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

Stone of the Day: Serpentine

Serpentine is a grounding stone that helps in meditation and spiritual exploration. Since refines the chakras, and stimulates the crown chakra opens you natculne skills and helps you to understand the spiritual basis of life. This stone opens up new avenues of kundalini energy and its growth. Encourages the re-acquisition of wisdom and brings back memories of previous lives.

Misconceptions Of Spiritual Practice

Why is spirituality steeped in misconceptions? The answer is quite simple. Spirituality is abstract, the great unknown. Most beginners on the spiritual path don’t have access to an experienced spiritual seeker, so the bulk of their questions remain unanswered.

What is more, these novice seekers hear stories from other novice seekers, which gives rise to a myriad of projections and beliefs. It’s the mind that creates all this. In fact, any misconception is the fruit of thinking.

The spiritual path can be utterly confusing. The novice seeker often times finds herself lost in a vast ocean, without a compass. Let’s take a closer look at the most common spiritual misconceptions. Then, you will learn the principles of true spiritual practice.

Common Misconceptions

Most spiritual seekers believe that every person in a colorful robe has a pure mind, possesses great wisdom and may even be enlightened. These projections are created by the mind. Most of the time, the assumptions are false. Enlightenment is extremely rare, so is spiritual wisdom and purity of mind. Don’t mistake theoretical knowledge for spiritual wisdom.

The sad truth is that the majority of Buddhist monks in developing countries are not even interested in spirituality. Rather, they have ordained for socio-economic reasons. As monks, they eat like royalties and are treated like royalties.

Colorful ceremonies and rituals do not boost or empower spiritual practice. The inspiration is short-lived. Likewise, an exotic spiritual name with a divine meaning won’t do the hard work for you. It’s the mind that practices; not your body, colorful robe or spiritual name.

Monk and nun ordinations do not empower you either. The inspiration wears off quickly and it’s not any easier to meditate with a robe on your skin.

It’s not more beneficial to meditate in a golden temple on a hilltop, than in a grotty basement. What truly matters is giving relaxed, yet steadfast attention to your meditation object.

Having sex with your spiritual teacher, regardless weather he is enlightened or not, won’t benefit you in any way. This is a widespread misconception. It will only result in mental and emotional pain. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment. Please note that a true spiritual master would never mislead or take advantage of his students. A pure mind makes for pure intentions, which makes for pure actions.

Intellectual knowledge of spirituality is of little value to spiritual seekers. Spirituality is experiential, not an intellectual exercise.

It’s quite common that novice seekers believe they can attain enlightenment by using their own techniques and philosophies. An individual with a strong ego, can easily go astray. These seekers rarely show any signs of progress. You do need a teacher that explains the basic meditation techniques and spiritual principles. Not unlike the laws of nature, the spiritual laws cannot be changed to suit your preferences.

Another misconception is that seekers confuse religion for spirituality. Religion is faith-based while spirituality is about exploring truth and reality. A spiritual seeker does not accept spiritual teachings without first putting them to the test, no matter who utters them or how old the teachings are. Spiritual teachers encourage this approach.

The fact that religion and spirituality often are intertwined, makes for a lot of confusion.

In meditation, body postures are only of secondary importance. It’s the mind that practices. So, don’t worry about not being able to sit in a certain posture. It’s fine to meditate on a stool or chair.

True Spiritual Practice

It’s of paramount importance to have a correct understanding of spiritual practice. The essence of spiritual practice is to investigate objective reality, also called ultimate reality. That includes investigation of the mind and the spiritual worlds.

The mind has a strong tendency to think obsessively, to hold on to feelings and thoughts and to like and dislike. Spiritual seekers also take great interest in the concepts of ego and not-self.

The very foundation of true spiritual practice is steadfast awareness, as opposed to endless thinking. Another word for awareness is mindfulness. Awareness is the key to understanding the mind and it opens the doors to the spiritual realms.

Another vital ingredient in spiritual practice is a large dose of morality. The word can simply be defined as thinking and doing what is good and right. You don’t need to read volumes of books to learn what is good and right. Deep inside, you already know.

The more refined your morality is, the easier it is to make progress on the spiritual path. Having said that, don’t be hard on yourself for not being perfect. Step by step, your morality will mature into a beautiful, fragrant flower.

When you practice awareness and morality, over time, the mind will naturally be purified. It will also release deposits of negative mental energy such as anguish, frustration, anger and hatred. As a result, you feel at ease and become less emotionally reactive. By practicing morality, seekers also develop what I call spiritual warmth, which is a kind and caring quality.

Every spiritual seeker needs guidance when it comes to meditation techniques and basic know-how on spiritual practice. Other than that, there is little need for theory on the spiritual path. Spirituality is a practical, hands-on discipline.

Progress on the spiritual path is most gradual. Many times, the novice seeker is unaware of any progress. Then, it’s helpful to be around seasoned seekers who quite easily can observe progress in others.

Generally speaking, progress can be made in the areas of awareness, morality, purification of the mind, spiritual wisdom and connectedness to the spiritual worlds. So for example, releasing unpleasant emotions and a deepened sense of inner peace are signs of progress. The first one relates to purification of the mind and the latter is the fruit of improved awareness.

Spiritual practice calls for high levels of mental effort. If you want to make substantial progress, you have to stay focused on your practice. To do an intensive 3-month meditation retreat, is like running 90 marathons. Every day, you give attention to your meditation object from the moment you wake up in the early morning, until you fall asleep in the evening. Not to mention the physical aches and pains from hours of sitting and walking meditation.

You meditate for 8-10 hours a day and go about all activities mindfully. You are even mindful while you are taking a shower. Intensive retreats are mentally exhausting. I usually run out of motivation after 2-3 weeks. From then on, I’m fueled by discipline.

Further, most retreats encourage you to refrain from conversation, other than with your meditation teacher. Personally, I prefer to meet the teacher as few times as possible. These are effective ways to calm the mind. It’s natural to make progress when the mind is focused and still. If you talk to other meditators, you will continue to think about the conversations when you meditate. It’s a big distraction.

Another distraction that most novice and intermediate seekers battle with, is doubt. It can be doubt in the meditation technique, the teacher, your abilities and the spiritual path altogether. Doubt is the result of thinking; therefore, don’t entertain such thoughts. As you advance on the spiritual path, doubt gradually loses its power over you. Progress makes for confidence.

In the beginning, it’s advisable to do short and relaxed retreats where you are free to share your experiences with the other participants.

Source: AxelG

Loch Ness monster is “spiritual” say Buddhists

The Loch Ness Monster could be confirmed as a “spiritual entity” when a new Buddhist centre opens in the Highlands, it was revealed today.

Britain’s first Buddhist Lama, who is heading up the new project, said Nessie is a “naga” – a water deity which brings prosperity in the religion.

Spiritual director of the project, Lama Gelongmo Zangmo, aims to create a new spiritual centre overlooking the Loch in the Drumnadrochit area this autumn.

Formerly a nun, Lama Zangmo was the first woman in Britain to be chosen as a Lama in Britain in 2001.

Lama Zangmo said yesterday: “Nessie is a naga. We build the relationship with the naga, try to please them and don’t abuse the environment.

“If Nessie is treated well, she will bring prosperity.”

Tributes have already been made at the Samye Ling monastery in Dumfries-shire, a cone-shaped shelter has been made at the nearby River Esk where sacrifices have been left to the spirit.

Dr William Tuladhar-Douglas, Buddhism lecturer from the university of Aberdeen, said: “There’s about 2,500 years’ worth of history behind a gesture like that.”

Lama Zangmo added that Loch Ness has a “special magic”, likening it to the Buddhist retreat on the Holy Isle off Arran on the west coast.

She said: “This is such a beautiful part of the country and it has a very special feel to it.

“The natural setting is wonderful, how pure the air is and the sense of spirit in the Highlands is most magnificent and inspiring.

“The scenery is striking, the light is beautiful and being close to Loch Ness has a special magic about it.”

She has recently returned from several months in India at Bodhgaya, the most revered holy site in the religion, and was given her Highland post last week.

As well as offering yoga and meditation classes, a 10-foot peace pole, blessed by the Dalai Lama, will be displayed there.

She added: “I think there will be huge benefits from the centre, and not just for Buddhists.

“What Inverness lends itself well to is a place of retreat.

“It is a wonderful place for someone to come and do retreat and immerse themselves in learning, mindfulness and how to become less stressed.”

Source: Sctosman.com