Aging the Brain Healthily with Mindfulness

Aging the Brain Healthily with Mindfulness


“He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.” – Plato (427-346 B.C.)


If we are lucky enough to survive long enough we’ll all have an opportunity to experience the aging process. It is a systematic progressive decline in every system in the body. It cannot be avoided. But, there is evidence that it can be slowed. Contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi or qigong have all been shown to be beneficial in slowing or delaying physical and mental decline with aging (see links below).


Using modern neuroimaging techniques, scientists have been able to view the changes that occur in the nervous system with aging. In addition, they have been able to investigate various techniques that might slow the process of neurodegeneration that accompanies normal aging. They have found that contemplative practices of meditation and yoga restrain the loss of neural tissue with aging. The brains of practitioners degenerate less than non-practitioners.


The hippocampus is a large subcortical structure that has been shown to decrease in size and connectivity with aging. It also has been found that long-term meditators are somewhat protected from this deterioration. A part of the hippocampus known as the subiculum is of particular interest because it decreases in size with aging and is associated with memory and spatial ability, both of which decline with aging. In addition, the subiculum appears to be larger in long-term meditators. But it has yet to be seen if the age related deterioration of the subiculum is spared with meditation.


In today’s Research News article “Reduced age-related degeneration of the hippocampal subiculum in long-term meditators”

Kurth and colleagues investigate this question by looking at the size of the subiculum in meditators and non-meditators ranging in age from 24 to 77 years. They found that the non-meditators showed the expected decrease in size of the subiculum with aging. But there was no significant decline in the subiculum size on the left side with aging with the meditators.


Hence, the findings of Kurth and colleagues suggest that meditation practice protects an important part of the brain from deteriorating with age. This is interesting and important and could reflect the mechanism by which meditation decreases the aging individual’s loss of memory and spatial ability.


Meditation is known to decrease the physiological and psychological responses to stress. In addition, stress including childhood trauma is known to produce a reduction in the size of the subiculum on the left side. It follows then the neuroprotective effects of meditation on the age related deterioration of the left subiculum may result from meditations known ability to reduce stress. Further research will be required to test this idea. Regardless, the results clearly demonstrate that meditation can result in less deterioration with aging of an important part of the brain.


So, meditate to reduce brain loss with aging.


“There are no drugs that will make you immune to stress or to pain, or that will by themselves magically solve your life’s problems or promote healing. It will take conscious effort on your part to move in a direction of healing, inner peace, and well-being.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Mindfulness practices are known to increase the activity, size, and connectivity of neural structures (see and and

Yoga practice has been shown to decrease age related brain deterioration. ( See


Meditation improves sleep in aging

Mindfulness improves emotions in aging

Qigong improves responses to stress in aging

Yoga practice improves the symptoms of arthritis

Yoga practice can reduce indicators of cellular aging

Yoga decreases musculoskeletal deterioration in aging

Tai Chi reduces inflammation and insomnia in aging and




Looking for What’s Looking


“Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”  ― Voltaire


Introspection is looking inside and viewing our own mental processes. In essence it’s the individual mind looking at and investigating itself. This is an intentional process of thought and analysis, with the mind, memory, and cognitive processes actively engaged. When engaged in introspection the mind is asked to monitor itself, watch the processes of thought, images, and feelings in order to better understand the self.


This is in contrast to contemplative practices which for the most part attempt to reduce thought and mental activity and quiet the mind. This is a process of attempting to disengage the mind, to reduce active thought and internal speech, and to lose the self. Both contemplative practices and introspection look deeply within but differ greatly in how they’re experiencing the internal state.


In contemplative practices there’s an attempt to observe experience while disengaging the mind. This then raises the issue that if the mind is disengaged then what is observing experience? If it’s not the mind, then what is? It is sometimes termed awareness, but that only labels it and doesn’t help us to grasp any better what it actually is.


There’s an internal presence or spirit that seems to be aware of experience. It’s easy to miss as it’s always there and always has been there. So, it’s easy to take it for granted and ignore it. But, when engaged in contemplative practice its presence is revealed by the removal of the mental process that normally obscure it. We seem to become aware of awareness itself. But, how? How does a watcher watch a watcher? We feel its presence but how does presence reveal itself?


In a sense when engaged in deep contemplative practice we appear to be trying to engage the same thing that’s perceiving experience at perceiving itself. We’re attempting to look with what is looking. It’s like trying to turn the eyeball around to look at itself or trying to have the ear hear itself.


Experience itself reveals the experiencer. We see things rising up and falling away constantly changing. But, you can’t see change when you’re the thing that is changing. The earth moves through the universe, changing position constantly with respect of other celestial bodies. But, we are unaware of its movement since we’re moving with it. To see the earth moving we need to be standing on a different platform. Similarly, in order to experience that experience is changing we need to be on a different platform. That different platform for our ongoing ever changing experience is the presence, the spirit, the awareness.


Like not seeing the movement of the moving earth that we’re on it, we can’t see the platform of awareness that we are on. It is where we’re seeing from and so can’t be seen. As a result, it seems a complete mystery. But, we know it’s there because we are aware of experiences. Like becoming aware of the earths movements by seeing other celestial bodies seeming to be moving, we can become aware of awareness itself by viewing the ever changing experiences that it is aware of.


When we look deeply at our experiences they appear to be rising and falling away from nothing into nothing. A sound arises from nothing. A sight arises from darkness. An odor arises from emptiness. This is why many seers use the expression that it’s a void, that awareness is a void with infinite potential; a potential to have anything appear or disappear. Could it be that it only seems that way because we can’t see what’s seeing, after all to the ear, the ear is invisible and to the eye, the eye is invisible.


Once we have experienced what’s experiencing and we accept the mystery of it, we can experience awe at the miracle of being, at the amazing gift of our presence, and at our truest deepest nature.


So, be aware of the awareness and revel in its mystery.


“Truth is not something outside to be discovered, it is something inside to be realized.” ― Osho


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Improve Diabetes Psychological Well-Being with Mindfulness


I am a type-2 diabetic, and they took me off medication simply because I ate right and exercised. Diabetes is not like a cancer, where you go in for chemo and radiation. You can change a lot through a basic changing of habits. – Sherri Shepherd


It is estimated that 30 million people in the United States have diabetes and the numbers are growing. Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in the United States. In addition, diabetes is heavily associated with other diseases such as cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, and circulatory problems leading to amputations. As a result, diabetes doubles the risk of death of any cause compared to individuals of the same age without diabetes.


Depression affects people with diabetes more often than people without it — up to 15 percent compared with 6.7 percent in the general population. When depression occurs along with a chronic illness like diabetes, the symptoms tend to be more severe. Compounding the problem further, the symptoms can become worse as depression can lead to missing medication doses, overeating, or skipping exercise. This may mean poorer blood glucose control, which, in turn, means more long-term health complications.


So, in treating diabetes it is important to treat not only the physical problem but also the psychological problems such as depression. Mindfulness training, especially Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been demonstrated to be effective in treating depression (see and


In today’s Research News article “Individual Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for People with Diabetes: a Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial”

Schroevers and colleagues examined whether an individualized version of MBCT might be effective for depression in people with diabetes. In comparison to diabetic patients on a waiting list, MBCT resulted in clinically significant reductions in depressive symptoms and diabetes related psychological distress and increases in the levels of acting with awareness and attention regulation. These improvements were still present three months after completing the program.


These are impressive results and suggest that MBCT is an effective treatment for the psychological issues that frequently accompany diabetes. MBCT may be effective due to its emphasis on the present moment in mindfulness. Depression is often rooted in the past and the individual ruminates about the misery of the past. By shifting focus to the present moment, mindfulness can move the individual from being preoccupied with a troubling past to being focused  on addressing the manageable problems in the present. Indeed, Schroevers and colleagues demonstrated that MBCT produces an increase in acting with awareness. The individual then is more aware of what they’re doing. For the depressed diabetic individual this can help in the recognition of how he/she is acting in response to the depression or the diabetes. This allows them to reprogram their responses to be more appropriate to the circumstances of the present rather than responding to the depression itself.


Mindfulness also stresses non-judgmental awareness of the present. There is a decreased tendency to be constantly judging what is happening and instead just accept it as what is. This reduces worrying. Indeed, mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce worry (see Since worry involves concerns about future occurrences to some extent based upon past experiences, the more one can focus on the present the less opportunity there is for worries to arise. Mindfulness training also trains the individual to accept the worry, experience it, and then move on. This reduces the impact of the worry and prevents the development of worrying about worrying.


Another possibility is mindfulness’ ability to increase emotion regulation. That is mindfulness assists the individual in recognizing emotions as they arise and not over respond to them. It doesn’t prevent emotions. It simply allows the individual to better deal with them when they do arise. So when depression occurs the individual can recognize it, accept it, and then let it go and not respond to it. This liberates the individual to find new ways of responding to the environment and other people.


So, be mindful and improve psychological well-being with diabetes.


Life is not over because you have diabetes. Make the most of what you have, be grateful.” – Dale Evans


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Improve Well-Being and Performance at Work with Mindfulness


“In light of the mind’s tendency to wander, we view mindfulness (in the workplace and elsewhere) as a remarkable feat: situating the mind in present moment time despite psychological pressures to the contrary. In performing this mental feat in a dynamic work environment, individuals attend to a number of stimuli and events and, as a result, perform effectively.” – Erik Dane


We spend approximately 25% of our adult lives at work. How we spend that time is immensely important for our overall well-being, including our psychological and physical health. Indeed the work environment has even become an important part of our social lives, with friendships and leisure time activities often attached to the work environment. But, more than half of employees in the U.S. are unhappy at work and worldwide nearly 2/3 of workers are unhappy.


Workers indicate that interest in their work is the number one thing that makes them happy with work and the people with whom they work is the second. One way to accentuate interest in work is through mindfulness. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that meditation practice is associated with improved job performance, job satisfaction, and work engagement (see In addition, mindfulness has been shown to improve workplace mental health (see Hence, further exploration of the relationship of mindfulness to work satisfaction is warranted.


In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness at Work: Antecedents and Consequences of Employee Awareness and Absent-mindedness”

Reb and colleagues surveyed 231 workers and their supervisors in Singapore measuring their levels of mindfulness and work satisfaction and performance. They found that the more mindfully aware the employee was the higher the employees well-being, including higher levels of job satisfaction, need satisfaction, task performance, and work above expectations, and the lower the levels of emotional exhaustion and performance deviance.


These are interesting and potentially important findings that mindful awareness is significantly positively associated with greater employee well-being and superior job performance. Mindful workers not only feel better, they also perform better. It should be kept in mind that this study looked at existing levels of mindfulness and existing levels of well-being and performance and consequently does not demonstrate which is cause and which is effect or whether some other factor is responsible for the relationship. A study is needed where the effects of active mindfulness training on well-being and performance are assessed in the workplace.


Since mindfulness is known to be associated with improvements in attention and present moment awareness it would appear obvious that this would produce better job performance. In addition, mindfulness is known to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. This would help in dealing with the difficulties encountered in everyday work. Finally, mindfulness has been shown to improve emotion regulation. This would allow a worker to clearly feel their emotional reactions to situations at work and to be able to appropriately and constructively respond to the emotions.


So, improve well-being and productivity at work with mindfulness.


“Toxic emotions disrupt the workplace, and mindfulness increases your awareness of these destructive patterns, helping you recognize them before they run rampant. It’s a way of reprogramming your mind to think in healthier, less stressful, ways.” – Drew Hansen


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Differentiate Self and 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
As we grow and develop throughout our lifetime we need to develop a sense of self that is independent and separate from other people. This is particularly evident in social contexts where individuals and the group pressure the individual to conform or model other people. Self-differentiation involves a process of developing a strong and independent self that can immerse in a group or identify with others if that’s appropriate but which can stake out an independent path, take different stands, and develop a unique individuality.


An aspect of this differentiation is developing independence in emotional expression, allowing emotions to be felt and expressed that are representative of the true feelings of the individual regardless of the social context. These are emotional expressions that are completely aligned with the differentiated individual and are expressions of the true self. Alexithymia is the term used in psychology to describe individuals who suffer great difficulty in emotional expression. This can result in isolation as the individual may avoid close interpersonal relationships.


These processes of self-differentiation are not limited to childhood or adolescence but go on throughout the lifetime. For healthy development the individual must differentiate both in terms of personality but also emotionally. Mindfulness promotes the comprehension of the interdependence of all things, how each individual is connected to everyone else and to other organisms and the environment. But, this does not mean that individuality cannot be developed. Rather the development of full individuality requires understanding the interdependence and interconnections among people and things. This suggests that mindfulness would promote the development of self and emotional differentiation.


In today’s Research News article “Examining Mindfulness and Its Relation to Self-Differentiation and Alexithymia”

Teixeira and Pereira investigated the relationship between mindfulness and self-differentiation and alexithymia in undergraduate college students. They found that high mindfulness was associated with high levels of awareness and acceptance of the present moment. In addition they found that high mindfulness was associated with high self-differentiation, including differentiation of self and others, and low levels of alexithymia including difficulty in identifying and describing feelings.


Hence, Teixeira and Pereira’s study indicates that mindfulness is associated with the development of individuality of self and emotional expression. It is well established that mindfulness promotes emotion regulation (see and which improves the individual’s ability to feel emotions yet keep their intensity at manageable levels and respond appropriately to them. But, these results indicate that in addition to improved emotion regulation mindfulness improves the ability to express them regardless of social demands, to be free to express what is being felt and be close to other people.


Mindfulness then appears to be associated with the full development of an individual self that is unique and distinct from others. It is interesting and important that mindfulness is positively associated with this very high level of individual human development. It further suggests that mindfulness is useful in developing independence throughout the lifetime both in terms of the self and in the expression of emotions.


So, be mindful and differentiate self and emotions.


“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.” –  Jon Kabat-Zinn


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Healing in the Workplace with Mindfulness

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” ~ William James


The workplace, particularly in the modern competitive world, can be a very stressful environment. These stresses can produce problems by themselves and they can also magnify existing problems or weaknesses in the workers. So, it is not surprising that 18% of all workers report some kind of mental health problem during the last month. It has been estimated that among all physical and mental problems that depression is the most costly disorder to employers producing high levels of absenteeism and lost productivity.


The types of mental health problems that occur in workers are no different than those seen in the entire population. They can, however, present themselves differently due to the unique conditions of the workplace. Exacerbating the problem are workplace insecurities that cause the individual to not seek out treatment for their problems. They worry that the stigma attached to mental health problems could threaten their jobs and careers.


Hence, workplace mental health problems present special challenges. Preventive measures or treatments are needed that don’t threaten the individual’s career. One potential stealth treatment is mindfulness practice. These have become more and more accepted in the workplace, not as a mental health treatment, but as a method to boost productivity and creativity. In addition, meditation practice has been found to be associated with better job performance, job satisfaction, and work engagement (see


In today’s Research News article “The Potential for Mindfulness-Based Intervention in Workplace Mental Health Promotion: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial”

Huang and colleagues investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness practices for mental health issues in the workplace. Based on a large survey of factory employees they selected and recruited 144 workers who displayed mental health problems, exhibiting both psychological distress and job strain. Half were randomly assigned to a Mindfulness-Based Intervention, very similar to a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, conducted over eight weeks. The other half of the workers constituted a waiting list control group.


The intervention resulted in significant reductions in psychological distress, prolonged fatigue, and perceived stress compared to the control group. Importantly, the effects were still present and significant four and again at eight weeks after the completion of the mindfulness training. These are very encouraging, clinically meaningful results and suggest that mindfulness training is effective for mental health issues in the workplace. The mindfulness training is safe and effective and because it is not seen as a mental health intervention does not produce stigma and fear of job loss.


There is considerable evidence that mindfulness practices are effective for a variety of mental health issues. They appear to work by improving present moment awareness which undercuts worry, rumination, and anxiety for the future (see They also have been found to improve emotion regulation allowing for more effective responses to emotions (see In addition mindfulness based programs have been shown to reduce both the physiological and physiological responses to stress (see This may be particularly useful for the work environment.


So, heal workplace mental health issues with mindfulness.


“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” ~Eckhart Tolle


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


ACT for Depression in Childhood Diabetes


“Self-acceptance means you refuse to buy into your judgments your mind makes about you, whether they’re good judgments or bad ones. Instead of judging yourself, you recognize your strengths and your weaknesses, and you do what you can to be the person you want to be.” – Russ Harris


There is an image, a societal meme, of childhood being a time of great happiness, fancifulness, freedom, creativity, and play. But, the reality is frequently starkly different. It has been estimated that 2% to 4% of children are depressed. This is particularly true with children under intense stress from childhood illness, particularly chronic illness. Indeed, 2.4% of children suffer from childhood diabetes. The day to day struggle with diabetes and the feelings that they are burdens on the family frequently produces depression in these children.


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been shown to be effective for depression in adults (see ACT employs mindfulness practices to increase awareness and develop an attitude of acceptance and compassion in the presence of painful thoughts and feelings. Additionally, ACT helps people strengthen aspects of cognition such as in committing to living according to their values. It is not known, however, if ACT is effective for depression in diabetic children


In today’s Research News article “Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Depression, Psychological Well-Being and Feeling of Guilt in 7 – 15 Years Old Diabetic Children”

Moghanloo and colleagues provided ACT modified for children and adolescents in ten weekly sessions to a randomly assigned group of 7-15 year old diabetic children. The change from before to after was compared to a no intervention control group of children. They found that the children treated with ACT reported lower depression and feelings of guilt and had improved psychological well-being. The effects sizes were large and clinically meaningful. Hence, ACT appeared to be effective in children as it’s been shown to be in adults.


It should be noted that there was no follow-up to determine if the effects persisted after the end of active therapy. Also, since the control group did not receive psychological treatment of any kind, it is impossible to determine if ACT is particularly effective or any form of therapy would have worked as well.


Like most mindfulness techniques ACT is targeted to improving awareness and acceptance of experiences in the present moment. These include emotions. This may be particularly important in children. By making the children more aware of how they’re feeling and why, they may become better able to deal with and accept these sometimes overpowering emotions. In addition, ACT supplies tools to look at their own thoughts about their disease and psychological state and recognize, accept, and form a different relationship with them. This allows the individual to be more psychologically flexible and mindful. In this way ACT can assist the children in coping with not only their emotions but also their disease and thoughts about it in a more accepting and productive fashion.


So, ACT for depression in childhood diabetes.


“We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until… we have stopped saying “It got lost,” and say “I lost it.” – Sydney J Harris


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Be Open or Focused in Meditation to Reduce Anxiety


“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”  ― Amit Ray


Anxiety is normal and everyone experiences occasional anxiety. But, frequent or very high levels of anxiety are considered anxiety disorders and can be quite debilitating. Unfortunately anxiety disorders are epidemic in modern society, being the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, 18% of the population. They are more common in women accounting for 60% of anxiety disorders. Symptoms can include feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness, problems sleeping, cold or sweaty hands and/or feet, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, an inability to be still and calm, dry mouth, and numbness or tingling in the hands or feet.


It has been estimated that one out of every three absences at work are caused by high levels of anxiety. Also, it has been found to be the most common reason for chronic school absenteeism. In addition, people with an anxiety disorder are three-to-five times more likely to go to the doctor and six times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than non-sufferers, making it a major burden on the healthcare system.


Anxiety disorders have generally been treated with drugs. It has been estimated that 11% of women in the U.S. are taking anti-anxiety medications. But, there are considerable side effects and these drugs are often abused. Although, psychological therapy can be effective it is costly and not available to large numbers of sufferers. So, there is a need to investigate alternative treatments.


Contemplative practices appear to be a viable alternative. Mindfulness has been shown to be associated with low anxiety (see and mindfulness training (see and yoga practice (see and have been shown to reduce anxiety. Additionally, meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety by altering neural activity (see


It is clear that meditation can be effective. But there are multiple forms of meditation. They fall into two general categories, open monitoring meditation (See and focused meditation (see It is important to investigate which of these forms might be most effective to help optimize the use of meditation practice in treating anxiety disorders.


In today’s Research News article “Evaluating psychological interventions in a novel experimental human model of anxiety”

Ainsworth and colleagues compare the effectiveness of a single 10 minute session of open monitoring or focused meditation in reducing anxiety in a laboratory manipulation designed to evoke feelings of anxiety. They found that both meditation types reduced subjective anxiety but not physiological indicators of anxiety. Open monitoring meditation appeared to be better at reducing anxiety than focused meditation.


Meditation, in general has been shown to increase emotion regulation (see allowing the individual to feel the emotion but keep its intensity at manageable levels and being able to respond appropriately and effectively to the emotion. This effect of meditation may be responsible for its ability to reduce anxiety. In addition, anxiety is due to worry about a potential future negative occurrence. Thus the focus on the present moment that occurs in meditation may also be helpful in reducing anxiety.


Open monitoring meditation allows for a broad spectrum of sensations, feelings, emotions etc. to enter awareness than focused meditation that attempts to restrict attention on a small group of sensations. This wider scope of the contents of awareness may be useful in dealing with anxiety allowing the individuals to be more sensitive to their physical and mental state. This would allow them to be better prepared to deal with the wide scope of physical and mental activities associated with anxiety.


Regardless, both forms of meditation are effective in reducing anxiety. So, meditate to reduce anxiety.


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Psychedelic Drugs and Spirituality

In history, psychedelic plants were used by priests and shamans with a desire to discover the interior. – Alejandro Jodorowsky


Psychedelic substances have been used almost since the beginning of recorded history to alter consciousness and produce spiritually meaningful experiences. Psychedelics produce effects that are similar to those that are reported in spiritual awakenings. They report a loss of the personal self. They experience what they used to refer to as the self as just a part of an integrated whole. They report feeling interconnected with everything else in a sense of oneness with all things. They experience a feeling of timelessness where time seems to stop and everything is taking place in a single present moment. They experience ineffability, being unable to express in words what they are experiencing and as a result sometimes producing paradoxical statements. And they experience a positive mood, with renewed energy and enthusiasm.


It is easy to see why people find these experiences so pleasant and eye opening. They often report that the experiences changed them forever. Even though the effects of psychedelic substances have been experienced and reported on for centuries, only very recently have these effects come under rigorous scientific scrutiny. One deterrent to the research is the legal prohibitions for the possession and use of these substances. One way around this problem is to take advantage of natural groupings of individuals who regularly use psychedelic substances.


In today’s Research News article “Long-term use of psychedelic drugs is associated with differences in brain structure and personality in humans.”

Bouso and colleagues took advantage of the fact that a substantial number of Brazilian religious groups ingest the natural psychedelic substance ayahuasca on a regular basis for ritual purposes. These groups, like many users of psychedelic substances, employ them to develop spirituality and self-transcendence. The investigators used neuroimaging to investigate the differences in brain structure between long-term (at least 50 uses) users of ayahuasca and matched control participants.


Bouso and colleagues found that the ayahuasca users had a thinning of a number of midline structures of the brain especially the posterior cingulate addition, the amount of this thinning was positively related to the length of time that the individual had been using ayahuasca. The thinning suggests that there is a eduction in the use and importance of the structures. Importantly, the ayahuasca users did not differ from controls in the incidence of psychological problems or neuropsychological function. This suggests that the use of ayahuasca does not produce psychological or cognitive harm.


One of the most interesting findings was a significant increase in self-transcendence in the ayahuasca users. This included and increase in self-forgetfulness, which represents a decrease in self-conscious experience, transpersonal identification, which is seeing oneself as not isolated but merely a part of an integrated whole, and spiritual acceptance, which is an increase in viewing life as beyond the physical. Hence this self-transcendence is an indicator of increased spirituality and loss of the personal ego.


It is interesting that the midline structures including posterior cingulate cortex that are thinned with ayahuasca use are considered key elements of what’s termed the default mode network. This is an interconnected set of neural structures that becomes most active when the individual is lost in thought, day dreaming, and involved in self-referential thinking. In other words this system becomes active when the individual has lost touch with the present moment and his/her thoughts are referenced to a separate self.


So, the anatomical findings correlate nicely with the psychological findings for the ayahuasca users and suggest that the use of this psychedelic appears to be psychologically relatively harmless and appear to accentuate experiences that are virtually identical to those occurring in spiritual awakenings. This may suggest that spiritual awakening and psychedelic substance effects work through the same neural mechanisms.


Through all of history mankind has ingested psychedelic substances. Those substances exist to put you in touch with spirits beyond yourself, with the creator, with the creative impulse of the planet. – Ray Manzarek
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

A Mindful Halloween and Day of the Dead

For death,
Now I know, is that first breath
Which our souls draw when we enter
Life, which is of all life center.

~Edwin Arnold


The beginning of the month of November is marked by a variety of celebrations throughout the world including the Day of the Dead and Halloween, the night before All Souls Day. Halloween was actually a pagan holiday called Samhain that was coopted by the Christians. But, they are all celebrations of those who have passed away, a celebration of our ancestors, a celebration of the dead. This might seem a bit macabre to be celebrating death. And, indeed, the macabre is an integral part of the celebration.


It does seem to be strange, however, that death is celebrated when it is in fact the second most frequent fear. So why do we celebrate? Perhaps Mark Twain put his finger on it “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. The celebration is not really about death. It’s actually a celebration of life. Death reminds us that our lives are limited. We celebrate to help us experience life while we still have it. As pointed out by Angelina Jolie “There’s something about death that is comforting. The thought that you could die tomorrow frees you to appreciate your life now.


These ideas are well stated in the Zen Evening Gatha that is recited every evening in Buddhist monasteries.

Let me respectfully remind you,
life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken.  Take heed.
Do not squander your life.


Rather than not squandering our lives, many of us live in a state of unaware numbness, going through the motions of life, but not really living. Focusing on an anticipated happiness in the future or ruminating about past issues. We seem to not comprehend that the essence of life is the present moment. That is all life is, a long-lasting present moment. It is the only time that we can actually live. So, if we do not relish what is in the present moment, we might as well already be dead. This is where contemplative practice and mindfulness comes in. These practices help us to learn to live fully in the present, experiencing what life has to offer.


Somehow, in our everyday lives we see the present as unsatisfactory or boring. But, nothing could be further from the truth. If we truly do focus on the present we are often surprised by its richness. Even focusing on something simple like our breathing, really paying attention to it in all its exquisite detail, we can see that this simple experience is replete with beauty and nuance. We can feel the delicious sensations of our body in action. We can see how remarkable this simple process really is. We can see how essential it is to our very existence, yet we take it for granted. And that is only breathing. There is so much in the present moment that when we carefully look at it we’re amazed as to how we could ever have missed it. Life is a miracle. Life is special. Only by being mindful can we deeply immerse in the wonder of life.


But what about death itself, should we be as afraid of it as we are? It is helpful to remember that life is bounded by birth and death. Do we fear the state we were in prior to birth? In fact, many psychologists think of birth, the entry into life, as a traumatic event. It involves leaving a very peaceful state for the chaos of life, what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion”. So, maybe we should fear birth and not fear death which may simply return us to the peaceful prebirth state. Perhaps we should look forward to it.


The important thing and the message of Halloween and the Day of the Dead is to experience this precious time of life that we’ve been given. Indeed, many have suggested that the entire purpose of life is simply to experience it. So celebrate life and don’t worry about death. Enjoy Halloween and the Day of the Dead in the present moment. Stay in the present moment and be truly alive, celebrate every experience, and when death comes welcome it having experienced life to its fullest.


 “On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc…. But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory for, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.” ~John Muir


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies