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Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’

Zen meditators are famous for their equanimity in the face of physical discomfort.  How do they do it?  Well, according to a recent neuroimaging investigation, it may be because they do not “think” about pain.  Rather, they just “experience” pain:

An ancient Eastern text describes two temporally distinct aspects of pain perception; the direct experience of the sensation and habitual, negative, mentation which follows. It was suggested that the so-called ‘second dart’ of pain could be removed via meditative training, obliterating the suffering associated with noxious stimulation.

It’s a subtle distinction … to just experience something in the moment  vs. to ruminate on it and its causes, consequences, duration, etc.  How many times have you heard the sage advice, just let it go?  Is this what the brain imaging shows … that the meditators are not ruminating (they have decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in ruminating) … they have experienced the pain and then let it go?  Experience and forget?

Reminded me of an interesting little protein named DREAM.  Interesting because it modulates pain (when DREAM is inactivated in experimental mice the animals feel no pain) and interesting also because the gene plays a role in the formation of memories (mice show poor contextual fear memory when the gene is inactivated).

Experience and forget.  A Zen teaching encoded in our DNA?

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“Oneness with the universe”, “the divine”, “immortality” and “inner peace” are just a few popular themes of yoga.  Practitioners delight in pondering these themes whilst in their deep meditative states attained through breathing and movement.  It’s bliss – it really is.

Here are a few quotes by Woody Allen on the very same themes:

I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.

Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.

Students achieving Oneness will move on to Twoness.

What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.

You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.

There’s certainly a gap between the perfect world of the ancient yogis and our modern lives – and Woody Allen, with his famous neurotic streak and wit – makes great light of it.  Have you ever found yourself doubting yogic wisdom in your everyday life?

Recently, I took an online assessment for the so-called Big Five personality dimensions and found that (like 30% of the population) I also have a neurotic streak.  The assessment declared “you tend to be nervous, high-strung, insecure, worrying” (my results are shown in the figure above).  True enough (I even carry a few genetic risk factors), and perhaps is why sometimes I can be tormented by a skeptical inner-voice that bursts my bliss as I dwell in meditation.  Sooo annoying!

We all love Woody Allen’s movies and quips.  Perhaps we see ourselves in his endearing neurotic characters? and can collectively laugh at the movie screen (even if we are wracked with neurotic grief on the inside)?  I don’t know.  In any case, its not actually fun to be, or funny to be with a really neurotic person … someone who is always ruminating on their insecurities and fears.  They can drive themselves, and you, nuts!

Can yoga and meditation help? Can they help a neurotic person shift from being a veritable prisoner of their fears and insecurities, wracked with neurotic grief on the inside – to being a more objective observer – more like a detached watcher of their own stream of consciousness – eventually coming to laugh at their inner drama as they might at a Woody Allen movie?

Here’s a research article that may shed light on the topic.  Traits, States, and Encoding Speed: Support for a Top-Down View of Neuroticism/State Relations by Drs. Michael D. Robinson and Gerald L. Clore.  You can read the open-access article, so I’ll just jump to the part I thought was so interesting.

The authors explored the extent to which people suffer from neurotic tendencies as a function of how well they are able to perceive and encode information as it streams into the brain.  Some folks encode neural information more efficiently and, these folks, tend to suffer less from their neurotic tendencies.  The exciting aspect of these neural processes, is that they can be improved with appropriate training and practice.

Common to these theories is the idea that anxious individuals are often trapped by habitual ways of thinking and that a focus on the present, for example, as facilitated by mindfulness training, is successful in breaking such habitual, self-defeating modes of thought linked to high neuroticism.

Therefore, the link between the present data and therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness practice must be somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, it is also worth pointing out that the largest predictor of categorization performance is practice. Furthermore, practice is viewed as the most important contributor to mindfulness-related skills. Therefore, it may be that discrimination skills, even of a reaction-time variety, can be trained that that such training would be useful in alleviating neuroticism-linked distress.

So perhaps the yogic wisdom of Woody Allen rests, not in the jokes themselves, but in a kind of mindfulness that allows him to step back and monitor his own stream-of-consciousness.  Much indeed to make light of. Worth practicing and practicing in 2011 … to laugh at myself in 2012.

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Sweating it out as a new yoga-meditation student, my instructor often says, “Make this pose feel good”!  Bend here, press there, twist, up on one hand and … feel good? If you’ve practiced yoga, you may know what I’m talking about.  And, if you’re like me, you’re hooked on this unique aspect of yoga.  With an emphasis on breath control and meditation, yoga allows its practitioners to “feel the pleasure” instead of “feel the pain”.

Admittedly, I’ve had many sore morning-afters, but I’m starting to find that when I’m intensely focused on my breath, the experience of moving in and out of postures is a pleasurable one – not like other activities motivated by a “come on!  push it!” & “no pain, no gain” mentality.

This yogic mentality has led to a profound change in my life.

Read the rest in Elephant Journal

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The holiday foods are here – everywhere – and, even if you are steeped in a diet or other austerities, your friends and in-laws may not be.  The sights, the smells, the pleasures of sharing exotic tastes with your loved ones … I mean, if you can’t indulge now … when?  What’s a mindful person to do?

A timely article appeared in this week’s issue of Science Magazine entitled,  Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption [doi: 10.1126/science.1195701]  by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University & the title says it all.  Imagined consumption, where experimental volunteers were asked to imagine consuming an M&M candy – not just the visualization of the M&M itself, but the actual eating of it – either 3 or 30 times.  The researchers then let the volunteers dig into a bowl of real M&Ms and recorded how much they ate.  The article reports that volunteers who imagined eating an M&M 30 times, when offered a bowl of real M&Ms to snack on, actually ate fewer M&Ms (about 43% less) than volunteers who imagined consuming 3 M&Ms.

This finding, wherein “imagined consumption” either 30 or 3 times resulted in less “actual consumption”, held up when investigators manipulated the food in question (M&Ms or cheese blocks),  the order in which volunteers experienced different experimental trials, and across a control trial where volunteers were asked to imagine placing quarters into a laundry machine 3 or 30 times (resulted in no differences in actual M&M consumption).  Perhaps most striking was a comparison of “imagined moving” either 3 or 30 M&Ms into a bowl (folks who imagined moving 30 M&Ms actually ate MORE afterwards) in contrast to the trials where volunteers “imagined consuming” either 3 or 30 (the group that imagined consuming 30 M&Ms actually ate LESS).  This result verified the commonly-held notion that the sight of food whets the appetite and creates an incentive to consume.

Man, M&Ms are my favorite!  The veritable gateway drug of all holiday cakes, cookies, pies and candies.  Just reading about this research has me craving a handful of those holiday red and green M&Ms right now.

OK, I will use what yogic training I have to slow down my thought processes, to increase my self-awareness and to visualize – not just the treats themselves (lest I end up eating more) but the act of eating them, savoring them and feeling the pleasure of the experience.  I’ve learned – through yoga – that this pleasure, and all the wonderful pleasures in life, are really just inside me – all part of a deep-seated inner peace and joy.  I don’t need to seek pleasures ravenously in the outside world.  The wonderful pleasures of taste, smell, texture, appearance etc. lie within me, and are accessible through my imagination, breathing and meditation.

Enjoy your holidays!  And when you find yourself alongside the desert table, realize that YOU are an amazing being – delicious on the inside – much moreso than cookies and cake.

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Your brain is a beautiful universe!  Enjoy it via meditation. Love it & spend time getting to know it.  Its a wonderful place!

 

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Hatha Yoga Video - Revolving Lunge Pose
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Does yoga feel good?  Do you feel good during the practice – moving your body through the bending, twisting, inverting etc.?  Be honest. I mean, since you’re probably sore as hell the next morning … if you don’t feel good during the practice, why would you bother at all?

Now that I have a tad of strength in my arms and shoulders, I think I can say that, “yes” I do feel good and enjoy the practice … but usually just for the first 20 minutes or so before I start playing the frantic “just keep up with the instructor and hope for a break” game.

Some say that their good feelings come from the relaxed meditative state that yoga puts them in.  Some folks just like to move their bodies and are attracted to the strange and exotic beauty of the postures.  I always enjoy the music.

But where do these good feelings come from?   Aren’t they just in my head?  Do I really need to move my body to feel good?  Why not just sit and breathe?

It turns out that there is a scientific theory on this topic.  The so-called Somatic markers hypothesis that suggests that afferent feedback from the body to the brain is necessary for generating our feelings.  For example, stimulation of the vagus nerve (aka Kundalini serpent) makes us feel good, while individuals with spinal cord damage who lack afferent input from the body reportedly have blunted emotions.

In his research review article, Human feelings: why are some more aware than others? [doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.04.004] Dr. Bud Craig from the Barrow Neurological Institute reviews the science of this topic and lays out the neural circuitry that goes from body to brain and is necessary for us to FEEL.

These feelings represent ‘the material me’, and so this broader concept of interoception converges with the so-called somatic-marker hypothesis of consciousness proposed by Damasio. In this proposal, the afferent sensory representation of the homeostatic condition of the body is the basis for the mental representation of the sentient self.  Recursive meta-representations of homeostatic feelings allow the brain to distinguish the inner world from the outer world. Most strikingly, degrees of conscious awareness are related to successive upgrades in the cortex (a target of visceral afferent activity), supplementary motor cortex (involved in manual responses), and bilateral insular cortices. This pattern supports the general view that a network of inter-related forebrain regions is involved in interoceptive attention and emotional feelings.

Amazingly, it seems that humans have evolved several unique adaptations that make us able to convert bodily sensation into self-awareness.

For instance, a novel cell type, the so-called spindle cell, is exclusively located in these regions of the human brain. Recent evidence indicates a trenchant phylogenetic correlation, in that spindle cells are most numerous in aged humans, but progressively less numerous in children, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, and nonexistent in macaque monkeys. Notably, this phylogenetic progression also parallels the results of the mirror test for self-awareness.

The rapid development of right Anterior Insula within a brief evolutionary timescale suggests that nested interoceptive re-representations could be directly related to the advantages of advanced social interaction.

So it seems that we human beings rely on bodily awareness to attain emotional awareness.  This sounds very yogic and something the yoga practice helps to develop.  Feel your body –> feel your emotions!

 

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A startling article that appears today in the science journal Nature, shows that reactivation and restoration of DNA telomeres was sufficient to reverse the aging process! From the article:

Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice.

Accumulating evidence implicating telomere damage as a driver of age-associated organ decline and disease risk1, 3 and the marked reversal of systemic degenerative phenotypes in adult mice observed here support the development of regenerative strategies designed to restore telomere integrity.

Love yourself, love your DNA – especially the telomeres ! For more on this topic, see a few weeks back, when I covered a research article by Nobel Prize winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn on meditation, telomeres and longevity.

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