Tag Archives: Meditation

Mindfulness

8 Nov

Some people are instinctively cynical when mindfulness is mentioned. It can bring to mind new age, eastern, woo-woo nonsense.

However, when you take away some of the cultural and religious trappings around these mind practices, then you will find some very simple techniques that have surprisingly effective results.

Results that are proven by evidence.

Its popularity is steadily increasing: school children are taught it to help them get past exam stress and US marines are even trained in the practice.

What Is It?
Mindfulness is a purposeful awareness of your experience in the present moment.

The core of the technique is being aware of your breathing.

Once you’ve got that going it is expanded to get you paying attention to each thought or feeling.

Another way to describe it is as a state of clear, “present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. [It] is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance“.

A non-judgmental attitude is key – it means that you sit with your experience, whether good or bad, and accept it for what it is.

And that’s pretty much it.

What Has It Done For Me?
The benefits are wide ranging and no less than profound.

I began by doing a short 4 week course and immediately noticed the benefits. It reduced my insomnia like no other solution.

The increased self-awareness it brings means that I see more clearly how I am reacting to a situation. I am aware of my emotional response, and can see more clearly the choice I have of whether to allow that emotion to drive my actions, or to choose another path. This has clear applications in conflict situations. With this self awareness comes a greater awareness of how others respond to my actions too.

Given the increased awareness of the moment this mindset brings, I am able to enjoy the small things more. Simply paying close attention to the sensations when I’m eating a sandwich means it can become a much richer experience. Even something like doing the washing up can be more enjoyable.

I’ve also found it’s helped me to improve my concentration, because after all, it is at its core, exercising the ability to focus. Focus is closely related to willpower, which has been proven to be something we can improve.

The ability to focus in this way means that I can step back from the current swirl of thoughts in my mind. In this state I often find that important things I was forgetting bubble up to my conscious mind.

What Else Can It Do?
In these days, with so much data to look at, with so many demands on our time, to have the ability to better focus our attention, and to become aware when we’ve got distracted, is an invaluable skill.

Not only has mindfulness been clinically proven to reduce stress, blood pressure, depression and anxiety, but it has also been proven to help people sleep better, work more effectively and improve their personal and professional relationships. It even helps people cope with chronic pain.Be Mindful Online

Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.Sam Harris

It reduces rumination, something at the core of the depressive mindset. It has been shown to reduce depression and bipolar symptoms. Increasing awareness, as every psychologist will say, is the first and hardest step in dealing with psychological problems.

Chade-Meng Tan describes how, when using these techniques, you watch your emotions and realise they are not you, but something you experience. “Therefore they are not permanent, they are changeable. This attitude, while seemingly simple, can bring great solace, and eventually significant change to people suffering from limiting psychological problems.

Jonah Lehrer said: “patients who escaped depression with the help of anti-depressants, and then stopped taking the drugs, relapsed about 70 percent of the time. The chemical boost was temporary. However, during the 18 month follow-up period, only 28 percent of patients in mindfulness therapy slipped back into the mental illness.

It can give you a greater awareness of your physical state, and of bodily reactions to your environment. It can even boost your immune system.

Neurological Effects
Andrew Newberg describes how brains scans of lifetime meditators show that “there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being.

Regular practitioners of mindfulness show increased activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is implicated in emotional responses such as fear, whereas the frontal cortex shows activity when exercising executive control, planning, etc. This means you become more able to control your emotional reactions.

How Can I Try It?
So give it a go. Sam Harris has published a helpful guided 9 minute meditation to start you off.

And if you really want to train yourself in the habit I recommend this online course. It costs £60, takes 4 weeks, and you’ll need to set aside a little time every day to do it. It gives guided meditations, instructional videos, and resources to help you track your progress.

Here are some great micro-goals to get you easily into the habit, and more tips here.

It’s a great practice that helps you enjoy the present moment and engage with life to produce a richer experience.

Bell

Why We Believe What We Believe – Andrew Newberg

2 Nov

I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.

Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.

There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.

He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.

He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.

Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent,  a bias to which we are particularly prone.

So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.

His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.

In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.

Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.

One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:

Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.

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