Mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain

You’ve heard how good mindfulness is for you, but did you know it helps you grow new brain cells, changes how your brain functions on a day-to-day level, and even resets your perception of pain?

Various studies have drawn the above conclusions, adding to the growing pile of evidence as to why mindfulness meditation works so well for so many people in so many different ways. It starts with neuroscientists’ increasing understanding that the brain is plastic — which means that, unlike your thigh bone, which grows to a certain size and stays that way for the rest of your life, your brain can and does change as you age. That means it’s possible to literally change how you think, even in middle- or old-age. And changing how you think can meaningfully change the way you perceive stress, pain, negative emotions, and even your perspective on life.

This kind of research is now possible due to the increasing availability (and slow-but-sure cost lowering) of various types of brain scans. It’s now feasible for researchers to do brain scans before and after mindfulness meditation sessions, or long- or short-term workshops. And from those scans they can see exactly how and where the brains in a variety of subjects change. If they see similar things changing in the brains of a variety of test subjects (older, younger, male, female, et cetera) researchers then can find a link between those changes and the practice of mindfulness.

Below are a few of the most interesting studies and what they have found.

Reduce pain

In a before-and-after look at the brains of subjects who had regularly meditated for just four days, researchers behind this 2011 study found that the perception of pain was dramatically reduced: How much? Mindfulness meditation “…significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest.” This was, according to researchers, due to increased activity in areas of the brain involved with regulating the understanding of pain signals, the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. In addition to actually feeling less pain, the pain that people felt (what researchers called “pain unpleasantness”) was less intense. That’s because the orbitofrontal cortex was activated— this part of the brain is understood to frame (and reframe) the “contextual evaluation of sensory events” — so pain may still have been present, but it didn’t actually feel so painful.

Grow more brain

A Harvard Medical School study that looked at the brains of 17 study participants before and after an 8-week mindfulness program found that you can actually grow more brain in certain places by doing mindfulness meditation, which sounds amazing: “Analyses…confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR [mindfulness meditation] group compared to the controls.” The study authors go on in detail: “The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”

Build more brain connections

A 2011 study from UCLA looked specifically at female subjects, and measured the brains (via fcMRI) of two groups — those who did mindfulness meditation for 8 weeks and those who didn’t. They found that among the meditators, there were better connections between the parts of the brains linked with sight and sound, as well as greater focus in those areas. What does that mean? “These findings suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training alters intrinsic functional connectivity in ways that may reflect a more consistent attentional focus, enhanced sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience.”

Modulate emotional response

A 2013 study via the University of Zurich involved giving a short mindfulness session to 24 people while 22 others (the controls) didn’t participate. Researchers found that those who had been given the mindfulness session were less reactive when shown negative imagery. Through fMRIs, the researchers could see that there was simply less stimulation in the parts of the brain involved in processing emotions (the amygdala, and the parahippocampal gyrus) in the meditators, compared to the controls, who got more upset. According to the study abstract, “…more mindful individuals required less regulatory resources to attenuate emotional arousal. Our findings suggest emotion regulatory effects of a short mindfulness intervention on a neurobiological level.” Being able to keep emotionally calm (or at least calmer) in difficult situations can lead to lower stress levels and is physically healthier, since stress hormones are reduced.

credit: Starre Vartan

Naturally Mindful

Mindfulness may seem like a difficult practice that takes special training and abilities to practice, but in many ways we are naturally mindful, whether we practice mindfulness or not. Everybody has awareness. That is how we know that we are suffering. We know we’re anxious. Whether we practice mindfulness or not, we notice our breathing. We notice that we have a body. We notice the taste of our food, the smells in the air. We notice that we feel good when we are generous. We notice that we like it when people are nice to us. We notice that we feel wonderful when we feel loved. We don’t need a special practice to notice these things. That is what we do because we are alive.

Whether we practice mindfulness or not, we train our minds to manage our emotions. We practice habits that create our typical moods. We live according to our beliefs to create as much happiness as we are able. Even if we don’t practice mindfulness, we live in the present moment. That’s all we have.

Making the transition from not practicing to practicing mindfulness is not always a question of choice. You don’t always choose what to believe. If you somehow begin to believe that you can train your mind to create your emotional states, then you naturally begin a mindfulness practice. You don’t even have to believe it whole heartedly. You only have to suspect that it might be true. Then you begin experimenting by watching your mind. In any moment that you consciously watch your mind, in any moment that you are aware of your awareness, if you suspect that this awareness is creating a difference, you are being mindful.

When you begin entertaining the belief that you are constantly, either actively or passively, training your mind, then your mindfulness practice expands into every moment. You know you are practicing when you test your beliefs by engaging with your difficult emotions. If you find yourself purposefully breathing in the heat of your anger to see how quickly it passes or dismissing a judgmental thought as another thought, then you are doing it.

When you start to notice that bringing your awareness regularly to your present circumstance creates subtle or profound changes, then you reinforce your beliefs and begin collecting tools to help your practice. You may consciously set an intention for your practice, such as to train your mind to feel happiness, or to train your mind to work through sadness, anger or grief. You may begin a meditation practice to improve your focus. You may learn breathing techniques, yoga or a martial art to assist your practice. As you gain skills and techniques to work with your mind, you become an active participant in your changing mind. That feels good. When you recognize your own basic goodness, there is no turning back. Compassion naturally arises.

Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation

Since I started meditating two years ago, my practice has been shamefully sporadic. When I do manage to stop what I’m doing and sit down, device-free, I find following my breath to be a relief from—and a contrast to—what happens at work. But as David Gelles observes in his new book, that contrast is dissolving, perhaps for the better.

In Mindful Work, Gelles, a business reporter for The New York Times, catalogs the nascent trend of establishing employee well-being programs that promote mindfulness, an activity that is perhaps best described as doing nothing. More precisely, mindfulness means drawing one’s attention to the sensations of the present moment, and noting, without frustration or judgment, any mental wanderings that get in the way. It can be done anywhere—at your desk, on the subway platform—and at any time. Decades of research suggest that setting aside time for mindfulness can improve concentration and reduce stress.

Gelles first reported on the rise of corporate mindfulness programs in 2012 for The Financial Times, when he described a rare but promising initiative at General Mills. In the years since, similar programs have popped up at Ford, Google, Target, Adobe—and even Goldman Sachs and Davos. This adoption has been rapid, perhaps due to its potential to help the bottom line: Aetna estimates that since instituting its mindfulness program, it has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs, and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity. Mindful employees, the thinking goes, are healthier and more focused.

Zen and the art of commuting

Here’s how mindfulness experts say you can be more calm and focused and less hostile:

1. Turn your attention from when you’ll get to your destination (it’s often out of your control, anyway) to your surroundings, particularly what you notice via your senses: Sounds, the feel of your feet on the ground or your rear in a seat, places in your body that feel tight or hot from tension.

2. If you’re not driving or riding a bike, focus on your breathing. Take five breaths, with deep inhalations and slow exhalations. Then return to normal breathing, but try to notice each breath. You can gaze ahead, or slightly down, at a fixed point or close your eyes.

When you notice you’ve become lost in thought (hint: You find yourself in a thought-spiral of “Oh no, I’m going to be late. My boss is going to be so ticked. I’ll probably get fired. Then I’ll probably starve to death …”), gently return your attention to your breathing and the sounds around you. Allow thoughts to come and go without attaching any significance to them.

3. If you’re driving or riding a bike, cut the music and become more aware of the sights and sounds around you: the view of trees or taillights, the sound of birds, the feel of wind on your face. When you notice yourself lost in thought, come back to your senses.

4. When angry or annoying thoughts are triggered, notice the physical sensations of those thoughts (a tight chest, feeling of heat, tense shoulders) and consciously relax. Try a silent mantra, such as “It’s OK” or “This is out of my control. I’m doing the best I can.”

5. Use red lights or stops on a train or bus as a reminder to notice whether you’re lost in thought. Then refocus on your breathing or your senses.

6. When you walk, focus on the feel of your feet connecting with the ground, your breathing, the sounds around you (even if it’s the steady thrum of traffic) and the feel of the air on your face. When you notice you’ve become distracted or lost in thought, return to your senses.

Mindfulness meditation improved quality of life in adolescents with cancer

A diagnosis of cancer is accompanied by a high degree of emotional stress.

Consequently, psychological interventions have become a vital and integral component of cancer care.

One example is mindfulness meditation, a form of meditation derived from the Buddhist practice of insight meditation. It is designed to develop the skill of paying attention to both inner and outer experiences with acceptance, patience and compassion. It focuses on experiencing life in a nonjudgmental way, in the moment.

The practice strives to help patients develop stability, inner calmness and non-reactivity of the mind. In essence, it tries to train the person to not worry about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future but to live in the present and accept what is happening.

‘A promising option’

Malboeuf-Hurtubise and colleagues evaluated mindfulness meditation as an intervention to improve the quality of life of teenagers with cancer. They presented their findings at the American Psychosomatic Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting in March.

The researchers enrolled 13 adolescents with cancer in the 8-week trial. Participants completed a questionnaire at baseline that assessed mood, quality of life and sleep. At that point, researchers assigned eight adolescents to weekly 90-minute meditation sessions, and the other five were assigned to a control group. After 8 weeks, participants completed the same questionnaire again.

The investigators analyzed differences in mood, sleep and quality-of-life scores for each participant and between each group to evaluate if mindfulness sessions had a greater effect than the simple passage of time. The results showed a significant improvement in all areas in the treatment group compared with the control group.

Teenagers who participated in the mindfulness group had lower depression scores after the eight sessions. These results were more pronounced in girls. Female participants slept better and developed greater mindfulness skills than male participants.

The small sample size precludes generalizations about the findings until further studies are done. The observed benefits observed with regard to mood and sleep also could be explained by the social support provided to the adolescents in the mindfulness meditation group. Despite this, mindfulness interventions appear to be a promising option to help teens with cancer deal with their psychological stressors.

Deeper benefits

Although the clinical benefits of this intervention are encouraging, there are data that suggest the benefits may extend deeper to a cellular level. There is a growing body of scientific research dedicated to understanding the physiologic and cellular responses induced by stress-reduction techniques.

A study by Kaliman and colleagues examined the effect of mindfulness meditation on gene expression. A group of experienced meditators practiced mindfulness for an 8-hour period. During that same time, another group of people engaged in non-meditative leisure activities in the same environment.

The researchers used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis to measure gene expression in peripheral blood mononuclear cells of participants in both groups. The results showed a downregulation of genes involved in inflammation — histone deacetylase 2, 3 and 9, and pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 — with mindfulness meditation practice.

Although I am not familiar with mindfulness meditation, I have seen the positive clinical effects of other mind–body-based therapies in practice — such as guided imagery — and the data for mindfulness meditation look promising.

The growing body of research examining stress reduction techniques is exciting on many levels. It can identify new therapies that do not involve the research and development of new medications, a long and costly process. These therapies potentially could be economical to provide, as once someone masters meditation, the technique can be repeated as needed at no additional cost. This approach also avoids negative side effects and adverse events associated with medications or other therapies.

For adolescent patients with cancer, mindfulness meditation may be another therapy to add to their treatment plans that may have positive effects extending as far as the cellular level. I look forward to seeing where this research goes.

Source: Healio

Mindfulness Meditation Benefits More Than The Mind

I can see clearly now, my sunk-cost bias is gone.

Meditation has long been known for its mental health benefits, but new research shows that just a few minutes of mindfulness can improve physical health and personal life as well. A recent study conducted by researchers at INSEAD and The Wharton School found that 15 minutes of mindful meditation can help you make better decisions.

The research, published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal Psychological Science, comes from four studies (varying in sample size from 69 to 178 adults) in which participants responded to sunk-cost scenarios at different degrees of mindful awareness. The results consistently showed that increased mindfulness decreases the sunk-cost bias.

WOAH, hold the phone. What’s a sunk cost and what’s a sunk-cost bias??

Sunk cost is an economics term that psychologists have adopted. In economics, sunk costs are defined as non-recoverable investment costs like the cost of employee training or a lease on office space. In psychology, sunk costs are basically the same thing: The time and energy we put into our personal lives. Though we might not sit down with a calculator at the kitchen table when deciding who to take as our plus one to our second cousin’s wedding next weekend, we do a cost-benefit analysis every time we make a decision. And we take these sunk costs into account.

The sunk-cost bias, then, is the tendency to allow sunk costs to overly influence current decisions. Mindfulness meditation can provide improved clarity, which helps you stay present and make better decisions, the study says. This protects you from that manipulative sunk-cost bias.

“We are really good about getting wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the each day,” said Dr. Adam Naylor, a sports psychology consultant and clinical assistant professor at Boston University. “Even seemingly benign hassles chip away at cognitive freshness and physical readiness. Meditation can be a way to cleanse oneself of the performance sapping, mental clutter.”

Say you realize that the guy you’re dating in a total doofus. Do you break up with him? Our trusted friend the Magic 8 Ball says all signs lead to yes. But wait, you’ve already invested so much time and energy (sunk costs!) in this relationship, not to mention the $1,000 you spent fixing that dent in his car last month, maybe you should just wait it out. No! All signs led to yes! You’re sunk-cost biased!

Cue meditation.

So how does it work?

“The debiasing effect of mindfulness meditation in sunk-cost situations was due to a two-step process,” wrote study co-author Zoe Kinias, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior at INSEAD in an article about the study for the journal. “First, meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of sunk costs.”

But mindfulness doesn’t just help with the big decisions. It can help with the little ones, too. Should you eat an apple or a brownie? Should you go to the gym or watch Netflix? Rather than convincing yourself that you’ll be too tired if you go to the gym, mindfulness practice can provide the clarity you need to realize that’s just an excuse and that you should go.

Mindfulness meditation can have physical benefits, too. Fitness experts say that mindfulness meditation can increase your focus so that you actually get more out of your workout.

“Purposeful meditation givess the mind a moment to reset, so it can be creatively and fully engaged on the tasks we choose to embrace,” Naylor said.

So start meditating, break up with the doofus, and head to the gym.

Source: Boston.com

9 Popular Meditation Myths Dispelled

Isn’t meditation for hippies, geeks, and weirdos who sell flowers at the airport? Isn’t it a cult? This is what your rational mind might be saying. After all, it’s not the most “normal” activity in the United States heartland. Yet, surprisingly, meditation is practiced in a multitude of forms by millions worldwide.

A certain mystique has developed around meditation. After all, it comes from the exotic East. It ain’t exactly cornbread, hamburgers, mashed potatoes, chocolate cake, and Coca-Cola. Few people in the Western Hemisphere have any inkling of what meditation is. Many condemn it, even brand it Satanic. Others may have tried it, but gave up long ago, concluding it didn’t work. Some stuck their finger into the meditation fire, but got burned, either by a cult, a guru, or due to ignorance, fear, or misunderstanding.

In the mid-twentieth century the word “meditation” was barely in the dictionary. Now it’s commonplace. From Transcendental Meditation taught by the Beatles’ guru, to Zen meditation, taught by monks in Japan, from subways of New York to sweat lodges of Native Americans, from churches to synagogues, from bedrooms to boardrooms, meditation is practiced in an amazing variety of forms.

Let’s examine some meditation myths and overcome any confusion that you might have.

Myth 1: Meditation is for hippies.

If you believe this, then you probably still own a 1969 Chevy. That’s how outdated this idea is. In the 1960s, when meditation was first introduced to the West by gurus such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Satchidananda, Yogi Bhajan, Bhagwan Rajneesh, and others, it was practiced by political radicals at University of California at Berkeley and flower children of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. But for the past few decades, meditation has spread from streets of San Francisco to average Joe’s living room, to offices of high-tech companies, influencing all levels of society.

A plethora of meditative practices is found in any given city, from numerous marshal arts practices, to Yoga, to Tai Chi, to hypnosis, to Christian centering prayer. Even the most conservative churches offer meditation during their spiritual retreats. Meditative practices are now commonplace in sales, business, and management trainings.

According to statistics in The Cultural Creatives—How 50 Million People Are Changing the World, twenty-five percent of the United States population (approximately sixty million people) regard meditation and spiritual pursuits vitally important and also accept the probability of psychic powers, such as telepathy, knowing the future, communicating with spirits, and so forth. A staggering sixty-one percent of the population is open to various ways of perceiving and experiencing the sacred in life, believe in psychic and spiritual events, think the divine is both in the world and also transcendent, and believe in developing more awareness.1

“Where the growth rate for the U.S. economy as a whole is two to four percent a year, many of the industries that serve the consciousness movement are growing at ten to twenty percent a year. The size of the population they serve, and the money involved, is doubling every few years.”2

Meditation and consciousness expansion is definitely prevalent. It’s mainstream. And it’s here to stay.

Myth 2: You don’t have time to meditate.

The question is not whether you have time meditate, but whether you have time not to. That’s because your efficiency and success at work, at school, in sports, in society, and in your relationships will increase dramatically when you meditate. Hundreds of studies have shown meditation increases alertness, relaxation, coordination, health, even IQ. It has even been proven to slow down the aging process. With such amazing results, how can you afford not to take time to meditate?

Myth 3: You can’t meditate.

Anyone can meditate. Do you have a mind? If you do, then you can meditate. Can you think a thought? If so, you can meditate. Are you alive and breathing, and can you understand simple instructions? Then you can meditate. You can prove it to yourself by using the simple meditation practices in this book.

Myth 4: Meditation is against your religion.

Is there really a religion that’s against meditation?

Hindu, Jain, Taoist, Sikh, Confucian, and Buddhist scriptures advocate meditation as a way to attain a state of stillness that reveals the true nature of the self. The Roman Catholic Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross instruct Christians to meditate on events of Jesus’ life. Christian centering prayer, a form of meditation, is practiced widely today. Sufis meditate on the Qur’an’s ninety-nine most beautiful names of God.3 Jewish mystics meditate on a verse of Torah to uncover its true meaning. Shamanic seekers engage in a vision quest in seclusion to help them break through limitations and discover life purpose.

King David said, “Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be silent.”4 “Be still, and know that I am God.”5

Isaiah said, “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.”6

Jesus said, “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”7

Mohammed said, “Contemplation for an hour is better than formal worship for sixty years.”8

The Sufi ‘Ali (Abû Tâlib) said, “Silence is the garden of meditation.”9

Lord Buddha said, “Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes.”10

Lord Krishna said, “When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like a flame of a lamp in a windless place. In the still mind, in the depths of meditation, the eternal self reveals itself.”11

Lao Tzu said, “Attain utmost vacuity; Hold fast to quietude.”12

The Sikh Guru Nanak said, “In the cool, dew-drenched night are shining the stars: At this hour are awake the devotees, lovers of God, Meditating each day on the Name—Their hearts meditating on the lotus feet of God, Whom they forsake not for an instant.”13

The Jains pray, “As long as I am seated in this meditation, I shall patiently suffer all calamities that might befall me, be they caused by an animal, a human being, or a god.”14

Confucius said, “Only after knowing what to abide in can one be calm. Only after having been calm can one be tranquil. Only after having achieved tranquillity can one have peaceful repose. Only after having peaceful repose can one begin to deliberate. Only after deliberation can the end be attained.”15

If your religion wasn’t mentioned above, I’ll bet the original scriptures of your religion will encourage you to meditate.

So which religion do you belong to?

Myth 5: You’re too impatient to meditate.

My guru used to say that the mind always seeks a field of greater happiness. Your mind constantly pursues objects of pleasure that provide more fascination. That’s why it continually wanders. It’s impossible to keep the mind under control, so there’s no point in trying. The reason for impatience is that you want fulfillment now. Experience has proven (and Eastern scriptures say) that the quickest way to complete satisfaction is by reaching absolute bliss consciousness in deep meditation. So why not meditate and enjoy the contentment that you’re seeking, right now?

Myth 6: You can’t sit still that long.

Although Chapter 5 primarily focuses on a step-by-step method of sitting meditation, there are countless ways to meditate where you don’t have to sit still, or even sit down! Since your higher self is everywhere and every time, you can meditate anywhere, anytime, day or night. You can call upon your higher self while in your car, while walking, jogging, working, speaking, cooking, or studying.

Any time you call upon the divine presence, anywhere, you’ll immediately be filled with divine grace, wisdom, and peace. Let’s experiment right now. Take a deep breath. Relax. Take another deep breath. Now call upon your higher self or call upon a sacred name of divinity aloud, and just see what happens. Word your request something like this:

“I call upon ____(fill in this blank with a sacred name)______ to be here with me right now, to lift my vibration and to fill me with love, grace, and blessings.”

Now close your eyes for a few moments.

Myth 7: You’re too tired to meditate.

The issue isn’t whether you’re too tired to meditate. Rather it’s whether you’re too tired because you don’t meditate. If you did meditate, you wouldn’t be tired. That’s because meditation supplies abundant energy and relieves all tiredness. The source of your being is a fountainhead of unlimited power and vitality. When you meditate and reach that inner wellspring, you can drink your fill. Once you have drunk, that well remains ever brimful.

Myth 8: You’re too old to meditate.

The problem here isn’t whether you’re too old. Instead it’s whether you can afford not to meditate at your age. With each passing day you’re either cheating death or else taking a step closer to the grave. Meditation helps you reverse those steps and become more youthful. Many people have managed to turn back the dial on their biological clock through meditation.

Myth 9: You can’t meditate because you don’t believe in God.

Why should you believe in God? After all, how can you believe in something you’ve never experienced firsthand? In order to have faith, first you need direct experience. Meditation is a way to experience your higher self. You may not have that experience the first time you meditate, but, if you continue meditating, you will. No faith or belief is required. All you need is willingness to learn. The meditation techniques offered in this book are simple step-by-step procedures without dogma, creed, or doctrine. Think of meditation as a science, a science of mind, if you will. It’s a way to explore the recesses of your inner being. Like the explorers who traverse outer space, you’re a trailblazer into inner space. So put on your inner-space helmet and come with me into the adventure of a lifetime, a divine pilgrimage into the reaches of your higher self.

“Mediation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.”

-J. Krishnamurti

TIME Magazine’s Latest Issue Dives Into The Benefits Of Mindfulness

Are we in the middle of a mindfulness revolution?

That’s what the cover of TIME Magazine’s latest issue claims — and it isn’t without some merit. The piece dives into how the practice can help people find focus in our overwhelmed, always-on culture. With the persistent need to multitask and the constant pressure of having to be plugged in to technology at all hours, the practice has become more prevalent as a way to fight stress and anxiety.

TIME editor Radhika Jones talked to Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski about how multitasking is affecting our concentration and how mindfulness can sharpen that lack of focus.

“Mindfulness, very simply put, it’s the ability to focus your attention on the thing you are doing when you are doing it,” she said. “It sounds so basic. And my guess is 150 years ago, people were not so concerned about mindfulness but we have kind of done this to ourselves. We have created some amazing technology that has enabled us to be on and do five things at once — and we know, the studies show, that multitasking doesn’t actually make you more productive.”

Jones went on to say that while mindfulness is built on the premise of meditation, there’s also a way to weave the practice into everyday habits.

“You can also do things in your life mindfully. You can eat mindfully, you can exercise mindfully, you can apply these principles just of focusing your mind to everything you do,” she said. “There is evidence that shows that mindfulness does in fact have really positive health effects … Your mind is like a muscle. And it needs a workout.”

Source: Huffington Post

How Yoga Might Save the U.S. Trillions of Dollars, And A Lot of Lives

Scientific evidence is mounting daily for what many have long sensed: that practices like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga can help us address certain intractable individual and societal problems.

Prominent companies – Google, General Mills, Target, Apple, Nike, AOL, and Procter & Gamble among them – and prominent individuals have already embraced this possibility. Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who wrote the book A Mindful Nation, has been a big proponent of bringing mindfulness to the masses. He, along with others, believes that mindfulness should be a part of everyone’s day, to help wire our brains to deal with our many modern stressors.

And, perhaps more importantly for our global health, for kids dealing with extreme stressors, traumas and abuse, putting these practices into schools could be the difference between failure and success.

Last month, a group of American and Canadian scholars, researchers, businesspeople, and yoga teachers came together for a weekend at Omega Institute to discuss how this group of practices that helps us self-regulate as individuals could, quite possibly, help us regulate on a society level. The issues the country is facing – the massive dropout rate of school kids, substance abuse among all age groups, PTSD among veterans, the staggeringly high incarceration and recidivism rates – cost the country volumes in human potential, not to mention trillions in dollars. There are no single solutions, but the evidence suggests that some or all of these problems may be amenable to the practices that have been shown to redirect attention, improve concentration, increase self-control, and endow people with reliable and healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress and trauma.

Some of the faculty at Omega’s conference have been key players in making this happen. BK Bose, PhD, of the Niroga Institute, a former Silicon Valley engineer who grew up practicing yoga, now works to make mindfulness/meditation/yoga the game-changer that many believe it can be. Rob Schware, PhD, who heads the Give Back Yoga Foundation and the Yoga Service Council, and writes for the Huffington Post, brought his two decades of management experience with World Bank to help grow the movement as a second career. Many, including Bose and Schware, say that the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a famously insidious and costly problem in lives lost and money wasted, is one of several that could be altered by a little mindfulness training early on in life.

In terms of economic cost alone, Cecelia Rouse at Princeton estimates that one high school dropout “costs” about $260,000 in lost earnings over his or her lifetime. Given the fact that at least a million kids drop out of school every year, the annual cost of school failure alone is estimated at $260 billion. As Bose points out, “Over ten years, the cost is upwards of 3 trillion dollars. And this is just for dropping out alone.”

If you continue the trajectory a little further, he says, based on the relatively common course that can include juvenile hall and prison, the numbers grow. “The school-to-prison pipeline is incredibly costly,” says Bose. It can cost upwards of $250,000 per year to keep an inmate in prison, if you factor in all the direct and indirect costs that tend to come with it, like loss in productivity, damage to the family, the escalated health and mental health costs. “Folks have been looking at career criminals – and estimates over their lifetimes are between $4-7 million. If you apply this to all those who land in jail over and over again, the numbers become stratospheric.”

One approach is to increase school retention; the national dropout rate is between 25% and 35%, and up to 50% in inner city schools. But if you go back a necessary step, Bose argues, the real culprits are enormous stresses and traumas that are so often present in the kids’ lives. “The single common denominator is stress: Chronic stress, toxic stress, traumatic stress, primary and secondary post-traumatic stress. Trauma is endemic. The tentacles of stress and trauma run right through – domestic abuse, substances abuse, poverty, racism. And once a kid drops out, homelessness, substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, crime, violence are just waiting to pounce. Not to mention the boatload of chronic disease, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes… You start to see this powerful trajectory between school failure and adult outcomes.”

And this is where the capacity to cope becomes highly relevant. Methods that train the brain attend differently, self-regulate, and respond to stressors are one part. “If you look to neuroscience,” says Bose, “it tells us that stress, among other things, disrupts brain functioning, especially in the prefrontal cortex. And the same neuroscience is also saying there’s also class of practices that mitigate all of this: Mindfulness.”

There’s some good evidence for the idea. In 2011, a Harvard study showed that mindfulness is linked to increased gray matter density in certain cortical areas, including the prefrontal cortex and regions involved in self-referential thoughts and emotion regulation. There seems to be a strong connection between mindfulness and the brain machinery involved in self-regulation. Other work has shown mindfulness to be linked to relative de-activation of the default mode network (DMN), the brain system that’s active during mind-wandering and self-referential “worry” thoughts, which are generally stressful in nature. Indeed Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD at UMass has developed his career to developing the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) to helping people learn to change the stress response.

This is all well and good, Bose adds, but there’s an obvious caveat. When they’re in the midst of stress and trauma, few kids have the ability to sit still enough to take part in a sitting practice. “If you’re not ready to sit in classroom,” says Bose, “you’re not ready to do sitting meditation. If you have drugs and gangs and violence all around you, you simply can’t sit still. Teachers tell us that they often yell at kids 100 times a day to sit and pay attention. It doesn’t work. And to ask them to do this in the context of meditation can have a worse-than-neutral effect – it could be disastrous.”

So, you have to go beyond the neuroscience-of-meditation field and look to the trauma research, which tells us that physical activity can help the brain deal with stress and trauma. “Trauma research tell us that we hold trauma in our bodies… The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex doesn’t even talk to the amygdala. Neuroscience says mindfulness; trauma research says movement. All of the sudden you’ve got moving meditation or mindfulness in motion. Mindfulness alone isn’t going to cut it for these kids.” One theory is that because the executive areas of the brain can be affected by stress and trauma, “getting in” through another avenue is key. Indeed, some studies have shown that physical activity can enhance cognitive control via the prefrontal cortex in children, and exercise is well known to enhance neurogenesis in brain regions like the hippocampus, in you and old alike, which can be affected by stress.

Therefore, Bose and his colleagues have done what are also beginning to, combining movement and mindfulness into one program, called Transformative Life Skills (TLS), which incorporates elements of movement, attention training and relaxation skills. The 18-week program can be introduced to schools relatively cheaply. The research so far has shown that it can be extremely helpful in helping kids reduce levels of negative thinking, negative affect, revenge motivation, depression, emotional arousal, physical arousal, rumination, perceived-stress, attitudes toward violence; and it’s been associated with greater levels of self-control, tolerance for distress, and school engagement.

The return-on-investment seems to speak for itself. The cost of training and coaching 50 teachers in TLS is $5,000. And if they work with 1,000 students, works out to be about $5 per kid. If even one kid took a different path in life, the program would be worth the investment many times over.

And similar programs, like the one run by the Holistic Life Foundation, Inc. (HLF) serving inner city schools in Baltimore, have found just this. Ali Smith, Executive Director, who founded the program along with his brother and college friend as a way to bring meditation to “at-risk” kids, has seen the results firsthand. So has the early research. Smith and his brother grew up in this hectic environment, but his parents had them mediate every day before school. He says he didn’t understand its purpose so much back then, but it made a difference on some level, and sparked his and his brother’s desire to give back in the same way as they got older. He hopes that mindfulness will be a part of every school day in the future: “Even just to give kids a moment of stillness in their day, so that they stop, and can have inner and outer silence… That would be amazing.”

One problem with this type of service at this juncture is the relatively small size of the operations. Though service programs are growing, many are still local in reach, and affect people only on the order of tens or hundreds per year. “What I see happening,” says Schware, “is a lot of very fired up yoga teachers who want to serve; so they go work in drug rehabs or jails.” After a year or two, though, many realize they can’t pay their bills while doing this work, so find themselves in a difficult position. “And if you’ve set up a nonprofit,” adds Schware, “it’s even harder financially.” The Yoga Service Council helps many of these small non-profits become sustainable, but it’s unclear where the future of the industry really lies here, or in a larger domain.

“The math is pretty simple and clear,” says Schware. “We’re going to get our money back many, many times over. There’s a huge potential return on investments, if we’re going to implement these thingssystematically.” Policy-level initiatives would, of course, be ideal, and they may come in time. Hopefully the right people will see the connection sooner than later.

“This is about more than just mindfulness,” says Bose. “It’s about the integration of these modalities. This is not some feel good, foo-foo practice from the Himalayas. This is based in cutting edge neuroscience, trauma research, and in somatic psychology. This is vital to ensure our well-being, and to our economy.  Let’s come together under the banner of transformative practices, and put forward the essence of yoga, not the hype. This is simple. Anyone can do this, anytime, anywhere. If you can move, if you can breathe, then you can do the practice.”

How does mindfulness improve self-control?

In a 2012 Swiss study, researchers Friese, Messner, and Shaffner tested whether a brief period of meditation would lessen the depletion effects of self-control that have been described by Roy Baumeister. Their subject pool was from a group of people taking a three-day introductory meditation seminar. In this training, participants learned to become more aware of the subtleties of their breath and sensations of their body and to notice non-judgmentally what felt comfortable or uncomfortable in their lives.

 

The researchers approached participants at the end of their 2nd day at the seminar and asked the experimental group to perform an emotional regulation task, then to meditate for five minutes. Then the participants performed a second attentional-control task, meant to tax self-control resources. The meditators did not show self-control depletion effects on the second task compared to a non-meditating group. All participants had attended the seminar.

This is the first study I’ve seen that actually tests the effects of a brief period of meditation on self-control ability. Previous work has shown that trait mindfulness is associated with better self-control. This study was looking at the immediate effects of state mindfulness.

Mindful Self-Regulation versus Self-Control

In a 2007 paper, Brown and colleagues describe their concept of mindfulness as it differs from self-control. They give an amusing example to illustrate their point:

“A student with a large pimple on her nose comes into a professor’s office, and his attention is likely to be drawn to her prominent blemish. In a self-controlled mode of regulating his attention, thoughts, emotions, and verbal behavior, he will invoke one or more preconceived, socially-prescribed standards of conduct that may dictate avoidance of this sight so that he can properly focus on the conversation. He may redirect his attention, perhaps to the student’s eyes, or even to a spot on the wall above her head, with this goal in mind, and will periodically self-assess to see how well he is meeting his standard(s) of behavior.”

In contrast, they describe a possible mindful self-regulation as allowing the professor to non-judgmentally attend to the student. Since his attentional capacity is not compromised by focusing on whether he is adhering to a particular standard of conduct, he can choose his behavior rather than being driven by what he feels he ought to do.

How does mindfulness work?

 

According to a 2011 Buddhist model of mindfulness designed by Grabovich and colleagues in British Columbia, mindfulness breaks our usual perceptive cycle. Normally, we become briefly aware of a sensation, either something that comes into our senses or a cognition in the mind. This happens so fast that we have dozens of sensations in the space of a second. With this awareness comes a “feeling tone” of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Pleasant feelings give rise to desire, while unpleasant ones create aversion. There is a distinction here: the desire or aversion is not in response to the object itself, but in response to the feeling tone that it engenders.

Thoughts that occur in response to a desire or an aversion carry their own feeling tone, and more thoughts occur in response to those. Because the awareness of the sensations is so fleeting, it’s easy for this mental proliferation to become habitual. According to the model, it is this habitual attachment and aversion that causes suffering.

When we’re regulating, we’re trying to achieve a goal of some sort, either a desire for something to come about (desire), or a desire for something not to come about (aversion). Could it be that when we are experiencing self-control depletion, we are experiencing some form of suffering?

In this model, mindfulness is defined as a moment-by-moment observing of impermanence, suffering, and not-self. In other words, mindfulness involves noticing the impermanence of sensations and feeling tones, the suffering caused by habitual desire or aversion, and the idea that none of the sensations, desires, or aversions create the self. Thus observing can break the chain of thought, the habit, and eventually, the suffering.

 

The acceptance or non-judgment that is brought to the practice reduces the negative thoughts that might otherwise make the practice itself a source of aversion. Additionally, the authors state, “acceptance helps relax the attention and allows rapid, discrete sensations to be more easily noticed and followed during mindfulness practice.” Basically, this harkens back to Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory that positive emotion relates to expansive use of attention, while negative emotions narrow attention. Acceptance allows for ease of noticing.

How does this apply?

While this makes some sense to me, what really brought it home was revamping my understanding of what mindfulness really is. The most helpful explanation I’ve come across is Sharon Salzberg’s concept that mindfulness is noticing. This small adjustment in definition allowed me to more easily see why meditation is useful.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take the example practice that begins by focusing on the breath. When a thought comes into mind, you notice it, and then bring your attention back to the breath. Mindfulness is in the noticing. Maybe I notice that I like a certain type of breath pattern better than another. This is an attachment to that type of breath. I might also notice that my breath occurs without my trying, separating my breath from my self (not-self). Mindfulness is not that I can stay focused on a sensation. Instead, when a thought or feeling arises, I notice. The breath itself is a point of concentration, so that when a thought or feeling comes into mind, I’m able notice it.

To apply this to self-control, let’s look at another example. Let’s say I’m trying to eat healthier food, but I am presented with a cookie. The unmistakable smell of homebaked food wafts through the air, and I’m smitten by the perfect sheen of the chocolate morsels, indicating a soft, warm, meltiness. These sensations might not be cognitive, but I have some awareness of them, and they are a trigger, creating the desire to eat the cookie. Mindfully, I notice these desires, which immediately removes me from them. Now I’m busy noticing instead of desiring.

 

Basically, instead of thinking and feeling, one is noticing. Meditation is the practice of noticing.

Meditation as a Self Control Exercise?

The study by Friese and colleagues helps answer a long-frustrating question: If self-control is like a muscle that you can fatigue, and if mindfulness is a way of exercising and thus strengthening self-control, then wouldn’t meditation practice cause fatigue and deplete self-control as well?

Based on this study, in which participants had spent all day at a meditation seminar prior to participating, meditation does not cause depletion. It seems like it could actually replenish self-control resources, but I think there’s room for another possibility: It seems to me that this is not because mindfulness helps build the self-control muscle, but it helps avoid using the self-control muscle altogether. The brief mindfulness meditation in the study might have allowed participants to enter a more mindful state, which they could maintain through the second self-control exercise.

So how does mindfulness improve self-control? It doesn’t. Mindfulness is the path to autonomous regulation. I don’t think it necessarily replenishes a self-control juice (otherwise, meditating for longer should increase the amount, right?) but I think it gets us ready to use the noticing skill in other situations.