meditation & brain science

Does meditation make a person smarter?

wildmind meditation newsKimberly Ruble, Guardian Liberty Voice: In spite of or even in absence of religious views, many individuals have tried meditating at various times throughout their lives but does meditation make a person smarter? A new research study is claiming that meditation appears to stimulate portions of the brain that basic relaxing does not and they are areas of the brain in which intelligence is believed to come from.

People who meditate appear to process more feelings and ideas than when they are only resting and letting their minds roam seems to be more effective than trying to empty the head of any thought …

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The importance of taking in positive experiences

Child with dogToday we don’t gather our own food, fight off wild animals, or live in caves. And yet we’re equipped with stone-aged brains. With practice, however, we can change our brains, and our lives, for the better. Here’s why it’s important to take in positive experiences:

  • Negative experience is registered immediately: helps survival.
  • Positive experiences generally have to be held in awareness for 5 – 10 – 20 seconds for them to register in emotional memory.
  • Negative experiences trump positive ones: A single bad event with a dog is more memorable than a 1000 good times.
  • Therefore, it is SO IMPORTANT to consciously, deliberately help the brain register positive experiences so they sink into the deepest layers of your mind. The benefits:
    • Generally positive internal emotional landscape, atmosphere, climate.
    • The fundamental foundation of self-soothing, emotional self-regulation, resilience.
    • Positive expectations about oneself, others, and the future. This is the legitimate basis of “verified optimism.”
    • It’s also the basis of true faith or confidence in your spiritual path.
    • “Evoked others,” the sense of others inside who are nurturing, encouraging.
    • In psychological terms, this is the mechanism of what’s understood as the internalization of positive resources.
    • A crucial resource inside and pathway for healing from trauma.
  • All this is about being in reality, not wearing rose-colored glasses:
    • It’s about proportionality, about our sense of the world being consistent with the nature of the world. For example, if the “mosaic” of life is mainly good, shouldn’t our sense of living itself be mainly good?!
    • It’s about learning from new positive experiences – having them make a difference. It’s about using new positive experiences to counterbalance old negative ones.
  • From a spiritual perspective, you are helping yourself really sense and then register good experiences on the path, or that come with skillful practice (e.g., the sukha, or deep happiness of peaceful meditation). This has many benefits:
    • Highlight the milestones along the way, so you can know what they feel like and find your way back to them.
    • Build faith and confidence in the fruits of the path.
    • Reward yourself for doing something that’s noble but not always easy, and thus support your ongoing motivation.
    • More easily tap into the peace, contentment, and basic well-being that are the preconditions for deep states of concentration and insight.
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What neuroscience can teach us about compassion

wildmind meditation newsCarolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post: Mounting evidence of the impact of contemplative practices like meditation (which we now know can, quite literally, rewire the brain) are finally bringing modern science up to speed with ancient wisdom.

Mindfulness and compassion — the practices of cultivating a focused awareness on the present moment, and extending a loving awareness to others — are part of every religion and wisdom tradition, and we’re at last beginning to understand the profound impact that they have on the brain, says psychiatrist and mindfulness expert Dr. Dan Siegel.

A pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology and executive director of the Mindsight Institute …

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4 ways mindfulness meditation benefits so many conditions

wildmind meditation newsPsyBlog, Dr Jeremy Dean: Four central components of how mindfulness meditation works, psychological research finds.

With studies pouring in on the benefits of mindfulness, psychologists’ attention is turning to why mindfulness works, and the results are fascinating.

For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have therapeutic benefits in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders.

Its benefits extend out to physical features like lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.

How is it that this type of practice can have these beneficial effects on such a broad range of conditions?

A recent study by Hölzel et al. (2011) finds four central …

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Is the “self” real?

portrait of beautiful man model sepia tonedIs the “Self” real? What’s the nature of the sense of being that remains when parts of the psyche fall away?

The answer depends on how you define “Self.” I use that word to refer to the central “I” that’s presumed in Western psychology and philosophy (and everyday usage) to be the owner of experiences and agent of actions, and which is defined and constituted by three attributes: unification (there’s just one “I”), permanence (the “I” stays the same, things happen to it but it doesn’t change), and independence (the “I” is just there, an innate part of the psyche, not created by anything, and fundamentally not dependent on anything [other than a brain] for its existence).

The facts that these three attributes that presumably constitute an “I” – unification, permanence, and independence – cannot be found in one’s own experience, nor in the neural processes that underlie I-related activations or representations in the brain. The actual experience of “I” is made up of parts (not unified), continually changing (not enduring), and affected by many factors (not independent; much the same has been seen in neuroimaging studies. (Check out these two papers: Is Self Special? and What Is Self-Specific?)

To use the language of Buddhism, the apparent “I” is empty: without substantial, essential nature; both phenomenologically and ontologically, the presumed “me, myself, and I” is empty. If you like, check out my book, Buddha’s Brain, whose last chapter is about this subject.

In general I think that we can have and value all sorts of experiences of witnessing, integration, beingness, spacious awareness, etc., while also recognizing that these experiences (and their dynamic neural substrates) are compounded, transient, and dependently arising . . . and thus empty of essence. Like others I’m sure, I’m leery of reifying or substantiating dynamic and insubstantial processes – even vital ones, such as the executive functions, subjectivity (ipseity), or the encompassing awareness that remains when the “parts” step back – into an entity, a being, a self . . . because this is when trouble and suffering begins, when we identify with and try to protect and glorify such an entity.

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Feel Whole

midnight coniferous forest on a mountain slopeWhen I look back on mistakes I’ve made – like dumping my anger on someone, making assumptions in haste, partying too much, losing my nerve, being afraid to speak from my heart – in all cases a part of me had taken over. You know what I mean. The parts of us that have a partial view, are driven by one aim, clamp down on other parts, really want to have a particular experience or to eat/drink/smoke a particular molecule, yammer away critically, or hold onto resentments toward others.

The mega part – the big boss – is of course the inner executive, the decision-maker and driver – some call it the ego – centered in neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead. This part is determined to a fault, running things top down, ignoring bottom-up signals of growing fatigue, irritability, burnout, and issues with others. It draws on and gets wrapped up in the sequential, action-planning, language processing parts of you that are based in regions in the left side of your brain. (The statements here about sides of the brain are reversed for about half of all left-handed people.) Meanwhile, the boss part shames, disowns, and suppresses other parts of you, especially those that are softer, more vulnerable, and younger.

But when you open to the whole of your experience, you have more information and can make better decisions. You perceive more fully, seeing the big picture, putting things in perspective. You free up energy that was spent pushing down your real feelings. You tune into your body, your heart. You’re less fixed or attached in your views. You recognize the good things in you and around you that you’d tuned out. You feel more supported, more protected. You take things less personally.

You feel at home in yourself.

Awareness is like a big stage upon which lots of sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, thoughts, feelings, memories, and wants pop up for a bit and then pass away. All this is in your consciousness, but mainly in the background. The spotlight of attention bounces around the stage, lighting up one thing after another.

In the practices that follow, you are going to widen the spotlight – the field of attention – to include more and more of the whole stage. This draws on networks on the sides of your brain, mainly on the right side, because it is specialized for holistic processing, for taking things as a whole, as a gestalt. By doing these little practices repeatedly when you have a moment of quiet, you will stimulate and therefore strengthen the neural networks that support feeling whole, so that you can sustain that sense of wholeness even when the oatmeal hits the fan.

Here we go.

For a dozen seconds or longer, be aware of all the sounds around you. Let them be what they are, lasting or changing. Disengage from inner verbal commentary about them; stay with the experience of sounds as a whole. Notice how this feels: probably more relaxed and at ease.

Soften your gaze and be aware of sights around you, the visual field as a whole. Explore lifting your gaze toward the horizon, which will tend to activate neural networks that process sights in a more global, I’m-integrated-with-the-whole-world way. (See James Austin’s book, Selfless Insight, for more on this.)

For a dozen seconds or longer, be aware of the sensations of breathing in the front of your chest, around your heart . . . aware of this area as a whole. Then be aware of your whole chest breathing, including the stomach, diaphragm, rib cage, and back. Take the whole chest as a single, unified gestalt, rather than attention skittering from one sensation in it to another. Then broaden attention further to include the sensations of air moving down your throat . . . your hips and shoulders and head shifting slightly with each breath . . . sensations around your nose and upper lip . . . gradually taking the whole body as the unified object of attention . . . abiding as a whole body breathing. Notice how this feels; let the feeling of this sink in again and again so that you can come home to this way of being more easily in the future.

And you can take it a step further, with the sensations of breathing coming together with sounds and sights, these perceptions experienced as a single whole, all known together globally, nothing left out, breath after breath.

Also – resting in some sense of ease with yourself, try opening to the emotions you may have pushed away. Can you let them come up, and flow through you? Then try opening to longings you may have pushed away, opening to needs or vulnerabilities that’ve been silenced or set aside. Welcome these various emotions and longings into awareness. You don’t have to act upon them. In fact, by welcoming them you will make them feel more at home – so they will become less insistent or strident – and you will feel more at home in yourself.

With moments of practice that add up over time, you will feel more like a whole person, less fragmented and partial, less yanked this way and that by competing desires in your head. As this happens, you will feel more fed and fulfilled and thus less defended, less separated from others, less a part – and more connected, more entwined with the world as whole.

Notice how this feels, probably safer, more contented, and more loved and loving. Let it sink in again and again.

At home in wholeness.

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Treating chronic pain with meditation

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Brian Steiner, The Atlantic: In some cases, the holistic practice could replace narcotics. Integrating meditation into regular treatment could significantly cut healthcare costs.

Sarah Kehoe tried Aleve for her back pain. She tried stretching. She tried yoga. She tried forgetting about it. She tried pain patches. She tried acupuncture. A shot of painkillers into her back. Prescription anti-inflammatory pain patches. Opiates. Surgery. Physical therapy. Heat and compresses. Ignoring it again. Steroids. More opiates. Acupuncture again. She couldn’t sit, stand up straight, lie down on her back. She was weak, had lost muscle tone. She fainted on the subway. Sarah Kehoe, an otherwise healthy …

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Mindfulness: Is it a fad or a powerful life-changing coping skill? A look at the science.

wildmind meditation newsAmanda Mascarelli, The Washington Post: Imagine this scenario: You come home from work tired and frazzled, and your little kids are running wild. Perhaps this doesn’t require much imagination. People in such situations might find solace in a popular meditative practice called mindfulness.

With mindfulness, you train your mind to focus on the present and respond with reason before emotion. It’s about taking a pause and guiding yourself to become “aware enough in the moment so that before you react, you’re aware of how you’re responding to a situation,” says Ronald Epstein, a professor of family medicine at the University of Rochester Medical …

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Developing a “Buddha Brain” through gratitude

A ”buddha brain” is one that knows how to be deeply happy, loving, and wise. We develop ourselves in this way by cultivating wholesome qualities and uprooting unwholesome ones. In a sense, we plant flowers and pull weeds in the garden of the mind – which means that we are gradually changing the brain for the better.

Gratitude is a powerful tool in this “garden” since what you rest your attention upon is what will shape your brain the most. That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Gratitude shifts your attention away from resentment, regret, and guilt – and therefore stops you from building up the neural substrates of these known factors of mental and physical health problems. Gratitude also focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange.

To reap the rewards of gratitude, rest your attention on a good fact, noticing details about it, staying with it for at least a few seconds in a row. Then allow a natural emotional response of gratitude to arise. Continue to pay attention to this feeling of gratitude for another few seconds – or even longer: it’s delicious! Taking these few extra seconds will help you weave gratitude into the fabric of your brain and your Self. And you can practice gratitude both on the fly, as you move through your day, and at specific occasions, such as at meals or just before bed.

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5 ways meditation gives your brain a boost

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Dan Harris, ABC News: I never in a million years thought I’d be the type of person who meditates. I’ve had an aversion to all things airy-fairy since age five, when my parents – recovering hippies – sent me to a yoga class for kids. The teacher, who disapproved of the jeans I was wearing, made me strip down and do sun salutations in my tighty-whities.

But then, a few years ago, I heard about an explosion of scientific research suggesting that meditation has an extraordinary range of health benefits. In particular, I found the neuroscience compelling. Studies say you can sculpt your …

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