body awareness

“This is where peace is found”

Anyone who has meditated knows that over and over again we turn the mind toward the sensations of the breathing, to building kindness, or to some other object of meditation, and over and over again we find ourselves distracted by some random train of thought.

Distractions are seductive, but make us unhappy

Our thoughts are strangely seductive. And yet they rarely make us happy. In fact research shows that distracted thinking is a source of suffering. We’re much happier when we are mindfully attentive to our experience.

The Buddha in fact classified our distracted thoughts into five categories: longing for pleasant experiences, ill will, worrying, avoidance, and doubting ourselves. All five of these hindrances, as they’re called cause unhappiness.

So why do we keep getting drawn towards doing something that makes us unhappy?

Why are we so drawn to distractedness?

Early Buddhist teachings talk about a number of “cognitive distortions” (vipallasas), one of which is seeing things that cause suffering as sources of happiness. And that’s what’s going on here. The mind assumes that if we long for pleasure, pleasure will happen, that if we hate what we don’t like, it’ll go away, that if we worry about things, this will fix them, that if we avoid things we don’t like, they’ll go away, and that if we doubt ourselves and make ourselves miserable, someone will come and tell us everything’s OK.

So on a certain, very deep, level, we’re convinced that distractedness is where happiness is found. Even though it isn’t.

Being mindful of the body is the way to happiness

Where happiness does lie is in mindful attention — mindfully attending to the physical sensations of the body, to feelings, to thoughts, and to how all of these things affect each other in ways that either contribute or detract from our wellbeing.

Simply observing the breathing and other sensations in the body, patiently returning to it over and over when we get distracted, brings peace. This is the basis of meditation.

It’s in the body that peace lies. That’s where we find happiness.

A practice for retraining the mind

So as a practice, I suggest the following.

First, let the eyes be soft. Let the muscles around the eyes be relaxed. Let the eyes be focused softly.

Then, begin to connect with the sensations of the body, feeling the movements of the breathing as soft waves sweeping through the body.

As distractions arise, and you begin to extract yourself from them, see if you can have a sense of distracting thoughts being in one direction, and the body in another direction.

On each out-breath, remind yourself that the sensations of the body are where you want your attention to be by saying something like the following:

  • This [the body] is where happiness is found.
  • This is where peace is found.
  • This is where patience is found.
  • This is where joy is found.
  • This is where calm is found.
  • This is where ease is found.
  • This is where security is found.
  • This is where confidence is found.
  • This is where contentment is found.
  • This is where love is found.
  • This is where awakening is found.

As each breath sweeps downward through, say one of the phrases above, or something like them. You can make up your own phrases. You can repeat phrases, but see if you can mix them up a bit in order that the practice doesn’t become mechanical.

How this works

Essentially all positive qualities are supported by mindfulness rooted in the body, so you can just let various qualities come to mind and remind yourself that it’s through awareness of the body that they will arise.

Let the words accompany the breathing, strengthening your intention to notice and appreciate the body mindfully.

In the short term, the repeated reminders to observe the body will help to keep your mind on track. There’s less opportunity for distraction to arise and take over your mind.

In the long term, you might find that you start to realize that the body — rather than distractions — is home. It’s where growth happens. It’s where you want to keep turning your attention. It’s where you want to be. And your attention will naturally gravitate there.

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Why it matters if you can feel your heartbeat

If you close your eyes and become aware of your body, can you detect your heartbeat — without touching your chest or checking your pulse?

Now, can you do it with your eyes open?

This is a quick measure of your ability to practice “interoception.”

What Is Interoception?

Interoception is the ability to sense your internal states — sensations arising from your inner organs, muscles, and so on. This includes an awareness of the heart.

Many people find it hard to detect their heartbeat at all, or can only do it with difficulty. Their interoceptive powers aren’t well developed. For others, detecting the heartbeat is easy. They have a higher level of interoceptive ability.

Interoception is a word that not a lot of people know. I’ve used the word a lot in my teaching since I first encountered it a few years ago, and there’s almost always someone in the class who hasn’t come across it before.

You’re probably going to hear it a lot more in the future, because it’s become obvious that there are drawbacks to having poor interoception.

Not being able to sense the body’s inner states leads to poor emotional regulation. Imagine you were driving a car with no fuel gauge. You’d probably keep running out of fuel, because vital information about the state of your vehicle wasn’t available to you.

Similarly, if you can’t detect the signals your body is giving you until they’re very strong, you can’t regulate your emotions very well. By the time you’re aware that you’re anxious, for example, you’re already really anxious. Being able to detect those signals sooner means you’re able to decide earlier to do something to help stay calm.

Interoception and Depression

Low interoceptive ability is related to depression. In a study, women who suffered from depression (but not anxiety), showed lower ability on the heartbeat test than a control group did.

Also, the worse their ability to detect the heart, the less positive feelings they reported experiencing in their lives.

Interoception and Poor Decision-Making

And this had an interesting knock-on effect. Low interoceptive awareness is also correlated with difficulty in making decisions. The reason for this is that decision-making is not a purely logical process. Logic can tell us that two slices of chocolate cake is more than one slice of chocolate cake, but not whether we prefer one or two slices. We make decisions largely on the basis of how we feel about things. If we can’t detect our feelings, then we can’t easily make decisions. In fact if we can’t feel our feelings, then we might well be more prone to making bad decisions — e.g. trusting someone who’s untrustworthy, or choosing a job that’s likely to make us unhappy.

Interoception and Anxiety

My partner is prone to anxiety, and when I asked her to do the heartbeat detection test, she wasn’t sure if she could feel her heart at all. I don’t know if there’s research supporting this, but I suspect that certain people can only feel their heartbeat when they’re already anxious, and because they’re not used to being able to detect the heart under normal circumstances, feeling their heart beat in an exaggerated way is taken as a sign that something is really, really wrong — which precipitates yet more anxiety.

She may be atypical, though: people who suffer from anxiety disorder typically are more aware than average of interoceptive signals from the body. What may be going wrong is that those signals (increased rate and strength of the heartbeat, intestinal queasiness, and so on) are misread, and taken as a sign (again) that something abnormal is happening. It’s possible, in fact, to become anxious about being anxious.

Meditators are Better at Interoception

Meditation, in the Buddhist tradition at least, emphasizes awareness of the body, which means paying attention to the body’s sensations. Many meditators, myself included, will report that training in meditation has helped to sensitize them to the body.

For myself, this has been like going from a black-and-white line drawing of the body to a full-color image. Any time I bring my attention to the body now I experience currents of energy, tingling, and pleasure—which is called pīti in Pāli and prīti in Sanskrit. That’s very different from how my body used to be experienced. But that’s anecdotal evidence.

Dancers Versus Meditators

In one study I’ve long found fascinating, in a study in 2010, published in Emotion, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, explained how they showed short, emotive, film clips to experienced meditators (their average time practicing was seven years), professional dancers, and a control group. They measured the physiological responses of all these people, and also asked the study participants to indicate their ongoing feeling state (from very negative, through neutral, to very positive) using a dial.

The aim of the study was to assess to what degree the self-reported experience of the members of each of the three groups matched (or was “coherent” with) their physiological states.

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It turned out that the meditators had the highest degree of coherence (that is, their self-reported feelings matched what was going on in their bodies), with the dancers being intermediate, and the control group having the lowest coherence.

Additionally, when it came to self-reported visceral awareness (how well they could feel their feelings), the meditators reported the highest levels, the dancers were intermediary, and the controls reported the lowest levels.

So it does seem that meditation training does improve internal awareness, which is what you might expect. Of course it could be that people with greater visceral awareness are more likely to be drawn to meditation for some reason, so the researchers looked to see if there was a correlation between length of practice and body awareness. They didn’t find any significant correlation, but then the sample size was too small for them to draw any definite conclusions.

Interoception Can Be Learned

More recently (2021), in a study published in The Lancet, researchers explained the effects of giving six sessions of interoception training to autistic adults with persistent anxiety symptoms. People with autism tend not to be good at interoceptive tasks. For example they’re not good at counting their heartbeats. At the same time they tend to over-emphasize the internal sensations they do experience. In other words, they’re over-reacting to signals from the body.

The researchers hoped that their training would help people with autism to perform better on heartbeat detection tasks, and that this would in turn help increase their ability to interpret and regulate interoceptive signals.

Amazingly, three months after the intervention, 31 percent of the participants no longer had an anxiety disorder.

So not only can interoception be learned, but doing so can have profound effects on people’s well-being.

Meditation for Interoception

Many approaches to mindfulness of breathing meditation tend to focus narrowly on the breath – that is, the sensations of air touching the passages as it moves in and out of the body. This helps with learning interoception in only a very limited way.

My own approach has been increasingly to encourage an awareness of the movements and sensations of the breathing in the whole body.

The meditation practice below, which accompanies my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” helps you to sense the entire body breathing — including subtler sensations you might habitually ignore. Please try it, and see how you get on.

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The mindful runner

Canadian Running Magazine: Runners push themselves. We test our limits by pushing our bodies and our minds to move out of their comfort zones. You may be familiar with mindfulness meditation, a practice of being present and paying attention in a particular way. Mindful running, or bringing a new awareness to each and every run can enhance your performance and bring a new ease to your running practice.

Mindful running may sound new but in practice it has existed for years. Japanese marathon monks of Mount Hiei are reported to …

Read the original article »

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Some of your “distractions” are not distractions

Stones on the seashoreOne of my students recently commented: “I regularly have to readjust my posture, which slightly changes now and then without my noticing it. These readjustments distract me from focusing on the body/breathing.”

What I suggested was that she might usefully reframe how she was seeing this situation.

If you’re being mindful of your body and making adjustments to your posture, then in a very important way this isn’t distracting you from your body. Making readjustments like this doesn’t even have to take you away from your breathing, since you can maintain awareness of your breathing and make adjustments in your posture in time with the in-breaths and out-breaths. For example if you need to open or straighten the body, then allow that to happen on the in-breath. If you need to relax the body, let that happen on the out-breath. If there’s pain or tension, then imagine your breathing flowing through and around the area of discomfort.

You can certainly do all of this in a mindful way, and so you don’t have to think in terms of your being distracted, which leads to a sense that you’re not doing the meditation correctly, which probably involves an element of judgement and aversion, which probably leads to a loss of mindfulness.

There are times when we simply need to pay attention to the body in this way. It may be that we don’t have our posture set up quite right, or we’re tired, or there’s some discomfort in our experience. And in those situations it’s actually a mindful thing to give the body the attention it needs.

What is a distraction is anxiety. When we’re worrying that we’re “not doing it right” we’re making judgements about ourselves, and probably getting into a state of mind that isn’t very mindful. It’s actually our attitudes to our experiences that are our distractions, not the experiences themselves.

Aversion is also a distraction. When you think that making adjustments to your posture is something you shouldn’t have to do, then the whole experience is something that you resent doing. And you may be paying attention to the body, but you’re not being mindful of your resentment, and so you’re not really being mindful.

So just keep coming back to the question, “How am I relating to my experience? Am I relating with craving, aversion, or anxiety? Or am I relating with curiosity, kindness, and acceptance?” It doesn’t matter what the experience is — it can be a vehicle for becoming more mindful.

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A back tip for meditators, or how to sit with more ease

Can’t seem to find a comfortable way to sit in meditation? Here’s something really simple to try. It’s actually a mindfulness practice in itself. It’s a way to balance your natural ability to relax with the forces of gravity to find a well-aligned posture that’s effortless and free. I do this myself at the beginning of every sit, and find it really helpful.

For a visual cue, imagine your body as like a bunch of children’s wooden blocks, stacked one on top of another. It can rise up pretty high, as long as you place each block squarely on the one below. Gravity exerts a pull straight down the middle of the stack that keeps it well-balanced.

Doing this in effect also creates an upward flow of energy that allows you to stack the blocks up high – certainly higher than if you piled them crooked. So even though we think of gravity as a force that pulls downward, when it’s used well you can think of it as creating a natural upward lift as well.

We can do the same thing with our bodies. If we stack our spine so that each “block” is squarely placed on the one below, we can sit upright with ease, without having to use a lot of muscular effort to hold us up. Gravity keeps each part of the body rooted on the one below, and we find an effortless way to rise up sitting.

If you normally slump, you might think that slumping is more comfortable. And for longer periods of sitting, it probably is better than trying to hold yourself up straight. But that kind of holding is a perfect invitation for back tension and pain. And it’s NOT what I’m talking about here.

Here’s how to do it. Think of your body as like that stack of blocks. It’s actually four blocks as follows:

  • Hips
  • Mid-torso/waist area
  • Upper back/chest
  • Head

So let’s start by aligning the hips. First we need to find our sit bones. If you’re not sure where they are, try sitting on your hands. You’ll immediately feel a bony protrusion from each hip digging into your hands. Those are your sit bones.

Now try this experiment. Start by tilting too far forward on those sit bones. I mean to the point where you feel way off balance. Notice the muscles in the back of your pelvic area engage to try to hold you up. Obviously you won’t want to sit like this for long. Now let’s try going too far in the other direction – too far back. And notice how your abdominals engage. Again, it’s not how you’d want to sit for long.

Now try rocking back and forth, from too far forward to too far back, in smaller and smaller increments. Each time you pass through the middle, you’ll probably feel a spot where all your muscular effort lets go, and everything feels free and easy. Try rocking around that center point a bit until you find it by feel. Don’t try to analyze or think this through. It needs to be felt. That point is the most effortless, upright position for your hips – for YOUR body.

Now let’s work on the mid-torso/waist area, doing the same thing. Try bending forward at the waist, compressing the front of your stomach and rounding out your back. You’ll be slouched forward – and it’s probably won’t be comfortable for long. Now try arching your back in the other direction, opening up your belly area and arching your back. Again, it’ll probably feel like too much. Now try swinging back and forth between those two extremes in gradually smaller increments, passing through the middle point where it feels easy. That middle is where your mid-torso is stacked most optimally on your hips.

We can do the same for the upper back/chest area. Try alternating between having your shoulders slumped forward vs. pushed back. Find that easy spot in the middle that’s just right.

Then the head. Alternate between your chin being dropped forward and tilted back (please be careful not to tilt too far back – you don’t want to injure it!) For each, we’re looking for that spot in the middle that feels easy but also firmly placed on the “block” below.

Now check how your body feels overall. Does it feel light and at ease? Does your spine seem to float and lift upward without effort? Don’t try to check in a mirror to see whether you look straight. This isn’t about how straight you LOOK, but more how it FEELS. We’re aiming for the balance point between a felt sense of ease on the one hand and lift on the other.

Keep in mind that the balance point isn’t something you find once and for all. Your body is a dynamic organism, constantly shifting and changing. What you’re sitting on, or even your mood can affect what feels best in the moment. So you’ll want to stay alert to these shifts, and adjust as needed to ever changing conditions. If your comfortable posture seems slumped, don’t worry about it. If you keep working in this way, your posture will likely straighten gradually over time.

If you approach your sitting practice in this way, you might find yourself mindfully interacting with your body and surrounding conditions in a sort of dance with your present experience. It’s your reality, as experienced through your body. And as it turns out, that’s THE most direct way possible to experience the present moment – through one of your senses.

I invite you to try it. It has woken me up to a whole new world of experience. Maybe it will for you too.

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For better sex, meditate!

Maureen Salamon: “Am I pretty enough? Am I doing this right? Should I be going to yoga?”

These kinds of anxious, self-judgmental thoughts often run through some women’s minds as they have sex, experts say.

But a new study says “mindfulness meditation” training — which teaches how to bring one’s thoughts into the present moment — can quiet the mental chatter that prevents these women from fully feeling sexual stimuli.

“Rather than feeling it, they get caught up in their heads,” said the study’s lead author, Gina Silverstein, who was a student at Brown University in Rhode Island at the time of the study …

Click to read more »

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Meditating with tinnitus

Fotolia_164586_XSIf you suffer from tinnitus – persistent ringing in the ears – you may wonder whether meditation is a good idea. And yet it can be a powerful tool in helping you come to terms with the white noise inside your head. Meditator and long-time tinnitus sufferer Mandy Sutter airs some of the issues.

Tinnitus can make meditation very difficult. And because meditation is mostly silent, it may seem that meditation can make tinnitus very difficult, too.

It’s certainly true that as soon as you sit down on the cushion and close your eyes, the tinnitus seems to get louder. It isn’t really getting louder: it only seems that way because you are cutting down on other external stimuli. However, the thought that you’re making it ‘worse’ by meditating can be off-putting, if you let it go unchallenged.

Even accepting that, some days it’s still tempting to stay off the cushion completely. And of course, a missed day can easily turn into a missed few days, a week, a month.

Indeed, some tinnitus experts believe that sufferers should avoid silence altogether.

But this rather black-and-white view doesn’t help the person who wants to meditate, so rather than hanging up one’s meditation mat for good, I think it’s worth investigating some of the resources available to see if there’s anything out there (or in there!) to help you.

Courses and books

Perhaps the first thing to consider is attending a led course on managing your tinnitus through mindfulness meditation. These courses, which are becoming popular with healthcare professionals, are held in a variety of settings, including medical ones. They aim to defuse the anxiety and stress caused by tinnitus and they often report excellent success rates. Try typing the words ‘tinnitus’ and ‘mindfulness’ into your search engine to see what’s available in your area.

There are other types of tinnitus retraining, too. One scientist of particular interest is Pawel Jastreboff, who rejects the old idea that tinnitus is caused by damage to the ear and believes in re-educating sufferers to think of the condition positively as, say, ‘the music of the brain.’ He posits a strong connection between anxiety about tinnitus and its perceived severity, and has found that a shift in thought can have a dramatic effect on someone’s perception of their tinnitus.

Vidyamala Prue Burch’s book ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ (reviewed here on Wildmind) is another helpful resource. It doesn’t deal specifically with tinnitus, but uses meditation to approach any chronic condition. There are practical tips on how to cultivate a wider awareness of your body that puts your condition into context.

Some practical tips

Personally I’ve found this particular approach – of cultivating a wider awareness – invaluable. I now sometimes wear earplugs while I meditate (this is a complete no-no for some tinnitus sufferers, though, so please approach with care). Because wearing earplugs magnifies ALL inner body sounds, like swallowing and breathing, the tinnitus sounds seem to decrease by comparison, or at least just take their place among my body’s other normal noises. I find I can simply welcome them to the party.

I have also spent some time actively listening to my tinnitus during meditation, and although this may feel unpleasant and even counter-intuitive at first, I recommend it. When you really listen, you may identify sounds like crashing cymbals or whistles, or notice that your tinnitus varies in volume, or has a wave-like pattern. I have found it helpful to learn the length and breadth of my tinnitus in this way: it makes me less prone to worry.

Meditating with your eyes open can help: the increased visual stimulus acting as a balance to the unsolicited sound stimulus. You can use incense in a similar way. And I sometimes find it useful to meditate sitting against a warm radiator, the body sensation of heat again providing a balance. Walking meditation is another valuable and legitimate resource.

Using sound

Also helpful are guided meditations on CD or mp3 (there’s a good selection of these here at the Wildmind store, and search the meditation pages for free ones. Bodhipaksa has many on the free Insight Timer app. Of course, there are still periods of silence during a guided meditation (though some have background muzak) but the voice coming in and out focusses one’s attention away from the tinnitus.

Listening to ambient sound is another option. You can buy devices or download mp3 files that reproduce the sound of waves, or rain pattering on a windowpane, or the crackling of a log fire. Whale or dolphin sounds can also be good. You can concentrate on the sounds as the object of your meditation or use your normal meditation technique (e.g. counting the breath) with the sounds in the background. I have a Sound Oasis which I find invaluable. These devices can be pricey though, so it’s worth downloading some free ambient sounds to your computer before you buy one, to make sure this method suits you.

You’ll find some ambient sounds more effective than others, depending on the character of your own tinnitus and the nature of your own emotional responses to things. I usually turn my Sound Oasis to ‘Harbour Swell’ (the sound of a creaking boat bobbing on the waters) but this might not suit someone who suffers from seasickness!

Listening to music may help, though you may find it too emotionally stimulating. In fact, this may be one of the rare occasion when muzak is better than music!

Forget any idea that this isn’t ‘proper’ meditation (something that bugged me for a while). It’s just a different kind of meditation.

For some tinnitus sufferers, wearing earphones is helpful. The sound is brought closer, as if inserted between your hearing and the tinnitus. This isn’t the case for everyone, though, so find out what suits you.

Going on retreat

Silent meditation retreats pose a particular problem for the tinnitus sufferer. Forget ‘me and my shadow’ – it’s ‘me and my tinnitus’ for days on end. What you can face intermittently during the course of a normal day can seem overwhelming when it’s continuous.

But it’s still do-able. My tinnitus is quite severe, but I go on retreat several times a year.

The important thing is to look after yourself. As you already know, tinnitus is an invisible condition, so no-one makes allowances for you automatically. You may find it difficult to make allowances for yourself, too. But however embarrassed or guilty you feel about making a special case of yourself in an environment where you are strongly encouraged not to, please do: you have my permission, at least! Retreat leaders can be very helpful if approached beforehand.

Request a single room if one is available. You can play ambient sounds and there will be less chance of being woken during the night (tinnitus sufferer often find it difficult to get back to sleep).

Keep your eyes open during meditations if you need to, or take yourself off for walking meditations while the others sit in the shrine room.

No matter what the normal rules are, allow yourself books, iPod or CD player and earphones. You may not need to use them, but they can act as a security blanket.

If particular foods exacerbate your tinnitus (e.g. caffeine) a retreat may offer the ideal opportunity to avoid them for a time. If other foods help, take them with you. Chocolate helps my tinnitus (only kidding, unfortunately).

Taking care of yourself on retreat can be a valuable lesson in self-metta (loving-kindness towards oneelf).

Coming to terms with tinnitus

Having said that, it was on a silent retreat three years ago where I had no security blanket that I perhaps came most deeply to terms with my tinnitus.

My single room hadn’t materialised, and I was sharing with someone who kept putting the light on through the night. Despite decamping to the sitting room a couple of times, I went for four nights with virtually no sleep. I became more and more anxious. My tinnitus, exacerbated by the anxiety, raged continually. I felt as if a jetplane was taking off in my head. All the meditations were a write-off. Finally I made a break for the retreat office to ring my partner and ask him to come and get me (he’d only have had to drive 200 miles). But I couldn’t remember our phone number.

I decided to stay till the next morning, if only because it was too late to leave that evening. And that night in bed, tinnitus raging, I felt despair laced with terror. What if this never ended? What if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life? My heart thundered and I had to stuff the pillow into my mouth to stop myself from crying out.

Then I heard a clear voice in my head. ‘You don’t need to follow that train of thought,’ it said. ‘You just need to calm down. You know how: you have the tools. But they won’t work if you don’t use them.’

For some reason, I was able to recognise the truth of this. It was a great relief. I lay in bed going through every relaxation technique I’d ever learnt, be that in cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation classes, or hypnotherapy. It took a while but eventually I felt my body and mind profoundly relax, and knew I would sleep, if not now then later. The tinnitus, loud and insistent, was still there. The feeling of relaxation wasn’t one of relaxing despite it, or beyond it, but alongside it. At that moment, some of the emotional charge went out of my perception of my tinnitus, and it has never come back.

So, through meditation, I’d say it’s eminently possible to reach some degree of accommodation with your tinnitus, no matter how you go about it. You may even come to see your tinnitus as significant, instead of a nuisance: a vehicle for self-nurturing, and for reaching accommodation with yourself as a whole (including all the painful, messy and inconvenient bits).

You may even find, over time, that you have made friends with your tinnitus: or at least that you are not the sworn enemies you once thought you were.

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Meditation beats dance for harmonizing body and mind

The body is a dancer’s instrument, but is it attuned to the mind? A new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that professional ballet and modern dancers are not as emotionally in sync with their bodies as are people who regularly practice meditation.

UC Berkeley researchers tracked how closely the emotions of seasoned meditators and professional dancers followed bodily changes such as breathing and heart rates.

They found that dancers who devote enormous time and effort to developing awareness of and precise control over their muscles – a theme coincidentally raised in the new ballet movie “Black Swan” – do not have a stronger mind-body connection than do most other people.

By contrast, veteran practitioners of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation – a technique focused on observing breathing, heartbeat, thoughts and feelings without judgment – showed the closest mind-body bond, according to the study recently published in the journal Emotion.

“We all talk about our emotions as if they are intimately connected to our bodies – such as the ‘heartache of sadness’ and ‘bursting a blood vessel’ in anger,” said Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor and senior author of the study. “We sought to precisely measure how close that connection was, and found it was stronger for meditators.”

The results offer new clues in the mystery of the mind-body connection. Previous studies have linked the dissociation of mind and body to various medical and psychiatric diseases.

“Ever have the experience of getting home from work and realizing you have a blistering headache?” said Jocelyn Sze, a doctoral student in clinical science at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the study. “The headache probably built up throughout the day, but you might have been intentionally ignoring it and convincing yourself that you felt fine so that you could get through the demands of the day.”

Increasingly, mindfulness meditation is being used to treat physical and psychological problems, researchers point out. “We believe that some of these health benefits derive from meditation’s capacity to increase the association between mind and body in emotion,” Levenson said.

For the experiment, the researchers recruited volunteers from meditation and dance centers around the San Francisco Bay Area and via Craigslist. The study sample consisted of 21 dancers with at least two years of training in modern dance or ballet and 21 seasoned meditators with at least two years of Vipassana practice. A third “control group” was made up of 21 moderately active adults with no training in dance, meditation, Pilates or professional sports.

Participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 40, were wired with electrodes to measure their bodily responses while they watched emotionally charged scenes from movies and used a rating dial to indicate how they were feeling.

Although all participants reported similar emotional reactions to the film clips, meditators showed stronger correlations between the emotions they reported feeling and the speed of their heartbeats. Surprisingly, the differences between dancers and the control group were minimal.

Researchers theorize that dancers learn to shift focus between time, music, space, and muscles and achieve heightened awareness of their muscle tone, body alignment and posture.

“These are all very helpful for becoming a better dancer, but they do not tighten the links between mind and body in emotion,” Levenson said.

By contrast, meditators practice attending to “visceral” body sensations, which makes them more attuned to internal organs such as the heart. “These types of visceral sensations are a primary focus of Vipassana meditation, which is typically done sitting still and paying attention to internal sensations,” Sze said.

The study was published in the December 2010 issue of Emotion. In addition to Sze and Levenson, coauthors are UC Berkeley psychologists Joyce W. Yuan and Anett Gyurak, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

via UC Berkeley News

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Nine ways that a meditating brain creates better relationships

Psychology Today: It’s never too late to have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood

Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”

The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can re-wire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections which support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.

As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional well-being, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results. (I mentioned them in my previous post, Mindfulness Meditation + Neuroscience = Healthier Relationships.) I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.

At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.

So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.

NINE WAYS THAT A MEDITATING BRAIN CREATES BETTER RELATIONSHIPS

When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, MD, I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions.

Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.

In a way, it’s like re-setting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the “ON” position. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.

2. Emotional resiliency.

Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.

Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.

3. Better, more “tuned in” communication.

Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you — they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff — is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for well-being.

That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well. (More on that in another post.)

4. Response flexibility.

We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just “set us off.” Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.

The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference — creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.

5. Improved empathy.

There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat, or mind-reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).

Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.

6. Improved insight (self-knowing).

Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.

When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to — what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are.

Through meditation practice, the brain gets re-wired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.

7. Better modulation of fear.

If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.

It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas which change in response to mindfulness meditation.

8. Enhanced intuition.

There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of “gut feeling,” usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned “off’?

Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body — our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on — are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know — what we can refer to as “intuition.”

Becoming emotionally “smarter” — by using the extra information from your non-brain parts — enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.

9. Increased morality.

In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?

The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift — something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.

An impressive list! It does take practice — and the practice is simple, but not easy. (Of course, with all of these benefits, there may be some other personal work to be done, if deeper unresolved issues are involved — meditation alone doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for dealing with old wounds and their influences on you.)

The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes with as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.

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“Your Breathing Body” by Reginald A. Ray

Your Breathing BodyWhen Reginald Ray speaks of “touching enlightenment with the body”, he isn’t just saying that we can touch enlightenment with our bodies. What he really means is that there is no other way to do so. Sunada just finished her first pass through his 20-disc meditation CD series, Your Breathing Body, and gives it her ringing endorsement.

I first encountered Reginald Ray’s approach to meditation when I read his most recent book, Touching Enlightenment (excerpted elsewhere on this site), and attended one of his retreats on the same subject. As a yoga practitioner and a kinesthetic learner, I immediately took to it like a fish to water. And so I decided to invest in his CD series, Your Breathing Body – and I have to say I’m hooked.

Title: Your Breathing Body
Author: Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D.
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN Vol 1: 978-1-59179-659-6
ISBN Vol 2: 978-1-59179-662-6
Available from: Sounds True or Amazon.com.

In one sense, we could say that Ray’s perspective is unique. While many meditation teachers speak of working with the body, Ray goes so far as to say that the body is the only gateway through which we can find our most authentic core being and its ultimate connection to all of reality. But that doesn’t mean this is some minor, sideline approach. Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture. So this represents Ray’s efforts to bring meditation back to its intended roots.

Why the big emphasis on the body? Ray explains by taking us back to our prehistoric origins. When we were a hunter-gatherer species, we had to rely on our more intuitive, bodily cognitive functions in order to survive. Sensing predators in the wild, finding prey for the hunt, surviving the vagaries of nature – all this required that we lived rooted in our senses, keenly attuned to our environs. It was also a life in harmonious balance – our bodies and our sense of self were holistically embedded in our larger reality around us.

 Ray argues that a somatic tradition has always been embedded in the core of the Buddha’s teachings, but somehow got lost in its translation to our Western culture.  

But when we evolved into an agrarian species, our lifestyle changed to one of controlling, planning, and organizing – a more cerebral and disengaged approach to our world. This evolution has continued at a steady pace to the height of disembodiment that we find in our technological society today.

In our modern way of life, we mostly deal with our world through concepts and abstractions and much less, if at all, through experiencing it directly. In fact our society rewards those who are most adept at this kind of thinking and controlling. But of course, neither our bodies nor our world conform to our small-minded plans and desires. Such a view is bound to lead to suffering. And it’s this realization that gave rise to the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The path back to balance is through somatic awareness. And Ray suggests that our capacity for that awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup. Your Breathing Body is like a complete graduate program in reawakening our natural capacity for awareness. It’s a two-box set, each containing ten CDs. You can buy each box individually, or buy them together as a discounted pair. (If you buy the latter from the publisher, Sounds True, they throw in his Touching Enlightenment book as a bonus.)

In total it’s a goldmine of over 20 hours of in-depth teachings and guided meditations that go deeply into the subtleties of perceiving through the body. Many of the practices are based on Tibetan Yoga. If you’re a yoga practitioner, the emphasis on working with the breath and prana (a more subtle form of bodily energy based on the breath) will be familiar territory.

 And Ray suggests that our capacity for somatic awareness is still very much in our genetic makeup.  

I especially appreciated the very solid foundation and orderly progression of this series. Ray spends a lot of time teaching how to find one’s optimal posture, and then starts us on what are called the Ten Points and Earth Breathing Practices. These are in effect very detailed and extensive body scan and relaxation meditations.

But he leads us much further. It’s not just about bringing our awareness into our bodies. What happens is that by fully relaxing and continually letting go to our present experience, we start peeling away more layers of tension and holding. That holding, we begin to see, is not just physical. As our awareness goes more deeply inward, we find further emotional and psychological layers to release, such as doubt or fear.

When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness – the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise. This is how we begin to explore who we really are and what’s our unique place in this world. And isn’t this what we took up a spiritual practice for?

My approach in working with this series was to go slowly through all the discs over the period of several months. Ray says that some practices will resonate for us better than others, and that it’s good to follow our instincts to explore those more fully. So I spent longer on some discs than others. I’m now starting on a second pass, and I’m still gleaning insights from it. It’s a mark of an excellent teacher that Ray’s talks can be so clear and inspiring on the first pass, and still have more to give on repeated listening.

 When we peel everything away, what’s left is a core of spaciousness, freedom and openness—the place from which all our most pure and authentic impulses arise.   

What level meditator should you be to use this series? While he does start from the basics with an extensive talk and guided practice on posture, I don’t think it’s intended for complete beginners. I personally think that embracing these practices requires some degree of stillness and concentration off the bat.

But if you do have experience with breath-oriented/samatha meditations, dive right in! Even if you think you already know all about posture, I would encourage you to start from the beginning. He offers helpful perspectives that are often overlooked by other teachers. Overall, there’s enough depth and richness to keep you going for months, if not years.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Dr. Reginald Ray — he has been practicing for over 40 years and is a master teacher in the Tibetan lineage of Chögyam Trungpa. He is also an academic by training, and has been on the faculty of Naropa University since the beginning. He brings all that depth, knowledge, and clarity of thought to his teaching. I find him a great model of what someone well-grounded in his body should be: he has a warm, inviting, and down-to-earth way of speaking that makes you feel like he’s sitting right there talking to you personally.

So as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Your Breathing Body to be excellent all around. It’s not only brought more depth and focus to my meditation practice, it’s helped me gain a perspective on my life that I’m sure will continue to unfold with discoveries well into the future. I highly recommend it.

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