attention

Key points of awareness, Part I

Keys to Awareness

  • Feel that your own well-being and functioning matters. Get on your own side; be for yourself. Question: How many people does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Only one. But the light bulb has to want to change.
  • Cultivate wanting to be in reality, to know the facts of the inner and outer worlds. Know and trust that your greatest safety and hope is in seeing what’s true, no matter what it is. Whenever you move into awareness/observation mode, you instantly distance yourself from things (inside or outside yourself) that are painful, and center yourself in a place that is inherently calmer and wiser than just reacting. And the only way you can intervene in your experience or your environment in order to make things better is by knowing what the facts are and what has caused them to be.
  • Bring compassion and kindness to yourself and to whatever your awareness finds. Hold your innermost feelings and longings with the sensitivity and concern you should have received as a child.

Also see:

“Bare Witnessing”

  • Be a neutral watcher of your experience and the outer world, an “observing ego.” “No praise, no blame.” “Just the facts, ma’am.” “Don’t know mind.”
  • Your observing awareness is separate from experience and world. You have thoughts, etc., but you are not the thoughts, etc., themselves. Know your experience without identifying with it. You are being with your experience, but not caught or hijacked by feelings, wants, etc. Watch the movie without jumping into the screen.
  • We all repeatedly get sucked into our experience and lose the peaceful detachment of observing it. Don’t worry, don’t scold yourself, just return to an awareness of whatever’s arising.

Awareness Is Never Tainted or Harmed

  • Awareness is like a screen on which experience and the outer world register, “like a pond on which shadows are cast by geese flying overhead,” but it is never sullied or changed by the passing show. No experience can hurt consciousness itself, the essence of who you are.
  • Allow whatever is there in awareness to be present, without resistance. Sincerely and resolutely push through any reluctance to seeing the truth, both good news about yourself (often the hardest to let in!) and the world, and painful or dark things. Accept the way it is. Receive it, don’t fight it.

Active Inquiry

  • Actively peer into yourself, like a scientist. Inquire, turn over stones, look ever more deeply. The textures of experience and the landscapes of personality are endlessly interesting.
  • Track both the breadth and depth of your experience. “Breadth” means the full spectrum of: thoughts, feelings, sensations, wants, images, memories. “Depth” means looking down into the layered mosaic of the self, which includes (A) structure (e.g., traits, sub-personalities, fundamental values), (B) softer, more vulnerable material beneath rigid positions and anger, and (C) material from childhood beneath here-and-now adult reactions.
  • Look for recurring patterns, “psychodynamics,” what leads to what.
  • Develop a model of yourself, a growing picture. Be guided by knowing “the usual suspects.”

Awareness and Attention

  • Awareness is about attention: a spotlight illuminating objects.
  • Attention is knowing: “Breathing in, know that you are breathing in.”
  • Concentration is a tight “beam” of attention on something, like the breath or a specific emotion. Mindfulness is a more diffuse, free-floating attentiveness to the whole of your experience. Getting better at both through informal and formal practice is the foundation of skillful awareness.

Stay tuned for Part II of this post offering additional key points to awareness such as concentration, mindfulness, seeing the nature of experience and knowing your innate goodness.

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Mindfulness training improves attention in children

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A short training course in mindfulness improves children’s ability to ignore distractions and concentrate better.

These are the findings of a study carried out by Dominic Crehan and Dr Michelle Ellefson at the University of Cambridge being presented today, 6 September 2013, at the British Psychological Society’s Cognitive Developmental Psychology Annual Conference at the University of Reading.

Dominic explained: “Mindfulness involves paying attention in a particular way — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. It has been shown to reduce levels of stress and depression, and to improve feelings of well-being, but to date researchers have not established a link between mindfulness and attention skills in children.”

The researchers recruited thirty children (girls and boys aged 10 to 11 years old) to take part in a mindfulness course as part of their school curriculum. The children took part in the mindfulness course in two groups at different times, and so the researchers were able to compare the groups and see the effects of the course. To do this, they measured the children’s levels of mindfulness using a questionnaire. They also measured their attention skills, using a computer game designed specifically for this purpose. They made these measurements on three occasions, at three month intervals, so that they could measure changes in attention skills over time as a result of the mindfulness course.

The results indicated that an improvement in the children’s ability to focus and deal with distractions was associated with the mindfulness course.

Dominic said: “The ability to pay attention in class is crucial for success at school. Mindfulness appears to have an effect after only a short training course, which the children thoroughly enjoyed! Through their training, the children actually learn to watch their minds working and learn to control their attention. These findings could be particularly important for helping children with attention difficulties such as ADHD. Further research on the effects of mindfulness on children’s attention is very much needed.”

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Meditation before multitasking can calm stress, aid concentration

Need to do some serious multitasking? Some training in meditation beforehand could make the work smoother and less stressful, new research from the University of Washington shows.

Work by UW Information School professors David Levy and Jacob Wobbrock suggests that meditation training can help people working with information stay on tasks longer with fewer distractions and also improves memory and reduces stress.

Their paper was published in the May edition of Proceedings of Graphics Interface.

Levy, a computer scientist, and Wobbrock, a researcher in human-computer interaction, conducted the study together with Information School doctoral candidate Marilyn Ostergren and Alfred Kaszniak, a neuropsychologist at the University of Arizona.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore how meditation might affect multitasking in a realistic work setting,” Levy said.

The researchers recruited three groups of 12-15 human resource managers for the study. One group received eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training; another received eight weeks of body relaxation training. Members of the third, a control group, received no training at first, then after eight weeks were given the same training as the first group.

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks. Researchers measured the participants’ speed, accuracy and the extent to which they switched tasks. The participants’ self-reported levels of stress and memory while performing the tasks were also noted.

The results were significant: The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test while those in the control group or who received only relaxation training did not. When the control group was given meditation training, however, its members reported lower stress during the test just as had the original meditation group.

The meditation training seemed to help participants concentrate longer without their attention being diverted. Those who meditated beforehand spent more time on tasks and switched tasks less often, but took no longer to complete the overall job than the others, the researchers learned.

No such change occurred with those who took body relaxation training only, or with the control group. After the control group’s members underwent meditation training, however, they too spent longer on their tasks with less task switching and no overall increase in job completion time.

After training, both the meditators and those trained in relaxation techniques showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing. The control group did not, until it too underwent the meditation training.

“Many research efforts at the human-technology boundary have attempted to create technologies that augment human abilities,” Wobbrock said. “This meditation work is unusual in that it attempts to augment human abilities not through technology but because of technology — because of the demands technology places on us and our need to cope with those demands.”

Levy added: “We are encouraged by these first results. While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments.”

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Seven steps to taking control of your attention

Potter in Maharashtra, India, shaping a pot on a wheel.

Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there, and more able to pull it away from what’s bothersome or pointless (such as looping again and again through anxious preoccupations, mental grumbling, or self-criticism) – is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better. As the great psychologist, William James, wrote over a century ago: “The education of attention would be the education par excellence.”

But to gain better control of attention – to become more mindful and more able to concentrate – we need to overcome a few challenges. In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually scanning their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks. There is also a natural range of temperament, from focused and cautious “turtles” to distractible and adventuresome “jackrabbits.” Upsetting experiences – especially traumatic ones – train the brain to be vigilant, with attention skittering from one thing to another. And modern culture makes us accustomed to an intense incoming fire hose of stimuli, so anything less – like the sensations of simply breathing – can feel unrewarding, boring, or frustrating.

To overcome these challenges, it’s useful to cultivate some neural factors of attention – in effect, getting your brain on your side to help you get a better grip on this spotlight/vacuum cleaner.

But how can we train our attention?

You can use one or more of the seven factors below at the start of any deliberate focusing of attention – from keeping your head in a dull business meeting to contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer – and then let them move to the background as you shift into whatever the activity is. You can also draw upon one or more during the activity if your attention is flagging. They are listed in an order that makes sense to me, but you can vary the sequence. (There’s more information about attention, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplative absorption in Buddha’s Brain.)

Here we go.

1. Set the intention to sustain your attention, to be mindful. You can do this both top-down, by giving yourself a gentle instruction to be attentive, and bottom-up, by opening to the sense in your body of what mindfulness feels like.

2. Relax. For example, take several exhalations that are twice as long as your inhalations. This stimulates the calming, centering parasympathetic nervous system and settles down the fight-or-flight stress-response sympathetic nervous system that jiggles the spotlight of attention this way and that, looking for carrots and sticks.

3. Without straining at it, think of things that help you feel cared about – that you matter to someone, that you belong in a relationship or group, that you are seen and appreciated, or even cherished and loved. It’s OK if the relationship isn’t perfect, or that you bring to mind people from the past, or pets, or spiritual beings. You could also get a sense of your own goodwill for others, your own compassion, kindness, and love. Warming up the heart in this way helps you feel protected, and it brings a rewarding juiciness to the moment – which support #4 and #5 below.

4. Think of things that help you feel safer, and thus more able to rest attention on your activities, rather than vigilantly scanning. Notice that you are likely in a relatively safe setting, with resources inside you to cope with whatever life brings. Let go of any unreasonable anxiety, any unnecessary guarding or bracing.

5. Gently encourage some positive feelings, even mild or subtle ones. For example, think of something you feel glad about or grateful for; go-to’s for me include my kids, Yosemite, and just being alive. Open as you can to an underlying sense of well-being that may nonetheless contain some struggles or pain. The sense of pleasure or reward in positive emotions increases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which closes a kind of gate in the neural substrates of working memory, thus keeping out any “barbarians,” any invasive distractions.

6. Get a sense of the body as a whole, its many sensations appearing together each moment in the boundless space of awareness. This sense of things as a unified gestalt, perceived within a large and panoramic perspective, activates networks on the sides of the brain (especially the right – for right-handed people) that support sustained mindfulness. And it de-activates the networks along the midline of the brain that we use when we’re lost in thought.

7. For 10-20-30 seconds in a row, stay with whatever positive experiences you’re having or lessons you’re learning. Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this savoring and registering helps weave the fruits of your attentive efforts into the fabric of your brain and your self.

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Meditation prevents mind-wandering

wildmind meditation news

Jordan Konnel, Yale Daily News: A recent Yale study has verified that meditation can help improve concentration skills.

Judson Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, found that experienced meditators are able to deactivate the specific portion of their brain that is involved with mind-wandering and often correlated with unhappiness and anxiety. The findings, published in the November edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, support the theory that meditation can be scientifically studied and has neurological effects. The technique may also help meditators improve, as researchers will be able to use brain scans to determine whether meditation is actually having an effect.

Brewer and his colleagues studied the brain activity of people who meditate on a regular basis and saw that there was decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which contains the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices. These areas have been linked to lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and even the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. People who had minimal previous meditation experience, by contrast, did not see a change in brain activity from doing meditation exercizes.

The subjects were allowed to choose one of the three major types of meditation: “mindfulness of breath, loving-kindness and choiceless awareness.” Brewer said that the deactivation of the default mode network was consistent in experienced meditators across all three types.

“We now know what regions [of the brain] to go after, and we can give people specific feedback by looking at their brains and tell them whether they’re meditating correctly,” Brewer said. “These findings will help people improve their meditation practices so they can stabilize themselves and put themselves in the right state of mind.”

Meditation has already helped people to quit smoking, and in the future could help people with other addictions and with anxiety disorders, Brewer said. He added that he hopes his research facilitates teaching effective meditation in clinics.

“Their findings are pretty cool because they used analyses that haven’t been done before, and the research is pretty consistent with our current understandings,” said Fadel Zeidan, a researcher in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest University. Fadel’s past research has shown that meditation can be used to reduce pain, to a level on par with morphine, a pain-killer.

Sara Lazar, an associate researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, said that while several previous studies have demonstrated the connection between the default mode network and some pathological states, this is the first study to show that meditation can strengthen the brain’s tendency to focus rather than wander.

“This data will us understand how meditation practice leads to long-lasting changes in mental state,” Lazar said.

Meditation has been linked to changes in metabolism, blood pressure, brain activation and other bodily processes, and has been used in clinical settings as a stress and pain reliever.

See the original article »

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Meditation may help brain tune out distractions

Experienced meditators seem to be able switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, according to a new brain imaging study by Yale researchers.

Less day dreaming has been associated with increased happiness levels, said Judson A. Brewer, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study published the week of Nov. 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Understanding how meditation works will aid investigation into a host of diseases, he said.

“Meditation has been shown to help in variety of health problems, such as helping people quit smoking, cope with cancer, and even prevent psoriasis,” Brewer said.

The Yale team conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on both experienced and novice meditators as they practiced three different meditation techniques.

They found that experienced meditators had decreased activity in areas of the brain called the default mode network, which has been implicated in lapses of attention and disorders such as anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and even the buildup of beta amyloid plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. The decrease in activity in this network, consisting of the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex, was seen in experienced meditators regardless of the type of meditation they were doing.

The scans also showed that when the default mode network was active, brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were co-activated in experienced meditators but not novices. This may indicate that meditators are constantly monitoring and suppressing the emergence of “me” thoughts, or mind-wandering. In pathological forms, these states are associated with diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.

The meditators did this both during meditation, and also when just resting — not being told to do anything in particular. This may indicate that meditators have developed a “new” default mode in which there is more present-centered awareness, and less “self”-centered, say the researchers.

“Meditation’s ability to help people stay in the moment has been part of philosophical and contemplative practices for thousands of years,” Brewer said. “Conversely, the hallmarks of many forms of mental illness is a preoccupation with one’s own thoughts, a condition meditation seems to affect. This gives us some nice cues as to the neural mechanisms of how it might be working clinically.”

Other Yale researchers are Patrick D. Worhunsky, Jeremy R. Gray and Hedy Kober.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Veterans Affairs New England Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center. The work of one researcher in the above study was partially funded by the Yale Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) grant from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health.

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How meditating helps with multitasking

Tina Barseghian: There’s no question that for both kids and adults, our attention is divided. Texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook are all chiming, ringing, beeping, and chirping for our attention.

How does this affect kids? The media has covered the subject in terms of fear of multitasking leading to ADD, losing control to digital devices, and the dangers of not being able to focus. And in most cases, the Internet (and technology in general) has been declared the culprit.

But rather than blaming the medium, David Levy, author of Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, believes the challenges of multitasking …

Click to read more »

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The breathing as an adventure of discovery

Diver swimming down into the dark ocean

One of my Skype workshop participants recently wrote with a request for advice, which (slightly edited) was as follows:

I am aware during my meditations that sometimes my awareness of the breath is quite superficial, distant and coarse. And I suspect that part of the reason for this distance is that my brain filters out the finer physical details of the experience, and just works with the coarse-grained concept of the breath – which is basically a fixed construct in memory rather than a direct experience of change happening now. I’d appreciate any tips on how to deal with it.

Here’s my reply (also slightly edited to include one point I forgot to mention, and polished up a little).

I think what you’re describing is very common. In fact I think it’s what almost everyone does, and what I’ve done a lot of the time over the years. In certain sense it may not matter too much, as long as you’re still keeping up the good fight by letting go of hindrance-driven thinking and coming back to the breath, or at least a token representation of it. It quiets the mind, and brings happiness.

But in the long run I don’t think it’s very satisfying to meditate in this way, and I’ve found that it’s useful to develop a sense of curiosity about where the sensations of the breathing ends.

You can start from where you normally pay attention to the breathing in a token manner, and then ask, what’s just outside that experience?

You might start by noticing the movements of the muscles on the abdomen, but then you notice that there are sensations within the abdomen as well — the movement of the diaphragm, the changing sense of pressure in the internal organs. And then there are sensations on the skin, constantly changing as the contact with your clothing changes.

And then the abdomen isn’t just the front of your body! You start to notice what’s at the edge of what you’ve been focusing on, and you realize that you can feel the movements of the muscles and the sensations of the skin on the sides of the body. And on the lower back; the entire lower back is moving as you breathe in and out.

And to you can do the same with the chest. You can move from feeling the sensations of the ribs on the front of the body rising and falling, to sensing the entire ribcage expanding and contracting, not just on the front of the body but on the side and the back. And you can notice the skin on those areas, too. You can feel the chest move against the arms, which are often lying against the chest wall. And there’s all that skin, moving against your clothing – the temperature, the sense of touch…

Then as the chest is rising and falling, so are the shoulders. Can you notice them, internally and externally? Can you feel the sensations inside the shoulder-joint itself? Can you feel the arms move slightly as you breath in, as the shoulders rise and fall, and as the ribcage moves them? Can you feel anything in the hands? The fingers?

The whole spine is moving.

You can keep doing this through the whole body — the neck, the head, the hips, the legs, the feet.

And I haven’t mentioned the internal sensations of the air touching the inside of the passageways! Where do they end? There’s no sharp edge to those sensations, and you can notice them “blurring out” into your body.

So there’s a huge amount there to pay attention to. You can in fact end up experiencing the breathing everywhere. The whole body can feel like it’s involved in the breathing process, which on some level it is.

Of course noticing all this isn’t what we usually do. What we typically do is pick some token sensation and try to pay attention to that. It’s coarse and very, very selective. And it becomes a habit to notice just that sensation, and to ignore everything else. We convince ourselves we’re paying attention to “the breathing” when it’s more like “a bit of the breathing connected with the muscles on the front of the abdomen,” or “one small aspect of the breath moving through the pharynx.”

We notice so little of the breathing process that the mind’s actually bored, and we find that lots of thoughts are arising to fill the vacuum in our experience.

But if we start exploring what’s around those token sensations, with a sense of curiosity and openness, then we’re starting to pay attention to “the breathing” and not just a token representation of it. And as we notice more of the breathing, then the mind’s less bored. It’s actually quite interested! And often our attention is so full of the sensations of the breathing that there’s no room in there for thinking, and the mind becomes quiet.

It’s worth emphasizing as well that this exploration needs to be done in a spirit almost of playfulness and wonder. It’s not a checklist — yeah, been there, done that. It’s OK to take my suggestions as “things to look for” but I’d suggest you don’t take it as an exhaustive list, because it isn’t. If you for look just what I’ve suggested, then you’ll miss stuff that’s going on, I’m sure. I’m probably missing a lot. You’ll probably miss important stuff if you follow me too closely, and not have the thrill of discovery. But it’s handy to have some suggestions for where to start looking.

Anyway, that’s my suggestion for breaking out of having a token representation of the breathing, so that there’s more of an open sense of mindfulness and even of adventure. You’re leaving the familiar and rather dull territory of the known, and pushing out into the wide ocean of experience.

I’ve been finding this a rewarding thing to do. It might be what you need as well.

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The Open-Focus Brain, by Dr. Les Fehmi & Jim Robbins

Book Cover: The Open-Focus Brain

My first read of The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body, by Dr. Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins, generated mild interest in the science behind Dr. Fehmi’s techniques and descriptions of case studies using the techniques.

However, the night I listened to the guided exercises on the attached CD, I had one of the most relaxed, light, and blissful experiences I’ve had in the last eleven years as a serious meditator.

I was able to reach a state I’ve only accessed during long silent meditation retreats.

The Buddhist concept of emptiness came vividly alive in my body, whereas before it had been mostly an intellectual understanding. Not only do I now regularly listen to Dr. Fehmi, I’ve encouraged anyone who would listen to me to do the same!

Title: The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body
Author: Dr. Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-612-3
Format: Book plus instructional CD
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

After that experience, I immediately re-read the book with great interest and enthusiasm. Dr. Fehmi, a PhD psychologist, posits the central thesis that we are in a chronic state of stress because our attention or focus is narrow, tense, “flight or fight, with resulting mental and physical illnesses. However, when we broaden our focus to a relaxed, diffuse and creative form of attention Dr. Fehmi calls “Open Focus”, a large amount and prolonged period of phase-synchronous alpha activity is created. This means the brain is producing powerful alpha waves, which create a state of alert, wakeful relaxation. In Open Focus, alpha is created in major lobes of the brain, which “reduces stress and allows fluid communication among different regions of the brain, improving mental function effortlessly and naturally” according to Dr. Fehmi.

As a practicing Buddhist I found this book containing an interesting combination of hard science and Buddhist teachings on emptiness, mindfulness, and non-clinging. While I was reading certain parts of the book, I thought to myself that the author must be a Buddhist. He does mention that phase-synchronous alpha is the hallmark of veteran meditators and admits that he “discovered some of the Western correlates of Eastern spiritual disciplines and describes them in the language of psychology and physiology”. But that is the extent of his dharma talk. To satisfy my curiosity, I did a Google search and I found his name listed as Chinzan Les Fehmi on a roster of Zen practitioners. I’m assuming it’s the same person.

The essence of Dr. Fehmi’s technique is to create a sustained awareness of space through a series of exercises to guide people through different kinds of objectless imagery which stimulates the right side of the brain. He leads one through a series of questions that asks the listener to imagine space, volume, silence, timeless, and the five senses. For example, one exercise has the listener imaging the space between and around body regions and through them, extending limitlessly in every direction. I found this to be a brilliant exercise in manifesting the core teachings of the Heart Sutra.

How we pay attention is crucial – Dr. Fehmi argues that “attentional biases and rigidity are the principal causes of human misery and suffering”. This book provides a detailed description of the four kinds of attention (narrow, diffuse, immersed, and objective) and the most effective use of each of them. In addition, the book describes the science behind why the brain imagining space, silence and timelessness has the effect of improving memory, clearer thinking and creativity. In essence, by imaging nothing – no-thing – to grip on to, the brain is allowed to take a vacation, to re-set stress-encumbered neutral networks and return them to their original effortless flexible processing. Then overall performance is enhanced.

Dr. Fehmi has done clinical work with clients for over thirty years using the technique of Open Focus attention. The book describes numerous case studies which successfully helped people with anxiety, ADD, dissolving physical and emotional pain, relationship issues, and peak performance of top athletes. The book contains seven written exercises as well as two recorded on CD.

Dr. Fehmi encourages the reader to use these exercise anywhere, “whenever you think of it, carrying out your everyday tasks while at the same time being aware of infinite space, silence and timelessness. Be aware of the three-dimensional space between, around, and through objects. Attend to all your senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, taste, smell, mental activity and time. Include both objects and space. Imagine an awareness of space that permeates everything. Image feeling the background space against which everything is high-lighted.”

I strongly recommend this practical book. May it be a source of healing and/or happiness to you!

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Meditation may help the brain ‘turn down the volume’ on distractions

The positive effects of mindfulness meditation on pain and working memory may result from an improved ability to regulate a crucial brain wave called the alpha rhythm, say researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This rhythm is thought to “turn down the volume” on distracting information, which suggests that a key value of meditation may be helping the brain deal with an often-overstimulating world.

The researchers report that modulation of the alpha rhythm in response to attention-directing cues was faster and significantly more enhanced among study participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program than in a control group. The report will appear in the journal Brain Research Bulletin and has been released online.

“Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” says Catherine Kerr, PhD, of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and the Osher Research Center at Harvard Medical School, co-lead author of the report. “Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.”

Brain cells use particular frequencies or waves to regulate the flow of information in much the same way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. One frequency, the alpha rhythm, is particularly active in the cells that process touch, sight and sound in the brain’s outmost layer, called the cortex, where it helps to suppress irrelevant or distracting sensations and regulate the flow of sensory information between brain regions.

Previous studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception. When an individual anticipates a touch, sight or sound, the focusing of attention toward the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually “turns up the volume” of those cells. At the same time the height of the alpha wave in cells that would handle irrelevant or distracting information increases, turning the volume in those regions down. Because mindfulness meditation – in which practitioners direct nonjudgmental attention to their sensations, feelings and state of mind – has been associated with improved performance on attention-based tasks, the research team decided to investigate whether individuals trained in the practice also exhibited enhanced regulation of the timing and intensity of alpha rhythms.

The study tested 12 healthy volunteers with no previous experience in meditation. Half completed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program developed at the University of Massachusetts. The other half were asked not to engage in any type of meditation during the study period. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technique that detects the location of brain activity with extreme precision, the researchers measured participants’ alpha rhythms before, during and after the eight-week period. Specifically, they measured alpha rhythms in the brain area that processes signals from the left hand while participants were asked to direct their attention to either their left hand or left foot. Participants’ abilities to adjust the alpha rhythm in cortical cells associated with the hand, depending on where their attention was directed, were recorded during the milliseconds immediately after they received an attention cue.

Although all participants had showed some attention-related alpha rhythm changes at the beginning of the study, at the end of the eight weeks, those who completed the mindfulness meditation training made faster and significantly more pronounced attention-based adjustments to the alpha rhythm than the non-meditators did. “This result may explain reports that mindfulness meditation decreases pain perception,” says Kerr. “Enhanced ability to turn the alpha rhythm up or down could give practitioners’ greater ability to regulate pain sensation.”

The study also sheds light on how meditation may affect basic brain function, explains Stephanie Jones, PhD, of the Martinos Center, co-lead author of the paper. “Given what we know about how alpha waves arise from electrical currents in sensory cortical cells, these data suggest that mindfulness meditation practitioners can use the mind to enhance regulation of currents in targeted cortical cells. The implications extend far beyond meditation and give us clues about possible ways to help people better regulate a brain rhythm that is dysregulated in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions.” Kerr is an instructor in Medicine and Jones an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

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