Posts tagged ‘meditation’

Concentration: A Way to Stabilize Your Agitated Mind

“Concentration is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. Your mindfulness will only be as robust as the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable. Without calmness, the mirror of mindfulness will have an agitated and choppy surface and will not be able to reflect things with any accuracy.”
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

StabilityAs human beings, our minds are naturally vulnerable to agitated thoughts. This is because we tend to be dominated by the ancient, reptilian part of our brain which is constantly on alert scanning the environment for potential threats. Whenever our brain perceives a potential danger is present, thoughts of alarm are triggered in order to stimulate our fight or flight arousal system. Left unchecked, our brain’s natural prioritizing of survival will leave our thoughts scattered, in a state of distraction, often with a corresponding heightened state of physical and emotional arousal.

This untrained state of mind “the Buddha compares to the flapping about of a fish taken from the water and thrown onto dry land. It cannot stay fixed but rushes from idea to idea, from thought to thought, without inner control.”1 Such a distracted mind is easily overwhelmed by worries and concerns, and the thoughts, being fragmented, are subject to distortion.

Cultivating a state of concentration is an alternative to allowing your agitated mind to run amok, thus, causing you unnecessary wear and tear. Concentration is a “single-pointedness of mind.”2 Establishing concentration requires deliberate effort to fix your mind upon a single object to the exclusion of others. To be effective, the object you select to focus your attention upon must be a healthful or beneficial one.

Once developed, concentration has a unifying impact on the mind; the more fragmented, scattered thoughts are collected into a single stream. “Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.”3 Ultimately, concentration results in a freedom from distraction and induces a growing tranquility, from which greater insight can be attained. From this state of increased stability of awareness, rather than being driven into reactivity by distorted thoughts, you may instead be able to notice your experience, whatever is true, from a place of greater balance, and respond with choice. In the words of Lao Tzu, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

When your mind is distracted or agitated, you can use these methods to promote greater concentration or steadiness of awareness:

  • Ask yourself to maintain your focus on one object, anchoring your attention there, without letting your mind waiver. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back gently but deliberately to that object and continue this process no matter how frequently your mind wanders. The commonly recommended object to attend to is your breath; no matter where you are, your breath is always accessible, and it is always occurring in the present moment.
  • Maintain your awareness with the full duration of each breath, rather than merely the inhalation and/or the exhalation.   It is in the gaps that your attention is most vulnerable to being pulled by thoughts. Notice not only the inhalation and exhalation but also the transitions from the inhalation to the exhalation and the transitions from the exhalation to the next inhalation.
  • Use counting as a way of anchoring your awareness with your breath. Start by counting your first complete breath as “one.” Then count each subsequent breath until you arrive at a count of 10. If you lose count, without judging yourself or analyzing why, return your attention to your breath and start counting at “one” again. If you exceed a count of “ten,” without judging yourself or analyzing why, start counting at “one” again with your next breath.

References 1, 2, 3: The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Chapter 7

“We apply our effort to be mindful, to be aware in this very moment, right here and now, and we bring a very wholehearted effort to it. This brings concentration. It is this power of concentration that we use to cut through of surface appearance to get to a much deeper reality.”
~ Sharon Salzberg

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June 24, 2015 at 10:09 am Leave a comment

7 Tips to Get Your Butt on the Cushion!

“We must go beyond the intellect into the silence of our intuitive hearts, where separation disappears and knowledge gives way to wisdom.”
~ Ram Dass

Sit Stay Heal Mindfulness is currently a “hot” topic in the media. With the increasing number of books, articles, videos and other vehicles addressing mindfulness, it is relatively easy to learn about this topic. Consuming this information can be inspiring, motivating, and can even develop a sound intellectual understanding of the practices, yet, the impacts of mindfulness are not cultivated in this way. Its benefits are not easily attained; to realize these, some training is necessary, and, moreover, it entails a commitment to ongoing practice. You must go beyond your intellect and actually engage in the practices – it is, ultimately, an experiential process.

You need to make mindfulness a habit! According to Leo Babauta, a writer who focuses on implementing Zen habits in daily life, “If you want to form the habit of meditation, just get your butt on the cushion each day“. Here are some tips to help you do that:

1) Remind yourself of your intention.
Remembering the reason(s) you learned to practice (reduce stress, increase relaxation, minimize depression or anxiety, improve sleep, increase wisdom, etc.) can be a motivating factor.

2) Formalize your practice.
Carve out a specific time to practice each day. For greatest success, practice first thing in the morning – when you are most awake, have fewer distractions, before the momentum of your day builds and the busyness of your mind takes over.

3) Create a consistent practice space with minimal distractions.
Identify a place to practice where you will be comfortable and alert without distractions (turn off the phone, not in view of computer or other digital devices, let your family/roommates know that you do not wish to be disturbed). Try to practice in the same place each day; your mind will habituate to this location and it may become your welcome refuge.

4) Set a timer or use a guided practice so you are not tempted to keep looking at the clock.

5) Eliminate the “time” barrier.
Avoid the “all or nothing” mentality towards practicing. If it helps, start by committing to short practice times and build up to longer periods. When you don’t feel like you have the time for a full session of practice, engage for a shorter time to maintain your habit, such as five minutes, rather than none at all. Even short durations (10 to 15 minutes) of practice done on a regular basis will help your develop your mindfulness muscle and keep it fit.

6) Seek support
Find someone who will commit to practice with you, or attend a sitting group of practitioners. Additionally, there are apps available via your computer or smartphones that can be a means of support.

7) Try out different forms of mindfulness
Learning a variety of ways to cultivate mindfulness can be helpful since a single form of practice may not always feel suitable in every situation. Sitting meditation, body scan, and mindful movement (i.e. yoga, qi gong or walking meditation), can all be effective as part of your tool kit of mindful practices.

Once you’ve developed your habit of practice, extending mindfulness beyond the cushion into your daily active life is skillful, such as when you are driving, eating, conversing, or exercising. However, resist the belief that you can merely be mindful of your active life in lieu of formal practice, otherwise, your mindfulness skills will tend to wane.

“Sitting on the cushion” is where you are rewiring your brain – reinforcing the habit of bringing your attention to your present experience. By practicing on a regular basis, your mindfulness habit will continue to grow stronger, both on and off the cushion.

Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are and listen to the wind that is singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you’d like to be,
Not the saint you’re striving to become,
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.

All of you is holy.

You’re already more and less
than whatever you can know.

Breathe out,
Look in,
Let Go.
~John Welwood

March 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm 4 comments

Mindfulness: Fitness for Your Brain

“Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.”
~ Santiago Ramón y Cajal
, Advice for a Young Investigator

Train Your Brain One of the most common New Year’s resolutions made each year is to exercise more. Whether or not people actually follow through on this intention, it is an indication that people are well aware of the value of physical fitness; but, what about our brain? As scientific understanding of the brain evolves, there is a greater awareness of how important it is to keep this organ in our body fit. According to Dr. Judson Brewer (a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Massachusetts who uses mindfulness to treat addiction), “[Mindfulness] is just the next generation of exercise. We’ve got the physical exercise components down. Now it’s about working out how can we actually train our minds.”1

The Mindful Brain
Until recently, neuroscientists believed that after early adulthood, the brain no longer is capable of significant change: the viewpoint was that, at a certain point, the brain becomes rigid, no longer plastic. More current research has shown this not to be true. Newer understanding recognizes that the brain remains plastic as we age.2 This means that we are able to continue creating new neural pathways (new connections in the brain), hence new skills, habits and ways of responding; although it takes conscious effort and repetition (training) to do so. It turns out that the brain can keep growing; it’s just that we have been using it in such a way that maintains rigid behaviors. Furthermore, mindfulness is one way to train our brain to maintain its plasticity and ultimately to create new patterns of response, even as we age.

How Mindfulness Changes Your Brain – The Proof is in the Brain Scans
Mindfulness has been practiced for over twenty six hundred years. Over that time, there has been a consistent history of anecdotal experience suggesting the positive outcomes of this practice. Today, with advances in the study of the brain, there is empirical research, using objective measures, that supports and validates many of these anecdotal claims. Modern science now provides physical evidence of benefits of mindfulness:

  • Philippe Goldin, a psychology researcher, headed a study at Stanford University to better understand the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training for people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorders. After two months of mindfulness meditation training, participants reported less emotional anxiety, reduced depression, and greater self-esteem. MRI scans observed participants’ brain activity before and after the training suggesting that mindfulness meditation might help people view themselves more positively.3
  • Another study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the University of Massachusetts shows that mindfulness meditation physically alters the brain. M.R.I. brain scans of participants who underwent eight weeks of MBSR training showed measurable changes in gray matter density in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, while a control group that did not practice meditation showed no changes. These brain scans also found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory, as well as a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress.4
  • Additionally, Dr. Judson Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist who studies how mindfulness changes the brain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, brought experienced mindfulness meditators into an fMRI scanner and had them simply meditate while measuring their brain activity. It was found that a region of the brain called the posterior cingulate became active when folks were caught up in thought and quieted down when they were meditating.5 This is the same region that gets activated during states of craving, anxiety, rumination, and even when we are thinking about ourselves. Brewer postulates that training in meditation can help us get out of our own way when we are otherwise likely to get caught by these maladaptive states of mind.

Together, these studies validate that by practicing mindfulness meditation we are actually improving emotional and cognitive fitness of the brain.

Mindfulness is an Experiential Practice Not an Intellectual Exercise
With mindfulness becoming an increasingly popular topic, there is an abundance of books, articles, and videos touting its benefits. Additionally, mindfulness is showing up more often in mainstream media: Oprah has highlighted mindfulness in her programs and magazine over the years; just this year, in his book “10% Happier,” ABC News anchor Dan Harris shared how he turned to mindfulness meditation to address panic attacks and how it has helped him be happier6; and Anderson Cooper explored mindfulness in a segment of 60 Minutes7. Not surprisingly, I meet more and more new mindfulness students who arrive relatively well-read on the topic. This conceptual understanding is useful, however, the benefits of mindfulness do not come from a conceptual understanding; instead, it needs to be actually practiced for associated positive changes in the brain to occur. Just as with physical exercise that trains muscles in the body, it is the repeated experience of mindfulness that develops and trains the brain. For example, if I watch a yoga video, I may understand better how to move my body to attain specific poses, but unless I actually engage in those poses, I don’t gain their benefits. Likewise, mindfulness must actually be practiced in order to impact the fitness of the brain.

How to Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
It can be particularly difficult to develop new practices and make them part of your routine when you attempt to do it your own. This is true for mindfulness. Therefore, I don’t suggest that you go it alone when learning and developing mindfulness mediation. Here are some ways to learn mindfulness and approach it as a new element of your lifestyle and have the support that is necessary:

  • Take a class: look for an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program offered near you
  • Attend a mindfulness meditation sitting group
  • Go on a mindfulness meditation retreat
  • Find a teacher or coach to get you started and help you develop a practice

Ultimately, you will be the best judge as to how mindfulness meditation contributes to the fitness of your brain.

“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

December 29, 2014 at 8:48 am Leave a comment


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Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

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© Julie Forbes, Ph.D. and Minding Your Stress, 2013.

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