Retreat for Longevity

meditation retreat Conklin2


People seek out retreats for themselves in the country, at the seaside, on the mountains…but nowhere can a person find a retreat more full of peace than one’s own soul.  Make use then of this retirement continually and regenerate thyself.” – Marcus Aurelius


The genes 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 (see


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 “Telomere lengthening after three weeks of an intensive insight meditation retreat.”

Conklin and colleagues measured telomere length in individuals participating in an intensive insight meditation retreat both before and after three weeks of retreat. They compared the telomere lengths to a group of individuals with a comparable amount of meditation experience but who were not participating in the retreat. They found that after three weeks of retreat the telomeres had significantly lengthened in the retreat group but not in the controls.


These findings are interesting and potentially important as they suggest that engagement in a meditation retreat can actually lead to improvement in cellular aging. It should be noted that this was not due to the fact that the participants were experienced meditators as the controls were comparably experienced in meditation. The only thing different was participation in the retreat.


This raises the question as to how participation in retreat might be producing a lengthening of telomeres. The authors raise the possibilities that the retreat facilitates “the participant’s cultivation of adaptive mental qualities, which mitigate psychological stress and counter stress-related telomere shortening.” Although this cannot be ruled out as a reasonable explanation, it should be noted that in the retreat the individual is removed from their normal life stresses and this may be the key to the retreat’s effectiveness. It is known that stress decreases telomere length and, if persistent, also reduces longevity. So, the break provided by the retreat may be responsible for lowering stress which in turn lengthens telomeres. It would have been interesting if the researchers had included a three-week vacation group that simply rested without intensive meditation to determine if it were the meditation retreat itself that was effective or simply the rest. Future research will be required to answer this question.

Regardless of the explanation it is clear that participating in a meditation retreat results in a lengthening of a marker of cellular aging, telomeres, and may thereby promote longevity.


So, retreat for longevity.


“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” ― Albert Camus

Regulate Emotions with Mindfulness


If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” – Daniel Goleman


We are very emotional creatures. Without emotion, life is flat and uninteresting. Emotions provide the spice of life. We are constantly having or reacting to emotions. We often go to great lengths in an attempt to create or keep positive emotions and conversely to avoid, mitigate, or get rid of negative emotions. They are so important to us that they affect mostly everything that we do and say and can even be determinants of life or death. Anger, fear, and hate can lead to murderous consequences. Anxiety and depression can lead to suicide. At the same time love, joy, and happiness can make life worth living. Our emotions also affect us physically with positive emotions associated with health, well-being, and longevity and negative emotions associated with stress, disease, and shorter life spans.


The importance of emotions is only surpassed by our ignorance of them. Our rational side tries to downplay their significance and as a result research studies of emotions are fairly sparse and often ridiculed by politicians. So there is a great need for research on the nature of emotions, their effects, how they are regulated or not, and what factors affect them. One important factor is mindfulness. It has been shown to affect our ability to regulate emotions (see Research has demonstrated that people either spontaneously high in mindfulness or trained in mindfulness are better able to be completely in touch with their emotions and feel them completely, while being able to respond to them more appropriately and adaptively. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control emotions.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness and emotion regulation in older and young adults.”

Prakash and colleagues delve into mindfulness, emotion regulation and dysregulation, and overall well-being in younger (mean 23 years of age) and older (mean 65 years of age) adults. They found that older adults were significantly higher in mindfulness and lower in emotional difficulties (dysregulation). They further found that people who were high in mindfulness were lower in emotional difficulties (dysregulation). This may have been due to the fact that people high in mindfulness were less likely to use suppression or thought avoidance to regulate emotions. As a result, mindful people tended to regulate emotions by confronting them rather than avoiding them. This was substantiated by the finding that high mindfulness was associated with higher emotional clarity. Finally, they found that age made a difference. The younger group had a much stronger tendency to use suppression and thought avoidance than the older group and the influence of these strategies on emotion dysregulation was stronger in the younger group.


These results help to clarify how mindfulness may help us avoid emotional difficulties and why older adults appear to have less emotional troubles. The key appears to be the type of strategy used to deal with emotions. Younger people tend to try to suppress the emotion or avoid thinking about it and as a result don’t experience fully, confront, or regulate emotions as well as older adults. But, younger people benefit greatly from mindfulness, reducing the maladaptive suppression and avoidance strategies, and thereby reducing the dysregulation of emotions. Older adults, on the other hand are more mindful and tend not to avoid emotions but to confront them with clarity and thereby are better able to deal with them.


So, regulate emotions with mindfulness.


“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” – Sylvia Boorstein


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Up to your Neck in Pain – Try Yoga


For many people, managing pain involves using prescription medicine in combination with complementary techniques like physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga and massage. I appreciate this because I truly believe medical care should address the person as a whole – their mind, body, and spirit. – Naomi Judd


We all have to deal with pain. It’s inevitable, but hopefully mild and short lived. But, for many, pain is a constant in their lives. The most common forms of chronic pain are back and neck pain. Indeed, back pain is the number one cause of disability worldwide. In addition, neck pain is the number three cause of chronic pain; affecting more than a quarter of Americans. People who experience chronic back and neck pain are limited in their daily activities and may compensate in order to walk, run, sit, etc. and the compensatory postures can produce further sometimes different problems.


There are a myriad of causes for chronic back and neck pain, including something as simple as improper positioning while sleeping, or even sitting or standing with bad posture. It can also occur due to injuries, accidents, heavy lifting or other spinal issues. These types of pain are not only a problem for the individual but are also costly for society as they constitute the largest category of medical insurance claims.


Just as there are many different causes there are also a plethora of treatments for back and neck pain. The most common is the use of drugs, including over –the-counter pain relievers and at times opiates. These are helpful but have limited effectiveness. Sometimes the pain can lead to surgical interventions that can be costly and are not always effective. So, alternative treatments such as acupuncture have also been used with some success. Yoga is another promising alternative treatment for back and neck pain. Many forms of yoga focus on the proper alignment of the spine, which could directly address the source of back and neck pain for many individuals.


We’ve seen in previous posts that yoga can be effective for the relief of chronic low-back pain Indeed, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which includes yoga practice is effective for low back pain (see today’s Research News article “Effectiveness of Iyengar yoga in treating spinal (back and neck) pain: A systematic review”

Crow and colleagues review the published randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of the application of yoga for the relief of back and neck pain. They found that yoga produced clinically significant improvements in pain intensity. There was clear and strong evidence for effectiveness on the short term. Only three trials had long-term follow-up but were supportive that yoga has sustained effectiveness.


Yoga has many positive benefits for the physical and psychological well-being of the individual and can even provide spiritual benefits. It is generally safe when taught by well-trained yoga instructors, but can still have some adverse effects and practice needs to be tempered with moderation and caution. The present review, hiowever, provides strong support for its use in treating chronic back and neck pain.


So, practice yoga and relieve chronic back and neck pain


“The practices of Yoga equip us with tools for transcending this suffering – and for transcending our moments of happiness, too. Even moments of elation, contentment, and joy carry the future pain of their termination, after all.”  – Sharon Gannon & David Life


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Quit Smoking Mindfully


Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times. – Mark Twain


“Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year, with more than 41,000 of these deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke. In addition, smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion a year. In 2013, an estimated 17.8% (42.1 million) U.S. adults were current cigarette smokers.”  (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).


Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known. But, its addictiveness is not just due to its pharmacological properties. Addiction to smoking also involves learned or conditioned factors, genetics, and social and environmental factors. This makes it easy to become addicted and very difficult to stop. To some extent this is why there still are high rates of smoking even though mostly everyone understands that it has very negative effects on health and longevity.


There are a wide variety of methods and strategies to quit smoking which are to some extent effective. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 40% of smokers who want to quit make a serious attempt to do so each year, but fewer than 5% actually succeed. Most people require three or four failed attempts before being successful. One problem is that after quitting if a single cigarette is smoked, going back to regular smoking is almost assured. As John Polito wrote “nicotine dependency recovery is one of the few challenges in life where being 99% successful all but assures 100% defeat.”


So, better methods to quit which can not only promote quitting but also prevent relapse are badly needed. In today’s Research News article “Randomized trial comparing mindfulness training for smokers to a matched control”

Davis and colleagues compared the efficacy of a mindfulness training for smokers (MTS) program to the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking (FFS) program. The MTS program included meditation, group support, and instruction on mindful management of smoking triggers, urges, addictive thoughts and emotions. They applied these programs to quitting smoking with low socioeconomic status smokers, a very difficult segment of the population to treat. Both groups used nicotine patches for the first two weeks of treatment.


They found that at four weeks after the end of treatment 35% of the mindfulness training group and 34% of the FFS group were smoking abstinent. But at 24 weeks 25% of the mindfulness group were still abstinent compared to 18% for the FFS group. This suggests that mindfulness may be helpful in maintaining abstinence after successful quitting of smoking. The mindfulness training group not surprisingly had higher mindfulness scores. Importantly, they showed lower urges to smoke after quitting. In addition, the mindfulness training group showed a lower tendency to avoid experiences. It is important to note that mindfulness training had these effects in a low socioeconomic status group which have traditionally been found to be difficult to treat.


These are exciting results and suggest that mindfulness training may be an important addition to programs for smoking cessation. It appears that mindfulness may be effective by reducing urges to smoke. Mindfulness training increases focus of an acceptance of the present moment. After the physiological symptoms of smoking withdrawal are over the most difficult issues that tend to produce relapse are learned environmental and social triggers to smoke. It is possible that mindfulness training allows the individual to be better at understanding and accepting these triggers and not avoid experiences but confront them. This may then decrease the urge to smoke and improve abstinence.


Regardless of the mechanism, mindfulness training appears to be a beneficial addition to smoking cessation programs. Of course, further research is needed.


So, quit smoking mindfully.


Smoking sucks! The one thing I would say to my kid is, ‘It’s not just that it’s bad for you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life fighting a stupid addiction to a stupid thing that doesn’t even really give you a good buzz?’” – Katherine Heigl


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Decrease Suicidality with Mindfulness


Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It’s kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances.” – Robert Crumb


Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. It is much more prevalent with males who account for 79% of suicides. Every day, approximately 105 Americans die by suicide. Worldwide over 800,000 people die by suicide every year. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). Yet compared with other life threatening conditions there has been scant research on how to identify potential suicide attempters and reduce suicidality.


Depression and other mood disorders are the number-one risk factor for suicide, but alcohol and drug abuse – even without depression – are a close second. In fact, research has shown that the strongest predictor of suicide is alcoholism, not a psychiatric diagnosis. People with substance use disorders are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. To make matter worse people with substance abuse are often incarcerated. In prison suicidality is even higher than outside. It is not the primary effects of the substances that promote suicide as the likelihood of suicide does not decline after complete withdrawal from the drugs or alcohol.


So there is a great need to study suicidality especially in conjunction with substance use disorders to identify predictors and potential methods to prevent actual suicide attempts. In today’s Research News article “Trait Mindfulness, Reasons for Living and General Symptom Severity as Predictors of Suicide Probability in Males with Substance Abuse or Dependence”

Mohammadkhani and colleagues studied incarcerated and outpatient substance abusers and measured mindfulness, psychiatric symptoms, reasons for living, and suicide probability. These groups were indeed high risk as 36% of the outpatients and 42% of the incarcerated participants had attempted suicide. They found that the strongest single predictor of suicide probability was the severity of the individuals’ psychiatric symptoms and the second was fear of social disapproval. Importantly, they found that the higher the level of mindfulness, the lower the probability of suicide.


These findings are interesting and suggest that mindfulness training might be an effective intervention to lower suicidality and the risk of attempting suicide in the high risk population of substance abusers. Of course, a randomized clinical trial is needed to establish effectiveness.


The findings also raise interesting questions as to why mindfulness might be an antidote to suicidality. There are a number of known effects of mindfulness that might account for its negative association with suicidality. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease psychiatric symptoms and depression, the leading causes of suicide attempts. Indeed, they found that high mindfulness was associated with lower levels of psychiatric symptoms. Mindfulness also improves emotion regulation allowing the individual to respond more adaptively to sometimes overwhelming emotions. In addition, it is known to reduce physiological and psychological responses to stress which might lower stress’ ability to prompt a suicide attempt. In addition, suicide is often associated with hopelessness about the future. Mindfulness by increasing focus on the present moment lowers worry and rumination about the future and may thereby reduce the likelihood of a suicide attempt. Finally, mindfulness is known to help prevent relapse after successful withdrawal from addiction and this may make the individual more hopeful about the future.


Regardless of the reasons, mindfulness appears to be able to buffer the individual against the forces that can promote and prompt suicide.


Suicide is a serious thing. And if you know anyone who is suicidal, you need to get them help. No one should be in pain. Everyone should love themselves. – Gerard Way


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Lower Disordered Eating with Genuine Religion and Spirituality


“Eating disorders are like a gun that’s formed by genetics, loaded by a culture and family ideals, and triggered by unbearable distress.” – Aimee Liu


Around 30 million people in the United States of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder; either anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.  95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26. Eating disorders are not just troubling psychological problems, they can be deadly, having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Indeed, the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old


Anorexia Nervosa is particular troubling as it is often fatal as sufferers literally starve themselves to death. It occurs in about 1% to 4% of women in the U.S. In binge eating disorder (BED), the initiation of eating frequently results in the ingestion of wildly excessive amounts. It is called disinhibited eating as there appears to be no restraints (inhibitions) that stop food intake. Once eating starts it goes on without anything holding it back. “Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, affecting 3.5% of women, 2% of men, and up to 1.6% of adolescents.” – National Eating Disorders Association. Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by a cycle of binge eating followed by some form of purge, often induced vomiting. It is estimated that up to 4% of females in the United States will have bulimia during their lifetime. Tragically around 4% of the sufferers will die.


Disordered eating is difficult to deal with in part because it is frequently paired with other disorders. In fact, around 50% of people with eating disorders meet the criteria for clinical depression. Eating disorders are also difficult to treat because eating is necessary and cannot be simply stopped as in smoking cessation or abstaining from drugs or alcohol. One must learn to eat appropriately not stop. So, it is important to find methods that can help prevent and treat eating disorders. Contemplative practices, mindfulness, and mindful eating have shown promise for treating eating disorders (see


In today’s Research News article “Religiosity, spirituality in relation to disordered eating and body image concerns: A systematic review”

Akrawi and colleagues review the literature on the relationship between religiosity and eating disorders. They defined religiosity “as a system of organized beliefs, practices, rituals and symbols designed to facilitate closeness to the transcendent” and spirituality “as the personal quest for understanding answers to ultimate questions about life, meaning, and a relationship with the transcendent.” They found that an extrinsic orientation to religion and spirituality where faith was superficial and religion was “pursued for social reasons, and seen as a way of achieving status, acceptance and security,” was associated with higher levels of disordered eating. Conversely, they found that an intrinsic orientation to religion and spirituality where faith was deep and devout and religion was associated “with deeply internalized beliefs manifested through strong religious observance and commitment,” was associated with lower levels of disordered eating. So sincere spirituality but not superficial spirituality is related to low incidence of eating disorders.


Eating disorders are often driven by social concerns, particularly about how one appears to others. So, it is not surprising that superficial faith that is also pursued for social reasons would be associated with high levels of eating disorders. The individuals’ high reliance on the opinions of others is their downfall. On the other hand a deep and devout religious orientation is associated with the idea that the body is a temple of God and must be treated as a sacred object. So, it is not surprising that devout faith is associated with lower levels of eating disorders. The individual looks to a higher power for solutions to their problems.


It is not known what the causal connections might be. It is possible that the kinds of people who are sincerely religious are also the kinds of people who are resistant to eating disorders rather than spirituality being the cause of lower rates of eating disorders. But the results are promising and suggest that devout engagement in religion and spirituality may be of assistance in resisting the development of an eating disorder.


So, lower disordered eating with genuine religion and spirituality


“Most women in our culture, then, are disordered when it comes to issues of self-worth, self-entitlement, self-nourishment, and comfort with their own bodies; eating disorders, far from being ‘bizarre’ and anomalous, are utterly continuous with a dominant element of the experience of being female in this culture.” – Susan Bordo


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Mindfulness is not Always Good for Creativity


Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. – Steve Jobs


Mindfulness is the ability to focus on what is transpiring in the present moment. It involves a greater emphasis on attention to the immediate stimulus environment. Mindful people generally have better attentional abilities and have fewer intrusive thoughts and less mind wandering. As a result mindfulness has been shown to be associated with differences in thought processes (see Most of the time these differences are associated with beneficial results, but sometimes they can lead to negative outcomes including a greater tendency to have false memories (see Given the differences in thinking and attention the question arises as to the effect of mindfulness on creativity. Does it make the individual more creative or does it interfere with the creative process?


In today’s Research News article “Mind wandering “Ahas” versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creative solutions”

Zedelius and colleagues investigate the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. They measured mindfulness and then tested creativity with a Compound Remote Associations test. In this test the participant is asked to discover a word that connects three other words. For example the individual is given “ache, hunter, cabbage.”  An appropriate response might be “head” which links the words ‘head ache’, ‘head hunter’, and ‘head of cabbage.’ This solution can be arrived at by carefully analyzing the words and recalling words that are associated with each one to find a common associate, or it can be solved with insight where the solution just suddenly appears. After a solution was found the participants were asked to identify which of these strategies they used or a combination of both.


Zedelius and colleagues found that when the problem was solved by insight, mindfulness was associated with poorer performance. On the other hand when it was solved analytically mindfulness was associated with better performance. In other words, mindfulness improved analytic thinking but interfered with insightful thinking. These results make sense if it is considered that analytical thinking requires focused attention which is what is promoted by mindfulness. On the other hand, insightful thinking, thinking outside of the box, often involves allowing the mind to wander in different directions bringing in new and different possible solutions. Since mindfulness is associated with less mind wandering, it seems logical that it would interfere with the process of insight.


So, mindfulness is not a uniformly good thing. Although we usually think of mind wandering and being off task as a bad thing to be inhibited, that mind wandering, in fact, may be the source of insightful creativity. Our schools focus on analytical thinking and many are adopting mindfulness training into their curriculum to improve attention and school performance. But, as desirable as this may be, it may come at the cost of lowering creative insights. Perhaps, there is a need to train the student to be mindful when appropriate but to let the mind wander at other times to promote creativity.


So, practice mindfulness but realize that it may make you less insightful.


“To be and to be creative are synonymous. It is impossible to be and not to be creative. But that impossible thing has happened, that ugly phenomenon has happened, because all your creative sources have been plugged, blocked, destroyed, and your whole energy has been forced into some activity that the society thinks is going to pay.” – Osho
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Stop Making Yourself Depressed with Mindfulness

“Rumination . . . becomes the fast track to feeling helpless. Specifically, it paralyzes your problem-solving skills. You become so preoccupied with the problem that you’re unable to push past the cycle of negative thoughts.” – Margarita Tartakovsky

Depression is epidemic. Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older, in a given year, is more prevalent in women than in men, and as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents have clinical depression. It can be fatal as about 2/3 of suicides are caused by depression. It makes lives miserable, not only the patients but also associates and loved ones, interferes with the conduct of normal everyday activities, and can come back repeatedly. Even after complete remission, 42% have a reoccurrence.


Depression can be a downward spiral where depressed people repeatedly think about their problems which, in turn, reinforces the depression making it worse and worse. This repetitive thinking is known as rumination. It is like a record that’s stuck and keeps repeating the same lyrics. It’s replaying a dispute with a loved one in the individual’s mind. It’s going over their past mistakes, again and again. Research has shown that rumination produces a variety of negative consequences, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, binge-drinking and binge-eating.


One of the keys to dealing with depression may be addressing these repetitive thoughts. In fact, rumination may be a major contributing factor to recurrent depression. Mindfulness has been demonstrated to reduce worry and rumination (see and be effective for treating depression and preventing reoccurrence of depression (see So, it is possible that mindfulness’ beneficial effects upon depression may be mediated by its effects on worry and rumination.


In today’s Research News article “Memory Specificity and Mindfulness Jointly Moderate the Effect of Reflective Pondering on Depressive Symptoms in Individuals with a History of Recurrent Depression”

Brennan and colleagues studied adult patients with recurrent depression who had had at least three depressive episodes. They found that the more mindful the patients were the lower their depression and the lower their levels of brooding (rumination). They also found that high levels of using autobiographical memory along with low levels of mindfulness made depression worse in people who tended to think a lot. Hence high mindfulness may be protective against over thinking exacerbation of depression.


The results did not produce strong evidence that mindfulness is successful for depression by way of its effects on rumination. To a large extent each appeared to have independent effects on depression with mindfulness making it better and rumination making it worse. This may be the case for individuals with recurrent depression. More research is needed to see if it is also true for individuals with current depression or who are at-risk for depression.


Mindfulness can affect depression in a number of ways. It is known to improve emotion regulation, the ability to experience emotions and still react constructively to them. This can allow the individual to fully experience the feeling that they’re having but not overreact to them and let them dissipate. Mindfulness is also known to reduce physiological and psychological responses to stress and stress is known to be associated with depression. So, reducing it could lead to lower depression. Finally, mindfulness by focusing the individual on the present moment tends to decrease rumination about the past and worry about the future. So, there are many routes by which mindfulness may be effective for recurrent depression. But, it is clear that it is a safe and effective treatment for depression or to prevent reoccurrence of depression.


So, be mindful and stop making yourself depressed.


“Start living right here, in each present moment. When we stop dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, we’re open to rich sources of information we’ve been missing out on—information that can keep us out of the downward spiral and poised for a richer life.” ― Mark Williams


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies



Have a Mindful Thanksgiving


I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.– Henry David Thoreau


“The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves.”
Br. David Steindl-Rast


Thanksgiving is a time for gratefulness. Most people, most of the time rue what they want and don’t have. So Thanksgiving is particularly important as a reminder of how lucky we are for all the blessings we have. It is a time to recognize that despite all our negative thoughts we have everything that we really need and probably much, much, more.


At this time of year the fall harvest is in and almost universally there is a celebration of the abundance provided. These crops will sustain us through the cold winter and till new crops can be planted, grow, mature, and are harvested. Hence, thanksgiving is very much a celebration of nature and all that it provides. In a modern world we lose track of all that is entailed in bringing us this food. When we are grateful for the food we need to recognize that we should be also be grateful for the seeds, the sun, the rain, the soil, the insects and birds that pollinate the crops, and even the worms and grubs that prepare the soil. Without any of these the food would not grow. In a sense, if we look carefully, we understand that our gratefulness is not just for the particular food item. It is in fact for the entire universe to which we and the food are intimately connected.


These interconnections extend into society and technology. The steel to build the plow, the engines that move the plow, the trains and trucks that transport the food, the farmers, drivers, and engineers, the fuel for the engine, the oil wells and refineries that produce the fuel, the engineers who designed and built the machinery and factories, the men and women who educated the scientists, engineers, and farmers. I’m sure by now that you’ve got the picture. A little reflection soon reveals the vast network of interconnections, even stretching back in time.


Thanksgiving is also a time to celebrate the people we are closest to, our friends and especially our family. They are our origin and our support through development. They are our connections to the past and future. They are the emotional fuel that sustains us. They give us hope and purpose. Yes, there is dysfunction. That goes with all forms of human interactions. But, should we lose any of them we will quickly realize how important they our to our flourishing and happiness.  Remember, that on the deathbed, one of the biggest regrets is not having spent more time with family and friends. Thanksgiving is a time to recognize these interconnections, to be grateful for these people and their importance to our existence.


Certainly one of the most taken for granted amazing blessings that we have is our own awareness. We’ve always been aware. We’ve never, not been aware. So, it is so easy for it to go unrecognized and unappreciated. But, reflect for a moment what a miracle it is. There is an essence to us that is forever present and unchanging. What we are aware of is constantly changing, but that which is aware is not. Without our awareness we are nothing but biological automatons, robots. With it we are suddenly human and spiritual. We would not be able to be grateful or enjoy Thanksgiving without it. So, do not forget on Thanksgiving to be grateful for this wonder that forms the essence of what we are.


There is a very subtle kind of gratefulness that we should also adopt. It’s what the great sage Thich Nhat Hahn calls our “non-toothache.” He points out that if we had a toothache we would be thinking how grateful we’d be if it ended. But once it does we take it for granted. We need to be thankful not only for what we have but also for many things that we don’t. The health of our bodies is taken for granted, but we should be intensely grateful for our non-disease. We may not be happy in our job, but if we didn’t have one we’d think how grateful we’d be to find one. We may be unhappy for the police officer who gave us a speeding ticket. But, we don’t recognize that our safety on the roads depends upon enforcement of the laws. We should be thankful for our non-accident. We are so fortunate in so many ways that we take for granted like our “non-toothache”. But, at Thanksgiving it is good to reflect upon all of these unnoticed blessings.


Finally, it is illuminating to reflect on whether you’re a source of thanksgiving for others. Specifically, what have you done that would make someone grateful to you. In other words, what have you given. This is important as it is not always what we have or what we get that’s important but what we share, what we do for others, and what we give. This is often the source of genuine happiness. The things that we have are never satisfying in a lasting way, but the things that we give forever bring joy. So, ask yourself on Thanksgiving, have you truly and sincerely given to others without expecting something in return?


It is very useful to reflect upon all of these things at Thanksgiving. The modern world, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and individuality, produces feelings of independence and isolation. But these thanksgiving reflections soon reveal that this is an illusion. We are inextricably connected to the entire fabric of the universe, the tapestry of our physical, social, and spiritual existence. There is so much to be grateful for that upon reflection we can see that our sufferings are silly and small by comparison. We should revel in the vast interconnected blessings that make up everything about our world and ourselves. We should celebrate the miracle of life and our awareness of it.


So, eat, drink, and be merry on Thanksgiving, enjoy the wonderful celebration, but also invest a few moments in reflecting upon all that we have to be thankful for.


He who thanks but with the lips
Thanks but in part;
The full, the true Thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.

~J.A. Shedd


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Women Behind Bars Benefit from Mindfulness Training

“Prison is quite literally a ghetto in the most classic sense of the world, a place where the U.S. government now puts not only the dangerous but also the inconvenient—people who are mentally ill, people who are addicts, people who are poor and uneducated and unskilled.” — Piper Kerman

“Two hundred women, no phones, no washing machines, no hair dryers–it was like Lord of the Flies on estrogen.” — Piper Kerman


Prison is an extremely difficult environment for anyone, but especially for women. The prison population is by far majority male, but 18% are female. These women are different from their male counterparts in that they are much more likely to have experienced poverty, intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and/or other forms of victimization often linked to their offending behavior. They are also much more likely to have co-occurring disorders—in particular, substance abuse problems interlinked with trauma and/or mental illness. In addition, they often struggle with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.


So, incarcerated women need to be treated differently, including mental health services, to help them move toward rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society. Education, job training, psychotherapy, addiction treatment etc. can obviously be helpful. In addition, mindfulness training may also be very helpful. It has been found to be beneficial for the treatment of mental health problems in general (see and for the treatment for substance abuse (see In addition contemplative practice has been found to be helpful for prisoners (see So, it makes sense that mindfulness training may be beneficial especially for incarcerated women.


In today’s Research News article “The Impact of a Mindfulness Based Program on Perceived Stress, Anxiety, Depression and Sleep of Incarcerated Women”

Ferszt and colleagues had incarcerated women participate in a 12-week Mindfulness Based Program called Path to Freedom. They found that the intervention produced a decrease in perceived stress, anxiety, and depression. In addition, the women who participated were consistently positive about the program and many who did not participate, but heard of the program through word of mouth, asked to be included in future programs.


It is not surprising that mindfulness training reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. There are  extensive research findings demonstrating its effectiveness for these issues (see regarding stress and regarding anxiety and regarding depression).


These are encouraging results. Stress, anxiety, and depression are difficult issues for incarcerated women. The presence of these issues can interfere with other programs designed to help in rehabilitation. In addition, they can be problematic for the women in adjusting to everyday life after release. So, relief of stress, anxiety, and depression may be very beneficial for their eventual success in prison and their reintegration into society.


So, mindfulness is beneficial for women behind bars as it is for women in all circumstances.


“The women I met in Danbury helped me to confront the things I had done wrong, as well as the wrong things I had done. It wasn’t just my choice of doing something bad and illegal that I had to own; it was also my lone-wolf style that had helped me make those mistakes and often made the aftermath of my actions worse for those I loved.”  — Piper Kerman


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies