Mission Creep

Many of us including myself began a contemplative practice for secular reasons. These include, reducing stress, treatment of a physical or psychological ailments, or physical fitness. For myself, I began meditation solely to improve my ability to appreciate my immediate (present moment) experience.

But, no matter what the initial reason, contemplative practice seems to turn more and more toward spirituality. It seems almost impossible to frequently quiet the mind and not eventually begin to confront the basic issues of existence. Calming the mental chatter reveals a mysterious inner world of existence, leading inexorably to questioning the nature of that world and the ultimate reality underlying it. The constant thinking and mental chatter obscures this fundamental reality

So, there is frequently a mission creep of contemplative practice. For me, it’s crept to a deep spiritual practice. Where has it led for you?

Meditation Concentration and Happiness

“Meditation leads to concentration, concentration leads to understanding, and understanding leads to happiness” Thich Nhat Hahn

This wonderful quote from the modern day sage Thich Nhat Hahn is a wonderful pithy description of the benefits of contemplative practice. I believe it is helpful, however, to change the word “concentration” to “mindfulness”. This better represents how meditation helps us concentrate on the present moment just as it is, without judgement, leaving the past behind and future yet to be.

Mindfulness allows us to view our experience and not put labels on it, not make assumptions about it, not relate it to past experiences, and not project it into the future. Rather mindfulness lets us experience everything around and within us exactly as it is arising and falling away from moment to moment. Understanding is simply seeing things exactly as they are without the minds colorations and interpretations. This can lead to much deeper insights, but meditation can still lead to a surface level of understanding, that is quite useful in moving to the next step.

Simply being able to see other people as they are without judgement will generate understanding and compassion. The person is neither good nor bad, kind nor unkind, attractive nor ugly, smart nor stupid, opinionated nor open, etc. They are simply a human being doing the best they can, given their biology and conditioning. This is a revolutionary understanding that changes our entire perspective on others and can lead to a radically different approach to interacting with them. This insight can also lead to a radical adjustment to how we view ourselves.

This understanding produced by meditatively induced mindfulness leads automatically to happiness. Removing the judging mind, that is constantly on the lookout for problems and threats to be solved, allows one to see the beauty and wonder of existence. It reveals the profound mystery that is life. It induces unrelenting gratefulness for the grace we have received. It is impossible not to be happy under these conditions. This happiness is not a peak or ecstatic happiness, but rather a deep and fulfilling satisfaction with all that is. How wonderful is that?

Please keep in mind that nothing is ever this easy. Thich Nhat Hahn is simply providing the outline of the meditative journey. As everyone who has embarked on this journey will attest, the trip is a convoluted roller coaster ride. Lots of difficulties arise along the way. But persevere and slowly, sometimes at glacial speed, we progress in the journey.

So, meditate and know that true happiness awaits if you pursue the path with patience and dedication.

CMCS

Meditating to Music

I was recently asked if meditating with music playing was helpful in deepening the meditation. Many people find meditating to music a satisfying and pleasant experience. But is this a good idea if your goal is to attain the fruits of meditation.

The underlying notion of most contemplative practices and meditation in particular is to quiet the mind and bring awareness to the present moment. By quieting the mind is meant to reduce or stop the internal conversation, the mental chatter. If not stop it at least not become enmeshed in it, rather watching it as observing a bird fly past.

Obviously music that has lyrics will almost automatically engage listening and thinking about the content. It is possible to allow the words to just pass through awareness without thought or analysis. Advanced meditators can do this, but, this is very difficult. For most people lyrics in music will interfere with meditation. I would recommend avoiding it.

Music that does not contain lyrics is a more complex case. There is neuropsychological evidence that music engages the same neural systems involved in speech processing. So, music may be likened to a form of non-symbolic speech. When envisioned in this way it suggests that even music without lyrics may be detrimental to meditation.

Music also may be highly engaging. Awareness becomes totally occupied with the music itself, a completely external stimulus. This interferes with observing the present moment in regards to internal and other external stimuli. So, it would be detrimental to any open monitoring form of meditation.

Meditation with music appears to heighten the enjoyment of the music and is very pleasant. As such, it can be viewed as a distractor which allows one to escape ones present moment experience. So, it would seem reasonable to conclude that listening to music while meditating would enhance the appreciation of the music, but interfere with meditation.

This conclusion is probably true for the vast majority of meditators. But, like everything, it probably isn’t for some, particularly highly practiced meditators who can remain unattached to the music. This is quite difficult.

So, the recommendation is to enjoy music and enjoy meditation, but not at the same time.

CMCS

Don’t be afraid! 2 – Dealing with Trauma

Traumatic events produce indelible marks on the individual. Sometimes they’re physical injury. Sometimes they’re psychological injury. But always they alter the person forever. The damage can be so severe as to totally debilitate the individual or can be at a level that just torments the individual, taking the joy out of life.

But individuals differ in their responses to trauma. Exposed to essentially the same trauma one person may be relatively unaffected while the other suffers severe post-traumatic symptoms that persist for years. What accounts for the difference? This could provide a clue for effective treatment or prevention of the negative effects of experiencing traumatic events.

In today’s Research News article, “Longitudinal Evaluation of the Relationship Between Mindfulness, General Distress, Anxiety, and PTSD in a Recently Deployed National Guard Sample. “

http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.shsu.edu/article/10.1007/s12671-015-0400-0/fulltext.html

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1018820361475223/?type=1&theater

it is demonstrated that an individual’s degree of mindfulness appears to mitigate the continuing effects of trauma. The more mindful a soldier the better he/she adapts to the distress produced by trauma.

These post-traumatic distress symptoms are due to past events. Whatever event triggered the symptoms is no longer present. Being able to focus on the present situation renders past events less able to continue influencing the individual’s state. Since, mindfulness means present moment awareness, it is not surprising that it would assist in restricting the long-term impact of trauma. Hence, mindfulness makes the individual more resilient and less affected by trauma.

There is now a considerable body of literature that mindfulness training can be useful in treating the continuing long-term distress produced by trauma. Today’s article suggests that the individual difference in the response to trauma may, at least in part, be due to the individual level of mindfulness.

So practice mindfulness and don’t be afraid. You’ll be better equipped to deal with it in case you are exposed to trauma.

CMCS

Why Don’t We Like Ourselves – Mindfulness as an Antidote

One of the more remarkable aspects of Western culture is that in general people do not like themselves. When asked about this, the Dalai Lama was totally dumbfounded. He couldn’t understand how that could be. In his Tibetan culture such a problem is unheard of.

So why do westerners suffer from such low self-esteem.  One explanation appears to be the competitive nature of our culture. We are taught to strive to be the best; that is to compete to be better than everyone else. This starts early with parents urging infants to attain developmental milestones earlier and earlier. The famed Swiss Developmental Psychologist, Jean Piaget, when asked how we could increase the speed with which children attain different levels of cognitive development, responded that he called this the American question. Nowhere else in the world was he asked that question, yet it was asked frequently in America.

This stress on competing continues throughout childhood with tests and grades in school, with athletic competitions, and even with social approval, desiring to be the most liked. The American obsession with winning is obvious in sports at all levels. Where in other cultures the notion of a tie is perfectly acceptable, in America a tie is seen as shameful. There must be a winner. So, we devise schemes to break all ties and determine a winner, to determine who’s best.

So we are constantly comparing ourselves to others and since there can only one best, virtually everyone falls short. So, we constantly criticize ourselves for not being the smartest, the swiftest, the strongest, the most liked, the most handsome or beautiful. If there wasn’t something wrong with us, then we would be the best. As a result we become focused and obsessed with our flaws.

Today’s Research News article “Mindfulness and Self-esteem: A Systematic Review”

suggests that mindfulness may be helpful in counteracting this American disease of low self-esteem. How can simple mindfulness practices do this?

Mindfulness practice changes our focus to the present moment, making us more aware and accepting of what is. In the present moment, everyone is equal. Comparisons involve memories of our’ vs. others’ accomplishments. If our minds are focused in the present moment these comparisons can’t occur. Mindfulness promotes experiencing and accepting ourselves as we are, which is a direct antidote to seeing ourselves in comparison to others and as we wish to be. Finally mindfulness allows us to view the negative emotions generated by low self-esteem and understand their origin and disconcordance with reality.

So, practice mindfulness and feel good about yourself and your life.

CMCS

Mindfulness and Recovery from Brain Injury

Brain damage is more or less permanent. The neurons and neural structures that are destroyed when the brain is damaged for the most part do not regrow. Acquired Brain Injury is a form of brain damage caused by a number of different events from a violent blow to the head (Traumatic Brain Injury, TBI), to gunshot wounds, to tumors and strokes. There are many causes of this including car accidents, warfare, violent disputes, cancer, etc.. Regardless of the cause, the brain is damaged, and the areas that are destroyed are permanently lost.

But, we know that people can recover to some extent from brain injury.  How is it possible that recovery can occur when there is no replacement of the damaged tissue? There appears to be a number of strategies that are employed by the brain to assist in recovery. Other areas of the brain can take over some of the function, other behavioral strategies can be employed to accomplish the task, and non-injured areas of the brain can adapt and change to compensate for the lost function.

In today’s article “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Delivered Live on the Internet to Individuals Suffering from Mental Fatigue After an Acquired Brain Injuryhttps://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1016815115009081/?type=1&theater

MBSR is shown to assist in recovery from a particularly troublesome symptom of brain injury, long-lasting mental fatigue. For brain injury victims engaging in mental activities takes tremendous energy and the individual tires (fatigues) quickly. We can theorize that this fatigue comes from having to employ less efficient alternative methods to perform mental tasks that take more energy.

How does MBSR help? It can actually change the brain and make it more efficient in processing mental tasks. It has been shown that mindfulness training can increase the size and connectivity of areas of the brain responsible for focused attention while decreasing the size and connectivity of areas responsible for mind wandering and attentional lapses. By limiting intrusive thoughts, mindfulness improves attentional ability and even memory function.

MBSR can also decrease the emotional reactions of frustration and anger that can occur as a result of struggling to perform a mental task. This can remove an interfering and fatiguing consequence of the disability produced by brain injury. This in turn reduces the energy expended to accomplish the task.

So, mindfulness training can assist the brain injury sufferer by restructuring the uninjured brain tissue to allow for better focused attention and also by reducing emotional reactions to the difficulties. This allows the victim to better engage in mental activities. In essence, it doesn’t heal the damaged tissue, rather it makes the rest of the brain better able to carry out the task.

CMCS

Age Healthily – Yoga

yoga-seniors-mdn

The aging process involves a progressive deterioration of the body. This cannot be stopped or reversed. But, the deterioration can be slowed and to some extent counteracted. This is true for both physical and mental deterioration. But, today’s article, “Age related differences of selected Hatha yoga practices on anthropometric characteristics, muscular strength and flexibility of healthy individuals.”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4278134/?report=printable

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1015482441809015/?type=1&theater

is focused on the physical deterioration in aging.

As we age we increase body fat and loose muscles mass and strength. The bones become less dense and weaker and thereby more prone to breaking. Cartilage that lines the joints tend to thin leading to arthritis and the ligaments that hold the muscles and joints together tend to harden making us less flexible and prone to injury. Inactivity in aging can exacerbate all of these musculoskeletal changes.

Yoga practice appears to help to slow or reverse these changes. Today’s article demonstrates that the increase in fat mass with aging and the consequent increase in body weight are slowed by daily Hatha yoga practice. The decreased muscle strength as well as the decreased flexibility is also slowed in yoga practitioners. Hence, yoga is an excellent practice for maintaining the individual’s strength, flexibility, and body composition all of which are important for healthy aging.

In addition to the direct benefits there are also a plethora of indirect benefits. The individual looks and feels better. This can lead to improved self-image and even higher levels of activity. These in turn can lead to more frequent and better social interactions. This in addition to the social interactions inherent in group yoga practice. The loss of these social interactions are a major contributor to loneliness and depression in aging. Hence, indirectly, yoga practice can lead to improved social and psychological health.

So, age healthily by practicing yoga!

CMCS

Mindfulness is a Snooze!

Contemplative practice has many effects on the mind and body, including alterations of sleep. Today’s Research News “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Insomnia.”  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4153063/pdf/aasm.37.9.1553.pdf

provides empirical evidence of the effectiveness of a mindfulness based therapy in treating insomnia.

But, how can mindfulness practice that occurs in the awake state carry over to affect the sleep state? It appears to work psychologically and also physically.

A common symptom of insomniacs is a waking psychophysiological arousal. That is the individual is in a perpetual state of heightened alertness with higher heart rate, blood pressure etc. This makes it difficult to relax to go to sleep. Mindfulness training is known to induce a state of reduced arousal. Hence, by reducing physiological arousal mindfulness training makes it easier to relax and go to sleep.

On the psychological side rumination about the past or anxiety regarding the future can interfere with sleep. Mindfulness training is known to reduce both. Worries about the past tend to subside when the individual becomes more oriented to the present moment. This is also the case for anxiety and fear about the future. So, mindfulness training tends to reduce these psychological inhibitors of sleep onset.

Finally, insomnia can lead to anxiety about sleep itself. This is stressful and can produce even more anxiety about being able to sleep. This can become a vicious cycle, where not being able to sleep induces anxiety and stress about going to sleep which in turn makes it harder to go to sleep which reinforces the anxiety and on and on. Mindfulness training appears to reduce the anxiety, breaking the cycle, making it easier to go to sleep which then further reduces the anxiety.

So, practice mindfulness even though it’s a snooze!

CMCS

Activate your Buddhism!

Buddhist teachings are clear regarding the equality of all sentient beings. In fact they are seen as expressions of the same totality and are all one. Thus in Buddhism the idea of prejudice toward others makes no sense. It would effectively be being prejudiced against yourself.

Teachings are one thing, actual behavior is another. Do the ideas of Buddhism affect prejudicial thoughts and behaviors in everyday life. Today’s article “Buddhist Concepts as Implicitly Reducing Prejudice and Increasing Prosociality”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1014024345288158/?type=1&theater

addresses this very issue. It appears that when people are subliminally exposed to the ideas of Buddhism that they demonstrate reduced prejudice and increased tolerance and prosocial behavior.

The effect of subliminally activating Buddhist ideas on prejudice is indirect. It appears to act by increasing compassion and consequently increasing tolerance. It does so not only in Buddhist practitioners but also Christians, not only westerners but also Chinese. Hence, Buddhist concepts are powerful, by increasing compassion they activate many forms of prosocial behavior.

It is remarkable that such a subtle and subconscious induction of Buddhist concepts could produce these effects cross culturally and even in non-Buddhists. This underscores the power of these concepts.

So, activate your Buddhism and be more compassionate and tolerant!

CMCS

Don’t be afraid!

Fear is a worry that something dreadful will occur in the future. In the case of recovery from dire health conditions, it is the fear of reoccurrence. That worry isn’t unreasonable, but often it is excessive relative to the real danger.

When this occurs, it stresses the individual and makes them anxious. This in turn, produces physiological reactions similar to those that occur when something is truly wrong that requires a response. But nothing is really wrong. The unneeded pro-inflammatory responses when nothing is actually wrong can itself induce damage. This, to some extent makes the fears come true. This can create a self-fulfilling fear cycle.

Mindfulness shifts perspective from the future to now where everything actually is well. When we’re mindful in the present moment we are not fearing the future, we’re not ruminating about the past, instead we’re focused on how we’re feeling and what we’re experience right now. Since everything is fine at this present time, we can relax and distress.

In today’s Research News “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR(BC)) in Breast Cancer: Evaluating Fear of Recurrence (FOR) as a Mediator of Psychological and Physical Symptoms in a Randomized Control Trial (RCT)”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3627743/pdf/nihms-424471.pdf

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1013640941993165/?type=1&theater

it is demonstrated that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction reduces  the fear of reoccurrence in breast cancer survivors and this, in turn, reduces stress and anxiety. This mindfulness induced reduction in the fear, stress and anxiety produces improved physical functioning.

Mind and body are amazingly interconnected. Today’s study shows how altering the mind by focusing it in the present moment with MBSR can result in favorable physical functioning. This is one of the many ways that mindfulness improves both physical and psychological health.

CMCS