HEALTHY Mind Matters: Sometimes Unplugging From the World Helps You Connect With Yourself

July 31st, 2014 by

It’s always difficult to explain to friends and acquaintances why I go away each year for an extended silent meditation retreat. For the past five years I’ve traveled to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), for 10 days of intensive mindfulness practice: sitting, walking, eating and yoga—all in an environment of silence. Approximately 100 other yogis (the word “yogi” is used generically to refer to both male and female practitioners of yoga and meditative practice) gather here from across the country and around the world to immerse themselves in this unique experience —to strengthen our capacity to be “present” with life, moment to moment.

Above the massive front door at IMS, the word “Metta” is inscribed. In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, this word is sometimes translated as “unconditional loving kindness” or “unconditional friendliness.” It’s an openhearted welcome. As I step into the foyer, I feel the unmistakable sense of coming home.

Settling In
Upon arrival, each yogi is invited to choose a space in the meditation hall—a huge, tranquil space with large windows, dozens of meditation cushions arranged in rows, and chairs for those with less-flexible limbs—where he or she will meditate during the five to six formal meditation sessions we will have over the next 10 days. I find my spot and arrange what I’ll need—a blanket and a “zafu” or meditation cushion that will become my home base or “mind central” during my stay. As a symbol of our “renunciation” of the complexities and trappings of modern, daily life, we’re invited to voluntarily relinquish our cell phones, which will be locked in the main office—safe from temptation—until the end of the retreat.

The retreat center is set up entirely to support the community of practitioners. In the large dining hall, we share our (amazing) all-vegetarian meals in silence, except for the occasional sound of a chair sliding across the floor, or footsteps. During the retreat, I completely slow down and begin to savor every meal. After all, there’s nothing else I need to do, and nowhere else I need to be. Good food is even more delicious when you slow down and pay attention.

Sharing Rituals
In addition, every person is given a “yogi job.” We all contribute to the operation of the center while on retreat as a practice of mindfulness, interdependence, and generosity. On this retreat a woman, who I subsequently learn is an attorney, runs load after load of dishes through the steamy dishwashing machine as silent yogis line up after lunch with their plates, bowls, and cups. A surgeon sweeps the floor and wipes-down tables after the dinner period. My yogi jobs over the years have included vegetable-chopper, pot-scrubber, and dining room-cleaner. Shared work creates a sense of community during the retreat. Everyone is equal.

For the first few days of silence, my mind/body system seem to be in withdrawal—from the usual bombardment of sensory input I occupy day after day. I notice my mind wanting to fill up the silence with many thoughts. As a regular meditation practitioner, I’m quite used to letting my thoughts go and returning my attention to the present moment by linking it to an “object of attention” such as the breath or sensations in the body. But now the barrage of thoughts seems unstoppable. I find myself annoyed, thinking, “These thoughts are interrupting my meditation!”

Over time, I realize it’s my relationship to my thoughts that is the problem. Once I begin to cultivate Metta—that is, an openhearted friendly relationship with the activity of my mind—the thoughts slow down. The space between thoughts expands. My mind becomes quiet and peaceful, for the most part.

Finding Peace
On retreat, my body and mind have the opportunity to process experiences and feelings that I never deal with in “normal” life. Most of us live largely unaware of what lies beneath the surface of the mind and heart, as we rush through the busy and distracting momentum of life. When you become still and receptive for a while, whether it’s a few days or a few months, in an environment of safety and tranquility, the mind and heart can begin to reveal things you haven’t looked at in your life—and process them with Metta, that loving kindness that we all need and all possess.

I wouldn’t describe a retreat as “fun,” but it’s definitely healing. I go on retreat to discover and become receptive to the truth of my human experience: the fear, joy, sorrow and awe lying just beneath the surface waiting for my kind and openhearted attention. My job is to stop and feel what’s really here. With each retreat, I become more comfortable with the peaks and valleys of my own inner landscape, and more at ease just being me. I depart knowing that this retreat has been time well spent.

photo credit Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain? Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

July 11th, 2014 by

Chronic pain affects 30 to 40 million U.S. adults, costing an estimated $600 billion a year.  But researchers have learned more about the physiology of pain in the past ten years than in the previous thousand. Pain is created by the brain in response to what it thinks is a threat. Contrary to previous thought, there isn’t just one pain center in the brain, there are many, according to Pain Explained, a publication of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute (NOI) of South Australia. “These parts include clusters of nodes used for sensation, movement, emotions, and memory, and they all link up to each other electrically and chemically.” In chronic pain, some of these nodes are hijacked or enslaved by the pain experience. While this is a complex process, one primary feature of chronic pain is hypersensitivity in the body’s alarm system of sensory neurons whose function is to send “danger” messages to the brain, particularly in the presence of inflammation.

Injured body tissue has a fairly specific window of time for healing. However, pain can persist even when the injury has had time to heal. This typically happens because the body’s natural alarm system becomes hyper-vigilant and abnormally sensitive, sending exaggerated “danger” signals. The brain’s faulty interpretation of these signals becomes deeply ingrained and persistent. “This can mean just touching the skin, or a slight temperature change, might cause the body’s sensors to send danger messages to the brain.” The brain incorrectly concludes that a threat remains, and that you need all the protection you can get. It produces pain, which is the body/mind’s normal way of motivating you to “get away” or escape from the “danger”. According to the NOI, brain responses such as movements, thoughts, autonomic and endocrine responses are then based on faulty information about the health of the tissues at the end of the nerve cells. “It’s as though an amplifier on a sound system is turned up.”

Thought Viruses Maintain the Chronic Pain Cycle

Thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too, and part of the chronic pain loop. As the NOI explains, “the brain has learned to be very good at protecting you from anything that might be dangerous to your tissues. Anxious and worrisome thoughts are threatening to a brain that is already hyper-vigilant about your survival. Research has identified thought processes – “thought viruses” – powerful enough to maintain a pain state. Some powerful thought viruses include:

I’m in pain so there must be something harmful happening to my body,”

“I’m staying home and not going out until all the pain goes away,” and

“I’m so frightened of my pain and of injuring my back again that I’m not doing anything!”

Meditation Helps Chronic Pain Sufferers Diminish “Thought Viruses”

People who practice mindfulness meditation find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, according to a 2010 study. Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered that regular meditators show unusual activity during anticipation of pain in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in controlling attention and thought processes when potential threats are perceived. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse,” said the lead researcher. The value of meditation is that it soothes the hypersensitive threat/alarm/danger system at play in chronic pain.

Depressive Thoughts Make Pain Worse

In new study at the University of Oxford, researchers induced a depressed mood in study participants and found this disrupted the neural circuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced experience of pain. Researchers believe that a sad mental state disables our ability to regulate the negative emotion associated with pain. Thus, pain has a greater impact. “Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.” Mindfulness meditation is beneficial in preventing the relapse of depression by strengthening the practitioner’s ability to recognize the physical, cognitive, and emotional effects of depressive thoughts, and to proactively “decenter” from those thoughts.

Communication in the Brain Affects Pain

A 2012 Northwestern University study is the first to show that chronic pain develops the more two sections of the brain – related to emotional and motivational behavior – talk to each other. The more the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens communicate, the greater the chance a patient will develop chronic pain. “The nucleus accumbens is an important center for teaching the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react  . . . . and may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain,” said the study’s senior author.

With this knowledge of how and why chronic pain develops, and with training in mindfulness meditation, you have tools for influencing patterns of thought and emotion that may be driving your pain. Mindfulness meditation is a complementary practice which can enhance standard medical treatment by your healthcare provider. You can proactively change the vicious cycle of chronic pain.

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