meditation & health

“The Kindness Cascade”

woman doing yoga

Meditation and mindfulness are frequently in the news, mainly because of the dramatic increase in research projects showing the many benefits these practices bring. In the graph below you’ll see that from around a dozen scientific journal articles on mindfulness being published in the entire decade of the 1980s, there are now several hundred papers being published each year, with the numbers increasing annually.

mindfulness journal publications

Although most of the focus in this research has been on mindfulness, there’s now an increasing emphasis on exploring the benefits lovingkindness (metta) meditation. Lovingkindness is really just the very familiar quality of “kindness.” Kindness is a recognition of ourselves and others as feeling beings — we all want to be happy, it’s good to be happy, and none of us wants to suffer. When we recognize that a person we’re with feels, and that they, just like us, prefer happiness to unhappiness, then we naturally want to act in ways that help them and don’t want to act in ways that cause them unnecessary distress. In other words, we act kindly. We value them. We treat them with respect and consideration.

The difficulty we have is that we get so wrapped up in our lives that we forget about all this. We forget that we want to be happy, or that it’s even possible. Forgetting that other people have feelings, we fail to empathize with them and to take their wellbeing into account. And so we act unkindly, to ourselves as well as others.

Kindness meditation trains us to keep in the forefront of our minds an awareness of the fact that we are all feeling beings. It helps us to empathize and to desire the wellbeing of ourselves and others.

This makes a huge difference to our lives—not just to our emotional states, but to our bodies, our relationships, and the entirety of our experience.

  • One study at Duke University found that an 8 week course in lovingkindness led to significant improvements in back pain, even after the study had ended. In other words, when we’re kind, we’re less stressed and physically feel more at ease.
  • An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions feelings of distress, but also a decrease in inflammation. When we’re more at ease, we produce less adrenalin and less cortisol, which is a stress hormone. This leads to decreased inflammation in the body. That’s why the participants in the Duke study had less pain.
  • At Stanford University it was found that just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers. This leads not just to us feeling more at ease with others, but to them feeling more at ease with us! They see us as less threatening, and as people they want to be with. And so they offer us more kindness and social support. In this way, our entire social experience changes. It’s not hard to see how this then leads to other benefits. For example, if others want to help us we may benefit through receiving advice and encouragement, and even through job offers and material assistance.
  • A University of North Carolina study found that not only does lovingkindness practice increase our daily experience of positive emotions, it heightens our mindfulness and leads to improved health, reduced illness symptoms, greater emotional support, and an enhanced sense of purpose in life. What we see here is a cascade effect.

The conscious cultivation of kindness leads to a chain reaction of wellbeing. I call this effect “The Kindness Cascade.” It’s a transformative shift that starts within. Wellness and wholeness are developed inside us, but radiate out into the body and into our lives and communities, bringing benefits that are physical, emotional, social, material, and spiritual.

To begin developing kindness is easy: just visit the lovingkindness section of our website, where you’ll find a step-by-step guide to the practice, including guided meditations.

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What can mindfulness teach the police force?

Rachel Pugh, The Guardian: As two young constables dash into the room of silently seated police men and women, making breathless apologies, one of them asks: “Have you started yet? We’ve been out on an eviction but we didn’t want to miss the meditation.”

This is lunchtime in inner-city Salford’s fortress-style Pendleton police station, and the man with a pair of Tibetan chimes facing the group is neighbourhood police officer, PC Ewen Sim, poised to deliver a session of mindfulness.

The bearded 39-year-old is one of 13 Greater Manchester police (GMP) officers …

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Eight common excuses not to meditate & how to overcome them

Kristina Tipton, The Stir: The scientifically proven benefits of meditation are numerous and include everything from stress and anxiety reduction and improved memory function to increased feelings of well-being. If that means I can find my keys and cell phone easier, then sign me up. But while the benefits make meditation seem like a no-brainer, when it comes to actually practicing, it’s easy to turn to excuses.

Here are some of the most common excuses, and how you can overcome them to start reaping the benefits of meditation.

Excuse 1: Meditation is …

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It’s brain science: University fights binge drinking with meditation

Susan Donaldson James, NBCNews: A song by U2 blares from loudspeakers as Dr. James Hudziak tosses a brain-shaped football back and forth to students, calling them out by name as they file in to the University of Vermont lecture hall.

The neuroscience course, “Healthy Brains, Healthy Bodies,” is about to begin, first with meditation, then the latest research on the benefits of clean living.

The class is part of a pioneering program — Wellness Environment or WE, which is anchored in four pillars of health: exercise, nutrition, mindfulness and mentorship.

Last year, the university accepted 120 …

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Everyday mindfulness linked to healthy glucose levels

Eureka Alert press release, Brown University: Dispositional, or “everyday” mindfulness is the inherent trait of being aware of one’s present thoughts and feelings. In a new study of 399 people that measured health indicators including dispositional mindfulness and blood glucose, researchers found that those with higher scores for mindfulness were significantly more likely than people with low scores to have healthy glucose levels.

The results show an association and do not prove a cause, but they are part of a program led by Brown University where researchers are studying whether interventions that increase mindfulness can improve cardiovascular health. Their overarching hypotheses are that people practicing higher degrees of mindfulness may be better able to motivate themselves to exercise, to resist cravings for high-fat, high-sugar treats, and to stick with diet and exercise regimens recommended by their doctors.

The researchers therefore sought to identify factors that might explain the connection they saw between higher mindfulness and healthier glucose levels. Their analysis of the data showed that obesity risk (mindful people are less likely to be obese) and sense of control (mindful people are more likely to believe they can change many of the important things in their life) both contribute to the link.

“This study demonstrated a significant association of dispositional mindfulness with glucose regulation, and provided novel evidence that obesity and sense of control may serve as potential mediators of this association,” wrote the authors led by Eric Loucks, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health. “As mindfulness is likely a modifiable trait, this study provides preliminary evidence for a fairly novel and modifiable potential determinant of diabetes risk.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, did not show a direct, statistically significant link between mindfulness and type 2 diabetes risk, which is the medical concern related to elevated blood glucose. Participants with high levels of mindfulness were about 20 percent less likely to have type 2 diabetes, but the total number of people in the study with the condition may have been too small to allow for definitive findings, Loucks said.

Measuring mindfulness, gauging glucose

To gather their data, Loucks and his team enrolled 399 volunteers who’ve been participating in the New England Family Study. The subjects participated in several psychological and physiological tests including glucose tests and the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS), a 15-item questionnaire to assess dispositional mindfulness on a 1 to 7 scale. The researchers also collected data on a host of other potentially relevant demographic and health traits including body-mass index, smoking, education, depression, blood pressure, perceived stress, and sense of control.

After adjusting their data to account for such confounding factors as age, sex, race or ethnicity, family history of diabetes, and childhood socioeconomic status, the researchers found that people with high MAAS scores of 6 or 7 were 35 percent more likely to have healthy glucose levels under 100 milligrams per deciliter than people with low MAAS scores below 4.

The analysis found that obesity made about a 3-percentage point difference of the total 35-percent point risk difference. Sense of control accounted for another 8 percentage points of the effect. The rest may derive from factors the study didn’t measure, but at least now researchers have begun to elucidate the possible mechanisms that link mindfulness to glucose regulation.

“There’s been almost no epidemiological observational study investigations on the relationship of mindfulness with diabetes or any cardiovascular risk factor,” Loucks said. “This is one of the first. We’re getting a signal. I’d love to see it replicated in larger sample sizes and prospective studies as well.”

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It’s time for Buddhists to address ableism and accessibility

Vidyamala Burch, Lion’s Roar: Following two accidents in my teens and twenties, I live with a serious spinal injury, getting around with the help of a wheelchair or crutches and with pain as a constant companion. When I am on retreat, I need to change position regularly, either by lying down or standing up. I need to do this. And at the places where I teach and practice, I can do this. Taraloka, a U.K. retreat center for women where I often teach, has a dedicated living space for disabled retreatants …

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Mindfulness meditation linked to the reduction of a key inflammation marker

Fiona MacDonald, Science Alert: Mindfulness meditation has been linked both to a whole lot of health benefits over the years, from altering cancer survivors’ cells to improving heart health. And while it sounds pretty new-age, research has shown that meditation really can change the shape, volume, and connectivity of our brains. But until now, no one’s known how those brain changes can impact our overall health.

Now new research could help explain that link between mind and body, with a study showing that stressed-out adults who practiced mindfulness meditation not only had their brain connectivity …

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Exercise and meditation — together — help beat depression

EurekaAlert: Meditation and aerobic exercise done together helps reduce depression, according to a new Rutgers study.

The study, published in Translational Psychiatry this month, found that this mind and body combination – done twice a week for only two months – reduced the symptoms for a group of students by 40 percent.

“We are excited by the findings because we saw such a meaningful improvement in both clinically depressed and non-depressed students,” says Brandon Alderman, lead author of the research study. “It is the first time that both of these two behavioral therapies have been looked at together for dealing with depression.”

Alderman, assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science, and Tracey Shors, professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, both in the School of Arts and Sciences, discovered that a combination of mental and physical training (MAP) enabled students with major depressive disorder not to let problems or negative thoughts overwhelm them.

“Scientists have known for a while that both of these activities alone can help with depression,” says Shors. “But this study suggests that when done together, there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

The men and women in the Rutgers study who completed the eight-week program – 22 suffering with depression and 30 mentally healthy students – reported fewer depressive symptoms and said they did not spend as much time worrying about negative situations taking place in their lives as they did before the study began.

This group also provided MAP training to young mothers who had been homeless but were living at a residential treatment facility when they began the study. The women involved in the research exhibited severe depressive symptoms and elevated anxiety levels at the beginning. But at the end of the eight weeks, they too, reported that their depression and anxiety had eased, they felt more motivated, and they were able to focus more positively on their lives.

Depression – a debilitating disorder that affects nearly one in five Americans sometime in their life – often occurs in adolescence or young adulthood. Until recently, Rutgers scientists say, the most common treatment for depression has been psychotropic medications that influence brain chemicals and regulate emotions and thought patterns along with talk therapy that can work but takes considerable time and commitment on the part of the patient.

Rutgers researchers say those who participated in the study began with 30 minutes of focused attention meditation followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. They were told that if their thoughts drifted to the past or the future they should refocus on their breathing – enabling those with depression to accept moment-to-moment changes in attention.

Shors, who studies the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus – the portion of the brain known to be necessary for some types of new learning–says even though neurogenesis cannot be monitored in humans, scientists have shown in animal models that aerobic exercise increases the number of new neurons and effortful learning keeps a significant number of those cells alive.

The idea for the human intervention came from her laboratory studies, she says, with the main goal of helping individuals acquire new skills so that they can learn to recover from stressful life events. By learning to focus their attention and exercise, people who are fighting depression can acquire new cognitive skills that can help them process information and reduce the overwhelming recollection of memories from the past, Shors says.

“We know these therapies can be practiced over a lifetime and that they will be effective in improving mental and cognitive health,” says Alderman. “The good news is that this intervention can be practiced by anyone at any time and at no cost.”

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How mindfulness can help women with postpartum depression

Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post: More than 3 million American women suffer from postpartum depression each year — including up to 40 percent of women who have been treated for depression.

After working with many new and expecting mothers, Dr. Sona Dimidjian, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, began to question what her profession was doing to support these women — and decided to investigate an alternative solution to the conventional treatment. Those options, of psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals, aren’t always effective, and many women don’t want to take antidepressants …

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Brain study reveals mindfulness could help prevent obesity in children

EurekAlert: Mindfulness, described as paying attention on purpose and being in the present moment with acceptance, could be an effective way to help children avoid obesity. New research published in the journal Heliyon suggests that the balance in brain networks in children who are obese is different compared to healthy-weight children, making them more prone to over-eating.

Long-lasting weight loss is difficult; this may be because it requires changes in how the brain functions in addition to changes in diet and exercise. The authors of the study, from Vanderbilt University, say identifying children at risk for obesity early on and using mindfulness approaches to control eating may be one way to approach weight management.

Mindfulness has been shown to increase inhibition and decrease impulsivity. Since obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors may be associated with an imbalance between the connections in the brain that control inhibition and impulse, the researchers say mindfulness could help treat or prevent childhood obesity.

“We know the brain plays a big role in obesity in adults, but what we understand about the neurological connections associated with obesity might not apply to children,” explained lead author BettyAnn Chodkowski, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “We wanted to look at the way children’s brains function in more detail so we can better understand what is happening neurologically in children who are obese.”

Chodkowski and her mentors, Ronald Cowan and Kevin Niswender, defined three areas of the brain that may be associated with weight and eating habits: the inferior parietal lobe, which is associated with inhibition, the ability to override an automatic response (in this case eating); the frontal pole, which is associated with impulsivity; and the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with reward.

They used data collected by the Enhanced Nathan Kline Institute – Rockland Sample from 38 children aged 8-13. Five of the children were classified as obese, and six were overweight. Data included children’s weights and their answers to the Child Eating Behaviour Questionnaire, which describes the children’s eating habits. The researchers also used MRI scans that showed the function of the three regions of the brain they wanted to study.

The results revealed a preliminary link between weight, eating behavior and balance in brain function. In children who behave in ways that make them eat more, the part of the brain associated with being impulsive appears to be more strongly connected than the part of the brain associated with inhibition.

Conversely, in children who behave in ways that help them avoid food, the part of the brain associated with inhibition is more strongly connected compared to the part of the brain associated with being impulsive.

“Adults, and especially children, are primed towards eating more,” said Dr. Niswender, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “This is great from an evolutionary perspective – they need food to grow and survive. But in today’s world, full of readily available, highly advertised, energy dense foods, it is putting children at risk of obesity.”

“We think mindfulness could recalibrate the imbalance in the brain connections associated with childhood obesity,” said Dr. Cowan, from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Mindfulness has produced mixed results in adults, but so far there have been few studies showing its effectiveness for weight loss in children.”

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