Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Slow Aging? The powerful link between mind and body

October 2nd, 2016 by

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Meditation has a lot of benefits for those who practice regularly. New studies are suggesting that meditation can even help slow down the complicated process of aging. While the work is still new, it’s quite interesting and finds support in a wide variety of studies.

People vary widely in how they age. One marker of biological age seems to be “telomere” length – the length of the protective protein caps at the ends of the chromosomes housed in each of our cells. The longer the telomeres, the more times a chromosome can replicate itself without errors. Shorter telomeres are correlated with weaker immune function, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and other problems of old age. “Telomerase” is an enzyme that helps keep our telomeres long and healthy, slowing cellular aging. The correlation between cellular aging and bodily aging is still being studied, but new correlations are coming to light.

Many things can cause the shortening of telomeres – primarily, of course, time. The protective protein caps naturally wear down as cells divide and renew themselves, something all cells do. However, research is showing that having a regular meditation practice seems to have a protective effect on this wearing down process thus preserving the length of our telomeres. While the popular idea that your entire body renews itself over seven to ten years isn’t quite true, it’s pretty close – only a few types of cells don’t renew, and some (like heart cells) renew extremely slowly. Lifestyle factors that seem to accelerate telomere shortening include poor diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Stress is another major factor in shortening telomeres. We know that too much stress is bad for us (as is too little: everyone needs some challenge in life!). Stressful thoughts – such as constantly perceiving threats and ruminating – can lead to prolonged periods of reactivity and chronic stress. In contrast, mindfulness meditation increases positive mental and emotional states, including being able to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat. Various studies are linking mindfulness with increased telomere length.

A pilot study of 39 caregivers compared one group who practiced daily meditation to another group who listened relaxing music, and found that the meditators had better cognitive functioning, less depression, and improved telomerase activity after eight weeks. While these results need to be confirmed in a larger sample, they are promising signs that meditation can be helpful for longevity as well as your mental state.

Higher objective stress is associated with shorter telomeres, leading researchers to conclude that higher objective stress actually ages our cells. Fascinatingly, higher perceived stress leads to even shorter telomeres, thus illustrating the powerful influence of our thoughts on the body. Because meditation helps us change our perception of stress, it also changes the physical effects of the same objective amount of stress, even at the cellular level.

A UCSF study of early-stage prostate cancer patients showed that lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, stress-management (including meditation) and social support – over five years lengthened telomeres by 10% The control group, who didn’t experience the lifestyle interventions, had telomeres that averaged 3% shorter than at the beginning of the study. While the study was very small, it’s quite intriguing! The researchers believe that the findings should hold for healthy individuals, as well.

We’ve long known that mindfulness meditation can help keep us young by encouraging mental flexibility and inner peace. How amazing that it can also keep us physically young by helping our cells renew!

Mindfulness Practices
Awareness of Breath Meditation
Body Scan (Similar to “Yoga Nidra”)
Gentle Yoga
Walking Meditation
Tai Chi / Qigong

Client Stories: Wendy Berg

January 1st, 2016 by

Wendy Berg Headshot

I’ve been thinking about how your MSBR class has changed my life. One area I haven’t heard many people talk about is mindfulness and athletic performance. Your class helped me become more aware of my body and to tune into the messages it gives me. When I used to run, I mainly distracted myself from what I was doing with music, thoughts, or TV. I still do that some of the time but most of the time I am aware of what is happening. I am now running, biking, swimming, doing strength training, and yoga as I train for a triathlon sprint. I do body scans while exercising, checking in with each part looking for issues, discomfort, pain, or fatigue. I check on my technique and form. Do I feel strong? Can I go faster? Further? Do I need to change my stride? My gear? My reach? My hip rotation? Or do I need to scale it back? Catch my breath? Walk for a minute? In the past, I never listened to my body and just pushed myself to finish whatever I set out to do even if it meant injuring myself. Ok, I’m still pretty goal oriented and almost always finish my daily plan, but I’m doing it in a kinder gentler way. I am more accepting of what is. I am okay with just doing my best no matter what that is on any given day. I’ve been able to do so much more without pushing so hard. I’ve let go of so many ideas I had about being too old to do something, and what I expected my body to be like in my 50’s. I am now in better shape than I’ve been in a long time, maybe ever. I’m still a little overweight and slow, but I no longer beat myself up over that. Now, I celebrate what my body can do and enjoy pushing the limits set by my mind and by society. And the back pain I’ve dealt with for 14 years is practically nonexistent. I’m not sure if that is from being in better shape, meditation, actually paying attention to my body, or a combination of everything. I find myself able to accept, appreciate, and celebrate what is in all areas of my life. Thank you for helping me along this journey. Feel free to use this if it may be helpful to share the benefits of MSBR and your class. Wendy Berg

Mindfully Managing Menopause

December 15th, 2015 by

Mindfully Managing Menopause

The significant hormonal shift that comes with menopause – bringing with it forgetfulness, insomnia, sweats, emotional outbursts, skin and breast changes, and slower metabolism—can leave women feeling most unhappy! If you are longing for a better way to navigate menopause, mindfulness offers some real benefits.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. We all have this skill, especially in childhood, but it can diminish over time as we fall into the automatic reactive patterns of adulthood. Add menopause to the mix and you’ve got some very good reasons to seek relief!

According to research, menopausal women who participated in a training program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (“MBSR”), when compared with a control group who did not receive the training, reported lower anxiety and perceived stress, reduced bother from night sweats, sleep disturbances, and hot flashes, improved quality of life, less overwhelm, and greater attentiveness.

How do you practice Mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice is patiently training the mind to focus on a chosen “anchor” that exists in the present moment – your breath, sounds (like the ceiling fan whirring), sensations in your body – and gently returning your attention to your chosen anchor when it wanders (and it will!). Each time you “come back” to your anchor, you’re strengthening your mindfulness muscle.

As you practice, you simply witness and observe all that comes into your awareness moment to moment, letting go of that natural tendency to judge what’s arising as “good” or “bad”, “pleasant” or “Unpleasant”. As you practice, lots of things will come up! Body sensations (tingling, numbness, fluttering, warmth, coolness) and thoughts (“How will I get everything done today?” “My back is killing me?” “I’m burning up!”). Rather than resisting these things, or trying to replace them with something else, you allow them to be present, but in the background of your awareness, as you escort your attention back to your chosen anchor. Simple, but not easy!

Why practice mindfulness?

Even in a short ten-minute practice you will get lots of opportunities to “come back” to your anchor, and this coming back is really what the practice of meditation is all about. It fortifies your ability to attend to just “what is” in the present moment without the overlay of thoughts that so often color our experience and make us truly miserable. In so doing you become skilled at differentiating between “observing” a thought from the point of view of a neutral witness, and being drawn into the “content” of the thought, two very different things. The latter is typically loaded with judgments, opinions, memories, fantasies, past, or future – all of which have an impact on your present moment experience, physical, mental, and emotional. Mindfulness practice enables you to step off the merry-go-round of thoughts and just “be”. And this quality of “being”, when cultivated on a regular basis, has real life implications for your health and quality of life.

Navigating a Hot Flash

At age 53, I’ve had numerous opportunities to “practice” during a hot flash. Before mindfulness, my thoughts would have judged the sensations as unpleasant and unwanted (“Why did I wear long sleeves?” “Now I’m going to miserable!”). Pursuing such thoughts undoubtedly magnified the unpleasant qualities of what was happening, making my hot flash much worse than it needed to be. With mindfulness I practice letting go of the judging and instead simply note that the sensation of heat is arising. I might reflect internally “This is how it is right now.” I let go of the impulse to escalate it by following the content of my thoughts. I stay attuned to what other sensations are present; the sound of rain dripping from the roof, the hum of the refrigerator, the feeing of breathing in and breathing out. I witness the stream of changing sensations moment to moment, and eventually notice the feeling of a current of air against my skin. Coolness. Yes, every experience, including a hot flash, eventually changes. I stay present with this process of change and notice after a few moments that my body is beginning to resume a normal temperature. Undoubtedly this hot flash would have lasted much longer, and been much more unpleasant, if I had automatically followed the content of my misery filled thoughts.

The practical benefits

While mindfulness cannot completely remove the symptoms of menopause, it can alter your experience of the symptoms. You can liken the symptoms of menopause to a loud, blaring television, bombarding you with colors, sounds, sensations, music, and storylines. Mindfulness won’t necessarily turn off the TV, but having a regular mindfulness practice can help turn the volume way down.

Creating a New Habit? How Mindfulness, Self-Compassion, and Baby Steps Make Change Possible

July 24th, 2015 by

To reap the benefits of a habit, you must practice! Most of us have good intentions: meditate daily, eat mindfully, take daily walks, eat healthy meals. So why is it so hard to form a new habit and what’s the best way to do it?

HOMEOSTASIS and NEUROPLASTICITY
Homeostasis
is the tendency of the body and mind to keep things the way they are, even if things aren’t so good. We are wired for survival; homeostasis helps us survive. From its perspective, survival is all that matters.

Because we are multi-dimensional creatures with varying tendencies and capacities, we’re built to stay the same AND to change! The human brain is the only organ in the body that changes with experience. This is Neuroplasticity. As one of my meditation teachers notes: “You’re always practicing something. And whatever you’re practicing, you’re getting good at!” You will become “good” at whatever you consistently pay attention to—for better or worse. With neuroplasticity, we can influence what we become “good” at. The elements of change are present-moment awareness, patient persistence, and kindness and compassion towards oneself.

The last part is important; most of us feel guilty when we revert to old habits. Research shows that self-criticism kills motivation and is a big obstacle to change. Mindfulness and self-compassion can be applied in moments of self-criticism to support change.

AUTOMATIC PILOT
How can we train ourselves to “do” the behaviors we want to get good at, and let go of those that aren’t serving us?

Most of our thoughts, choices, and behaviors occur automatically, resulting from old beliefs and patterns. These patterns have well-established roots in our brains because we’ve “practiced” them frequently. They have such hearty neural pathways that simply by choosing them it becomes easier to repeat them. In fact, when we consistently travel down these neural pathways, our brain rewards us with Dopamine, an addictive chemical that helps create memories and controls the part of the brain responsible for desire and decision-making. This chemical process behind Automatic Pilot is the reason change can seem so difficult.

MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness, or present moment non-judgmental awareness, is a skill we can strengthen with meditation practice. Consistently practicing just 5-10 minutes a day makes a big difference in forming and letting go of habits. Don’t have that kind of time? Try 1 minute. Research shows that by breaking down the desired behavior into smaller steps, and committing to just the first step, you’re already on your way to establishing your new habit in the brain.

Once you’ve completed the first step, chances are that the next steps will get easier to take until your new habit is fully implemented. By strengthening your capacity to “attend” to the present moment through regular mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll improve your ability to “be present” when unwanted behaviors surface and will find that you have a choice about what to do next.

THE MIRACLE OF THE PRESENT MOMENT
By dwelling within the present, even if only for a moment, you begin seeing new options. One option may be to take another baby step toward implementing a desired new behavior: savoring this bite of food rather than eating mindlessly, taking a walk now rather than continuing to work at your computer. This is how we re-wire ourselves to create and experience the life we want.

THE SCIENCE OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE
Thanks to research around habit forming and its relationship to neural pathways in the brain there are now many tools to help us replace old habits with new ones.  Here are a few, inspired by Gregory Ciotti, author of The Sparring Mind and How to Build Good Habits (and make them stick):

  1. Set an intention or name a “purpose” for why you want to develop this habit. The most successful habit-formers are those who are internally motivated.
  2. Know that you will fail, and when you do, simply forgive yourself and start over.
  3. Start small. The surest way to accomplish goals is to set big goals and small quotas. If you’re brand new to meditation, and would like to develop a regular practice, 3 minutes per day might be a perfect start.

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

Research continues to support the many health and quality of life benefits of mindfulness practice: stress reduction, greater physical well-being, and a happier, more stable mental state. Did you know that if you practice mindfulness, you are more likely to be successful in making positive behavior changes in your life (think weight loss, exercise, productivity), and you’re less likely to catch a cold or the flu?  Media personalities are also causing us to take a closer look, including ABC newsman Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story. Anchorman Anderson Cooper recently participated in a meditation retreat led by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as part of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper reports that because of the benefits he has experienced, he is now a mindfulness practitioner. They’re getting our attention. But why should you build time into your day for mindfulness practice? How are the daily lives of mindfulness practitioners different from the lives of those who have yet to discover this millennia old form of meditation?

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

Sure, mindful people have emotions—we all do, we are human! The difference is that mindful people are aware of their emotions in a different way. Their mindfulness practice trains them to be aware of and feel their strong emotions without automatically reacting to them.  When emotions arise, they are able to observe them from the safety of neutral ground rather than being yanked around by the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. Over time, and with practice, they have learned from their own experience that even the most intense feelings are impermanent.

They Keep Calm and Carry On

Because people who practice mindfulness have practiced working with their difficult emotions, their reactions, decisions, and sense of self are less influenced by their emotional state when things “go wrong” or don’t turn out as planned.  Practitioners are more able than others to remain calm and effective in stressful situations, actively listening to others, and responding skillfully based on what’s called for in the moment, rather than reacting automatically.

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness to the present moment, noticing thoughts and feelings as well as bodily sensations. People who practice this type of awareness have learned that it is OK to “be with” discomfort, knowing from experience that it too is not “fixed” but changeable. Mindfulness invites us to “hold” and attend to  discomfort in the body with kindness rather than resistance —whether it is the racing heart of anxiety, the burning tightness in the chest of anger, or the heartache of grief. By learning to turn toward what’s difficult in the body, and to explore it with curiosity, they have discovered that pain is often blanketed with layers of thought, resistance, and strong emotion. While everyone experiences pain, mindful people have discovered that without these layers of added psychological pain, their true physical pain is actually manageable. And by staying attentive to the body, they know when and how to take care of themselves, for example with a timely yoga stretch, exercise, or rest. Because they are more embodied than others, mindful people experience the fullness, richness, and aliveness of their embodied human experience.

They Practice Compassion

People who practice mindfulness and meditation tend to be less afraid of thoughts and emotions because they have looked at them and discovered that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and illusory. By the same token, they have willingly embraced deeply painful emotions and felt them in their entirety. Consequently, mindful people are more inclined to connect with and reach out to others who are suffering, and offer them empathy and compassion. The late great Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa referred to the “genuine heart of sadness,” or the tender, open, fearless heart of compassion that is awakened through practicing mindfulness. By knowing our own pain we connect more intimately with the human experience of others.

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

Sense into your body with kindness and curiosity. What sensations are associated with this emotion? Where are they located?

Notice what happens as you observe.  Do the sensations stay the same, intensify, diminish, or shift in some way?

Name the emotion. Is what you are feeling anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness?  Research shows that developing the skill of naming our emotions in the moment they arise helps loosen their grip.

Practice “just being” every day. Give your mind an “anchor” to pay attention to, for example the sensations of your breathing, or the sensations of movement during yoga. Notice when the mind wanders into thinking. Patiently return your attention to your chosen anchor, allowing thoughts to drift through your awareness like clouds in a vast sky.

 

 

Too Much Cortisol? The Scary Stress Hormone and How to Decrease it

May 15th, 2015 by

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or remember a close call when driving on a busy highway, then you’re familiar with the effects of the stress hormone cortisol flooding the body. It’s a horrible feeling! But cortisol isn’t concerned with how you feel. It’s concerned with your survival. Your body is an incredible organism with a brain that functions to protect the body against perceived threats. This could be an oncoming car or a recurrent negative thinking pattern. The primitive part of the brain that scans every moment of your experience for potential threats – the amygdala – has a “hair trigger” and would rather be safe than sorry. So, when the Amygdala gets even a fuzzy sense of a threat —whether “real” or perceived—it instantly activates the autonomic nervous system producing a cascade of stress hormones and a host of physical changes in the body to allow you to either fight off or escape from a predator – commonly referred to as the Fight – Flight response.

This phenomenon is obviously essential for your survival in the face of immediate physical dangers (that near miss on the highway requires immediate evasive action), but it can become a huge problem when the perceived “threat’ is actually chronic stress, which may include automatic reactive and negative thinking patterns that originate within your own mind. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference!

Repeated activation of the Fight-Flight response, even for “threats” that come in the form of thoughts and emotions, like excessive worry, anger, and rumination, means long-term exposure to cortisol. Such exposure has been linked to everything from hypertension, cancer, infertility, high blood sugar, aggression, and more. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain and exhausts the adrenal glands, which brings a whole host of ailments including insomnia and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol suppresses happy hormones like serotonin, leading to depression.

And it gets worse! Cortisol also effectively turns off the body’s innate repair mechanisms – anything not needed for immediate survival. Think immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. Cortisol ramps down the functioning of these systems and ramps up those needed to deal with the stressor: especially the cardiovascular and adrenal systems. You can see how long term exposure to cortisol is not a healthy way to live.

How can we rebalance this mind-body system? As Dr. Lissa Rankin points out in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself your body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight infections, slow aging, and boost immunity. But these mechanisms cannot operate while the nervous system is stuck in “Fight-Flight”. What’s needed are ways to engage and strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system: the part that soothes and calms the amygdala.

There are many simple mind-body practices that activate the soothing parasympathetic nervous system: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, aromatherapy, and physical exercise. To keep yourself in balance, and protected from the damaging effects of cortisol, you must carve out time for self-care, and practice regularly. These practices are protective and healing and have no side effects!

Years ago, before I discovered meditation and yoga, I lived in a chronic state of Fight-Flight and cortisol saturation. I had the chronic pain, weakened immune system, and regular panic attacks to show for it. Now, having practiced and taught meditation for several years, I was recently invited to participate in a university study that examined the cortisol levels of meditation teachers. To my delight, I learned that my levels of cortisol were significantly lower than the average. I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice is responsible for that. Take care of your body-mind. If you don’t, who will?

Mind-Body Practices for Reducing Cortisol

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Chair Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong

Mindful Eating: Try These “Micro Practices” for Boosting Appetite Awareness

January 23rd, 2015 by

The ability to control impulsive eating during stressful times is a challenge. We all experience typical garden-variety upheaval from time to time.  While intellectually we know this is temporary. Life will soon become predictable and comfortable again. But in the meantime, we start observing our own sense of discomfort around the experience of things being “unsettled”.

Eating When You’re Not Hungry

Sasha Loring, a meditation teacher, psychotherapist, and mindful eating expert, is the author of Eating With Fierce Kindness (my all time favorite book on the practice of mindful eating). She identifies three main reasons that drive us to eat, even when we’re not hungry:

1. eating to reward oneself

2. eating to feel pleasure

3. eating to feel relief from discomfort

One thing the practice of mindfulness begins to reveal is that we all have a bundle of reactive habits we turn to when the going gets rough. They may soothe us in the short term (“Aahhh that melt-in-your-mouth chocolate), but over the long-term do us more harm than good.

Mindfulness and Eating

Jean L. Kristeller, PhD , professor of psychology at Indiana State University, and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating, explains how the practice of mindfulness builds internal skills that can help us turn off the automatic pilot that drives much of our habitual reactive eating. Kristeller defines  “mindfulness” as a cognitive state marked by attentional stability that disengages habitual reactions and allows for inner wisdom to emerge.” Sound good? It is! By strengthening your mindfulness muscle you learn to pause between the event that triggers a compulsion toward non-hunger eating, and the often instantaneous reaction to that trigger (mindLESS eating).  This skill that can be strengthened through formal and informal (mini) meditation practices.

Some people have an incorrect understanding of what meditation really is, so let’s dispel some common myths: Meditation is neither a trance state, nor is it primarily a relaxation tool. Rather, meditation is an attentional process that promotes self-regulation. It’s the skill of attention that strengthens our ability to skillfully intervene between stimulus and response.  Mindfulness is a state of being awake and alert in the present moment, without judging your experience. It’s the noticing that’s important.

Appetite Awareness

Another skill fortified by mindfulness practice is our capacity for internal awareness – of both physical sensations in the body, and emotions and thoughts in the heart and mind.  We can learn (through practice) to notice and pay attention to physical sensations like hunger and fullness, as well as emotions that may be driving us to eat when we’re not hungry. One really helpful tool that I’ve been working with is the Hunger-Fullness Scale. Developed by Linda Craighead, PhD, a researcher and expert on disregulated eating at Emory University, the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a simple and convenient informal practice for gauging your actual physiological appetite, and strengthening your bodily awareness. Research shows that stronger appetite awareness is connected with improvements in eating and weight control. One tool Craighead developed is the “Hunger-Fullness Scale”.

Very Hungry

Moderately Hungry

Mildly Hungry

No Feeling; Neutral

Mildly Full

Very Full

Much Too Full

 

2.5  Start Eating

<- Desirable Zone ->

5.5

Stop Eating

 

Credit: Linda Craighead, PhD Emory University

When you get into the healthy habit of mindfully connecting with your body throughout the day, your awareness of how hungry or full you actually are becomes more and more clear. The Hunger-Fullness Scale suggests you eat when you are “Mildly Hungry” (i.e. you rate your internal physical sensations of hunger at between a 2.5 to a 3.0), and that you stop eating when you are “Mildly Full” (i.e. you rate your internal sensations of fullness at approximately a 4.5 to a 5.0). Use of the Hunger-Fullness Scale is a mini-mindfulness practice (a “micro practice”) that anyone can do. And the more you practice, the better you get!

Consider using the Hunger-Fullness Scale in conjunction with a Mindful Eating Mini Meditation before each meal and snack. It only takes a few moments and no one need know you’re doing anything. Check out this 3 minute Mindful Eating Mini Meditation video produced by The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto: www.bit.ly/14mubTY

 

 

 

Taking Mindfulness in Stride

December 23rd, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step. When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite automatic or “mindless.”

Walking meditation shares the same 2,500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation. Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.  The idea seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

Walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention on the four components of each step.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside. Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

The Kind Mind: Mindfulness Nourishes Self-Kindness

December 12th, 2014 by

The best advice I received when learning to meditate was “Be kind to yourself.” This was challenging, since my mind drifted (a thousand times!) during meditation practice. How could I be kind to this frustrating, unruly, disobedient mind? Through mindfulness practice we become aware of the nearly constant chatter of the mind, observing how it seems to replay certain thought patterns over and over, and seeing how this activity ends up driving much of our day-to-day experience. When we sit down to meditate, with the intention of simply following the rise and fall of our own breath, we see how busy the mind really is. This is totally normal and something most people encounter when they first try to meditate. However, struggling against, or trying to control, the busy mind is futile. Rather, in mindfulness we cultivate an interior environment of patience. Just as we would create an environment of safety and kindness while teaching something new to another, mindfulness asks that you do the same with your own busy mind. But most of us aren’t so kind to ourselves. Why is that?

One of the reasons I began to study and practice mindfulness meditation is that I longed to feel at ease in my own skin. Others seemed to have this quality, and I wondered why it seemed so elusive. I’ve learned that the degree to which we experience this ease depends, in part, on the strength of attachment bonds developed early in life. The strength of these bonds affect the formation of our “internal working model” of “self” in relation to others – who we can trust, and whether we see ourselves as worthy of love. Research shows that people with insecure attachment bonds have less compassion for themselves than those who feel securely attached. In early childhood what we perceive as our reflection in the eyes of others, especially our primary caregivers, becomes a dominant influence on how we see and treat ourselves.

But there is good news! Internal patterns of self-judgment and inner criticism, just like the brain itself, are changeable! We can cultivate inner kindness and compassion for ourselves through the practice of mindfulness. Studies show that people who are able to pay attention to their present moment experience not only have greater emotional balance; they also have a greater ability to respond rather than react to difficult or unpleasant situations. Kristen Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind notes, “Self-kindness, by definition, means that we stop the constant self-judgment and disparaging internal commentary that most of us have come to see as normal. It requires us to understand our foibles and failures instead of condemning them. It entails clearly seeing the extent to which we harm ourselves through relentless self-criticism, and ending our internal war.”

Mindfulness is a means through which we can notice, be present with, and befriend the inner critic – during our meditation practice and in daily life – for example, when we make a mistake or fail in some way. Mindfulness practice trains us to be aware in the moment when we’re allowing the inner critic to dominate our inner landscape. With mindful self-awareness we have a choice in the moment – we don’t have to automatically believe the inner commentary! We create the conditions for the arising of what’s been called the “sacred pause” – that moment when we can actually stop in the midst of reactivity and adopt a kinder, more understanding view toward ourselves– just like we would do for someone else who was hurting.

Hugging Practice
Pick one routine activity you do every day. For example, brushing your teeth, washing your hair, drinking your morning coffee, or walking from your car to work. Make it your practice to do this activity mindfully for at least one week. Let your senses be wide open as you gently hold your attention on your present moment experience – the buzz of your toothbrush, the sensation of shampoo and warm water against your scalp, or the feel of each foot touching the ground as you walk. When your mind is pulled away from your immediate physical experience – for example, thinking about what you need to do when you get to work – simply note this in a kind and friendly way, and gently bring your attention back to your present moment experience. You’re building your muscle of paying attention to the present – the only moment where change is possible.
Physical touch releases Oxytocin – “the hormone of love and bonding”. Increased levels of Oxytocin boost feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness and also strengthen the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Oxytocin reduces fear and anxiety and can counteract the increased blood pressure and cortisol associated with stress. Self-Compassion expert and author Dr. Kristen Neff recommends this practice when you notice you’re feeling tense, upset, sad, or self-critical: “try giving yourself a warm hug, tenderly stroking your arm or face, or gently rocking your body.” It seems a bit silly at first, but your body doesn’t know that. “What’s important,” she says, “is that you make a clear gesture that conveys feelings of love, care, and tenderness.” If others are around, fold your arms in a non-obvious way, gently squeezing yourself in a comforting manner. You can also imagine hugging yourself if you can’t make the actual physical gesture. Notice how your body feels after receiving the hug. Does it feel warmer, softer, calmer? You’ve just tapped into your body’s Oxytocin system and changed your biochemical experience.

 

 

 

 

Rewire Your Mind and Heart for Love: Mindfulness Brings Intimacy to Life

November 21st, 2014 by

By now you’ve probably heard that mindfulness is good for you. A regular practice in moment-to-moment awareness can make us happier, healthier, and kinder. Recent studies linking mindfulness and women’s sexual response are garnering a lot of attention. (More on this later!) As it turns out, the benefits of mindfulness that improve life in general – increased self-awareness, more self-compassion, less anxiety, and improved attention – also heighten our experience of loving, and being loved. While mindfulness benefits both genders, women experience special benefits when it comes to intimacy. Why? As Dr. Elizabeth Kavaler, a urologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, notes, “the biggest part of sexuality in women is emotional and mental.”

The Physical

Now, about those studies. Brown University researchers measured the effect of mindfulness on sexual arousal. Women who underwent mindfulness training experienced faster and more intense sexual arousal than a control group. The study’s lead author, Gina Silverstein, attributes the difference to increased “interoceptive awareness” – the ability to observe and describe what’s happening inside your body and mind without judging the experiences as “good” or “bad” or trying to change them. By practicing this skill, says Silverstein, we can “turn off the autopilot.”

And there’s more. Brain scans of long term mindfulness meditators reveal structural changes. Specifically, increased folding (“gyrification”) of a part of the brain called the “insula”. A Dartmouth study reported that women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms.

The Mental

If you’ve ever tried to sit quietly and follow the rising and falling of your breath, you quickly learned that the mind soon has other ideas. Namely thinking – about things you needed to do, things you forgot to do, worrying about something that might happen, or regretting something that already happened. Anything but simply feeling the sensations of breathing! This constant mental chatter can prevent a woman from feeling sexual stimuli. Mindfulness training quiets this chatter.

Another aspect of the mind that is troublesome for intimate relationships is our hard wired “Negativity Bias.” An ancient survival mechanism, Nature ensured that negative experiences made a lasting impression on the brain (such as that close call with the hungry tiger!) Forgetting such encounters tended to shorten one’s lifespan! But today’s world is less about physical threats and more about psychological ones – often of our own creation. Our constant mental chatter tends to be negative – our interpretation of an offhand comment, anger at being delayed by traffic or someone’s forgetfulness, rumination about feeling disrespected, or anxiety about health or finances.  Unfortunately, the body doesn’t know the difference between actual physical threats and our tendency to dwell on and rehash unpleasant psychological “threats”. It churns out long-lasting stress hormones regardless. Not a recipe for blissful intimacy.

Through mindfulness practice you train your mind to ignore distractions – those arising in our own minds as well as those from the outer environment. Over time (changes happen in a matter of weeks) the mind learns a new way of being – and literally rewires itself! Mindfulness also strengthens your ability to refocus on the present when life’s normal ups and downs occur. With practice, these skills become stronger and stronger. The chattering mind, with its negativity bias, begins to quiet down. We learn to simply “abide” in this moment, which is not nearly as bad as we think. In fact, we find that it’s often quite wonderful! Perhaps not perfect, but wonderful nonetheless.

The Emotional

Mindfulness is about more than presence of mind. It’s also about presence of heart. It shows us our infinite capacity for love and compassion – starting with ourselves. The more we pay attention to our “mental chatter,” the more we learn just how much of it is critical, harsh, and destructive. From this place of awareness, we can befriend and soften that harsh inner critic. We discover that we’re actually complete and whole, with a loving heart that is limitless. Compassion, forgiveness, connection – all are natural outgrowths of this practice of kind, loving attention. And it may just be the best formula for intimacy there is!

 

 

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