn’t even considering the powerful spiritual experiences that can occur during retreat. This might account for the popularity of retreat and why it has been seen as an essential component of practice over hundreds of years.

 

So, improve personality and well-being with a meditation retreat.

 

“The retreat helped me realize that I’m full of desire, of longings for raw experience, and unbelievably controlling of how my life is lived. It sounds simple, but one week of silence may give you a hint, maybe more reliably than almost anything else, of who you are.”Tim Wu

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Montero-Marin J, Puebla-Guedea M, Herrera-Mercadal P, Cebolla A, Soler J, Demarzo M, Vazquez C, Rodríguez-Bornaetxea F and García-Campayo J (2016) Psychological Effects of a 1-Month Meditation Retreat on Experienced Meditators: The Role of Non-attachment. Front. Psychol. 7:1935. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01935

 

Background: There are few studies devoted to assessing the impact of meditation-intensive retreats on the well-being, positive psychology, and personality of experienced meditators. We aimed to assess whether a 1-month Vipassana retreat: (a) would increase mindfulness and well-being; (b) would increase prosocial personality traits; and (c) whether psychological changes would be mediated and/or moderated by non-attachment.

Method: A controlled, non-randomized, pre-post-intervention trial was used. The intervention group was a convenience sample (n = 19) of experienced meditators who participated in a 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat. The control group (n = 19) comprised matched experienced meditators who did not take part in the retreat. During the retreat, the mean duration of daily practice was 8–9 h, the diet was vegetarian and silence was compulsory. The Experiences Questionnaire (EQ), Non-attachment Scale (NAS), Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS), Temperament Character Inventory Revised (TCI-R-67), Five Facets Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), Self-Other Four Immeasurables (SOFI) and the MINDSENS Composite Index were administered. ANCOVAs and linear regression models were used to assess pre-post changes and mediation/moderation effects.

Results: Compared to controls, retreatants showed increases in non-attachment, observing, MINDSENS, positive-affect, balance-affect, and cooperativeness; and decreases in describing, negative-others, reward-dependence and self-directedness. Non-attachment had a mediating role in decentring, acting aware, non-reactivity, negative-affect, balance-affect and self-directedness; and a moderating role in describing and positive others, with both mediating and moderating effects on satisfaction with life.

Conclusions: A 1-month Vipassana meditation retreat seems to yield improvements in mindfulness, well-being, and personality, even in experienced meditators. Non-attachment might facilitate psychological improvements of meditation, making it possible to overcome possible ceiling effects ascribed to non-intensive practices.

http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01935/full?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Psychology-w51-2016

Improve Cellular Molecular Health with a Meditation Retreat

 

meditation-retreat-molecular-effects2-epel

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

 

“Researchers globally are continuing to explore how telomerase activity can be a measure of the effects of psychological stress on physical health. As they study the different types of meditation in more detail and uncover more of the benefits for cell aging, we will gain a deeper understanding of the new-found link between mind and body health. In the meantime, it seems that any type of meditation can do some good for your longevity.” – Courtney Danyel

 

Meditation practice has been shown to improve health and longevity. One way it appears to act is by altering the genes which govern cellular processes in our bodies. One of the most fundamental of these processes is cell replication. Our bodies are constantly turning over cells. Dying cells or damaged are replaced by new cells. The cells turn over at different rates but most cells in the body are lost and replaced between every few days to every few months. Needless to say were constantly renewing ourselves.

 

As we age the tail of the DNA molecule called the telomere shortens. When it gets very short cells have a more and more difficult time reproducing and become more likely to produce defective cells. On a cellular basis this is what produces aging. There is an enzyme in the body called telomerase that helps to prevent shortening of the telomere. So, processes that increase telomerase activity tend to slow the aging process. Contemplative practice has been shown to increase telomerase activity thus helping to prevent cellular aging. It is thought that this protection of telomeres could protect the body’s cells from aging and deterioration and be the basis for the increased longevity in contemplative practitioners. So, it is important to further investigate the effects of contemplative practices on telomeres and telomerase.

 

In today’s Research News article “Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes.” See:

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1359334237423832/?type=3&theater

or see summary below, Epel and colleagues studied the impact of a 5-day intensive meditation retreat on the genes associated with health and longevity. They compared two groups of people participating in a meditation retreat, novices and experienced meditators to a novel vacation control group which spent a comparable amount of time in a spa in the same location at the same time simply relaxing. The participants were measured before and after the retreat or vacation and 1-month and 12 months later for depression, stress, mindfulness, vitality, and blood was drawn for genetic analysis.

 

They found that all three groups showed significant improvements in depression, stress, mindfulness and vitality after the treatment, which was maintained 1-month later, while the novice meditators on the retreat maintained the improvements in depression and stress at the 10-month follow-up. There were marked changes in gene expressions that were present in all groups that included genes involved in the suppression of stress-related responses and immune function related to acute-phase wound healing and inflammation. Hence, the retreat and the vacation produced change in gene expressions that reflected lower stress, wounding, and inflammation, all of which signal improved health and well-being. In addition, the experienced meditator group showed increased expression for genes associated with healthy aging and in increased telomerase levels. Hence, meditation appears to promote healthy aging and longevity by protecting the telomeres from shortening which signals aging.

 

These are outstanding results and demonstrate that a week’s break either in the form of a meditation retreat or as a simple vacation produces improved mental health and vitality and decreased stress and gene expressions reflecting reduced stress and inflammation. This is a marked endorsement of the importance of a vacation to the individual’s health and well-being. But, the addition of meditation produces additional benefits which signal healthy aging and longevity. This is a marked endorsement of meditation retreat to not only improve current well-being but also to produce healthier aging.

 

So, improve cellular molecular health with a meditation retreat.

 

“At the retreat, the teacher warned us over and over not to look for major shifts in our lives when we got home. But my constellation of little changes seemed just evidence, really, that with continuous effort, I could change the way my mind worked. I could decouple, however briefly, my sense of self from the meat sack of mind and body. And that decoupling gave me the ability to actually control where that sack was headed next.” – Zoe Schlanger

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts

 

Study Summary

Epel ES, Puterman E, Lin J, Blackburn EH, Lum PY, Beckmann ND, Zhu J, Lee E, Gilbert A, Rissman RA, Tanzi RE, Schadt EE. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry (2016) 6, e880; doi:10.1038/tp.2016.164. Published online 30 August 2016

 

Abstract

Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced, especially for stress-related medical conditions. Meditation may improve cellular health; however, studies have not separated out effects of meditation from vacation-like effects in a residential randomized controlled trial. We recruited healthy women non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days and randomized to either meditation retreat or relaxing on-site, with both groups compared with ‘regular meditators’ already enrolled in the retreat. Blood drawn at baseline and post intervention was assessed for transcriptome-wide expression patterns and aging-related biomarkers. Highly significant gene expression changes were detected across all groups (the ‘vacation effect’) that could accurately predict (96% accuracy) between baseline and post-intervention states and were characterized by improved regulation of stress response, immune function and amyloid beta (Aβ) metabolism. Although a smaller set of genes was affected, regular meditators showed post-intervention differences in a gene network characterized by lower regulation of protein synthesis and viral genome activity. Changes in well-being were assessed post intervention relative to baseline, as well as 1 and 10 months later. All groups showed equivalently large immediate post-intervention improvements in well-being, but novice meditators showed greater maintenance of lower distress over time compared with those in the vacation arm. Regular meditators showed a trend toward increased telomerase activity compared with randomized women, who showed increased plasma Aβ42/Aβ40 ratios and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) levels. This highly controlled residential study showed large salutary changes in gene expression networks due to the vacation effect, common to all groups. For those already trained in the practice of meditation, a retreat appears to provide additional benefits to cellular health beyond the vacation effect

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

Kanuga-in-the-autumn-Small

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

 

The Power of Retreat 5 – Meditation and Spirituality

“Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” – Alan Watts

 

In a prior essay ‘The Power of Retreat 4 – the Container of Silence’ (https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/insights/?section=navPosts), the effects of the container in which retreat is conducted were explored. But, the point of retreat is not the container, it is what transpires within it. Meditation and contemplation are the primary practices of the retreat. The amount varies with different types of retreats. The one we just returned from the amount of meditation varied between 3 to 4+ hours per day occurring in 6 to 8 periods beginning at 7:30 in the morning through 9:30 in the evening. The retreat not only allows for deep meditative experiences that build over the course of the retreat, but it also allows for time for contemplation. Just sitting or walking while reflecting on our environment, immediate experience, or the insights occurring in meditation is as important as the meditation itself.

 

The specific type of meditation practiced can vary with different retreats (see links below for explanations of meditation techniques). But, all practices emphasize quieting the mind, reducing the internal conversation and chatter, in order to better see and understand the operation of the mind. The amount of meditation is important as it is a ‘practice’ and over time the mind gets quieter. When the mind quiets all sorts of things can emerge, some expected, some a complete surprise, some sublime, but some very uncomfortable and upsetting. Be forewarned, meditation can produce wrenching experiences. We’ve seen many people spontaneously break out in tears at any moment. Most deal with it effectively, confronting and experiencing troubling experiences and the attached strong emotions. This is actually a very good thing as it can help to heal inner wounds that may have festered for decades. But, some participants are overwhelmed and need assistance or need to leave the retreat. Don’t be put off, these are important experiences and may constitute breakthrough moments, leading to self-transformation.

 

The intent of meditation is not to elicit thinking or emotions, even though thinking and emotions occur frequently during meditation. The intent is to allow inner silence to prevail. At the retreat we attended we all wore tags stating “I am observing silence.” This can be viewed very practically as a message to everyone around who may not be participating in the retreat, that we’re not open to conversation, or even everyday niceties. But, it’s true meaning is deeper. It suggests that we are observing silence itself, the silence within that is ever present and the foundation upon which all experiences emerge. It is a wonderful experience to be deeply immersed in the silence.

 

A powerful component of retreat is the commitment and intention that the participants bring. Most people coming to a retreat are very committed. The investment of money and especially a week’s time is a concrete expression of that commitment. The week taken away from work and everyday activities is dear to many. It could have been used to take a cruise, tour a foreign country, go to a beach or theme park, visit friends and family, etc. So, the choice to go on retreat instead is meaningful. This commitment provides the motivation for the individual to focus on the work of the retreat and particularly on their intention. Most come with an intention to work on self-understanding, which may paradoxically include a loss of self! In addition, the fact that there is a group of committed individuals with a shared intention present energizes the retreat.

 

For many the intention is for spiritual development. Some come to retreat with a specific intention to experience spiritual awakening or to experience a union with God. But, even those who come for personal development reasons often migrate toward spiritual development. This is a natural outgrowth of meditation. It is impossible to look deeply inside, particularly at the silence and emptiness and not be spiritually affected, to not glimpse the deeper aspects of existence. In fact, it is common in retreat for people to have awakening experiences. These frequently occur not in the meditation itself but during the contemplative time. That’s frequently where the fruits of meditation ripen. Additionally, the supportive environment of retreat can promote awakenings as the individual knows that these unusual experiences will be accepted and understood, whereas in everyday life they are not.

 

Silent meditation retreat is an opportunity to move away from our everyday lives. Some may see this as an opportunity to escape them but the power of retreat is not to escape our lives but to provide perspective on them. Yes, work, chores etc. must be done. But, by putting perspective on their true importance we become less stressed and anxious about them and don’t ruminate about unfinished tasks. Rather, we can begin to live our life with balance, making sure that we take care of what constitutes the to do list of our happiness and growth. It has been pointed out that absolutely no one, on their death bed, wishes that they had spent more time at work. Retreat can provide this same kind of perspective. We come away from retreat with a clear realization that we must give higher priorities and more time to our emotional and spiritual lives. We must invest the precious time of our lives in rest and contemplation. We must devote ourselves more to others and especially, to caring for ourselves. We can see how important our relationships, family and friends are to our inner reality. Retreat can provide this perspective for us and is part of its life-altering power.

 

We highly recommend retreat, especially silent retreat, for those who wish for personal or spiritual development. But, be prepared. It is often not the pleasant relaxing time off that many envision. It can be emotional and spiritual dynamite that needs to be approached with caution.

 

As gold purified in a furnace loses its impurities and achieves its own true nature, the mind gets rid of the impurities of the attributes of delusion, attachment and purity through meditation and attains Reality. – Adi Shankara”

 

CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

 

MEDITATION PRACTICE

The following links to the CMCS Blog http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/ review the methods and consequences of meditation.

 

Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/20/beginning-meditation-1-preliminaries/

 

Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries 2

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/21/beginning-meditation-1-preliminaries-2/

 

Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 1 – Positions

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/22/beginning-meditation-getting-started-1-positions/

 

Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 2 – Breath Following 1

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/23/208/

 

Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 3 – Breath Following 2

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/24/beginning-meditation-getting-started-3-breath-following-2/

 

Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 4 – Open Monitoring Meditation

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/25/beginning-meditation-getting-started-4-open-monitoring-meditation/

 

Meditation Techniques – Loving Kindness Meditation

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/26/meditation-techniques-loving-kindness-meditation/

 

Meditation Techniques – Body Scan Meditation

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/27/meditation-techniques-body-scan-meditation/

 

What to Look for in Meditation

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/28/what-to-look-for-in-meditation/