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Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

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Eureka Alert, Press Release: Over the past decade, mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve a broad range of health and disease outcomes, such as slowing HIV progression and improving healthy aging. Yet, little is known about the brain changes that produce these beneficial health effects.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University provides a window into the brain changes that link mindfulness meditation training with health in stressed adults. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed community adults.

The biological health-related benefits occur because mindfulness meditation training fundamentally alters brain network functional connectivity patterns and the brain changes statistically explain the improvements in inflammation.

“We’ve now seen that mindfulness meditation training can reduce inflammatory biomarkers in several initial studies, and this new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits,” said David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

For the randomized controlled trial, 35 job-seeking, stressed adults were exposed to either an intensive three-day mindfulness meditation retreat program or a well-matched relaxation retreat program that did not have a mindfulness component. All participants completed a five-minute resting state brain scan before and after the three-day program. They also provided blood samples right before the intervention began and at a four-month follow-up.

The brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation training increased the functional connectivity of the participants’ resting default mode network in areas important to attention and executive control, namely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants who received the relaxation training did not show these brain changes.

The participants who completed the mindfulness meditation program also had reduced IL-6 levels, and the changes in brain functional connectivity coupling accounted for the lower inflammation levels.

“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health,” Creswell said.

This work bridges health psychology and neuroscience and falls under the new field of health neuroscience, which Creswell is credited with co-founding. It also is another example of the many brain research breakthroughs at Carnegie Mellon. CMU has created some of the first cognitive tutors, helped to develop the Jeopardy-winning Watson, founded a groundbreaking doctoral program in neural computation, and is the birthplace of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Building on its strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics and engineering, CMU launched BrainHub, an initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.

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An honest narrative of a first meditation

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Hunter Colvin, The Vermont Cynic: I’ve never really meditated.

Not unless you count the mini meditation I did at the end of a yoga class I took that one time. But I was too busy wiping copious amounts of sweat from, well, everywhere to really meditate.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of meditation, though. I mean, to empty your mind and focus on the present is really impressive.

I can’t even make my mind stop making “Supernatural” or …

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Meditation: what can and can’t be taught

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Steven Schwartzberg, Huffington Post: By most standards, I’m a fairly experienced meditator. I meditate daily, and have for years. I’ve spent months at a time immersed in silent practice. I study it, teach it, and write about it.

I can still wonder if I’m doing it wrong.

Meditation is deeply personal. Except with the broadest brushstrokes, this intricate journey into one’s most intimate inner experience can not be translated or taught. Teachers may of course share their intuition and expertise, but it is not possible to get inside …

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Going forth: a look at step six again

Buddha Statue

Watch your thoughts; they become stories
Watch your stories; they become excuses
Watch your excuses; they become relapses
Watch your relapses; they become dis-eases
Watch your dis-eases they become vicious cycles
Watch your vicious cycles they become your wheel of life

quote by Vimalasara 2016

Going forth is an aspect of step 6, placing positive values at the centre of our lives. Siddhartha the prince went forth from a life of indulgence because he could see clearly how it was hindering his growth. He could not find the answer to the end of suffering if he stayed in a hedonist world that was at the centre of his Mandala. When he left the palace that had imprisoned his mind, he placed renunciation at the centre of his life.

We too have to go forth from our lives. And our lives are created in our minds. So you could say we need to go forth from our minds. We must stop believing what is arising in the mind. We must stop identifying with what is in the mind. We must stop placing our stinking thinking at the centre of our Mandala. When we leave the prison of our minds, we to begin to place renunciation at the centre of our lives.

RECOVERY 2.0

If we can’t do this, we continue to be the deluded person who when they experience pain in the body – unpleasant, pleasant, neutral, they groans, grieve and grasp. The deluded person constructs mental feeling out of physical sensations, creating two kinds of feeling bodily and mental. Thinking that both are fact.

If we become a liberated person, we will experience pain in the body, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. There will be no construction in the mind of mental feelings. No grabbing, grieving, grasping. Just one kind of feeling that is bodily. Only equanimity arising in the mind that is not graspable.

AFRICAN AMERICAN WISDOM

Placing renunciation at the centre of our lives does not have to be daunting. We are all renunciates, one day we will have to renounce everything at the point of death. So we can begin to renounce now, or hang onto the bitter end, creating a life full of misery.

We can renounce by just reflecting on the three jewels, the Buddha, the dharma the sangha. Ehipassiko, ‘go see for your self’ and see what happens to your addiction.

For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Check out our two online meditation events, starting today!

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Living With Awareness (Feb 1–28)

Living With Awareness: Practical Techniques and Exercises for Cultivating Mindfulness is a 28 day meditation event, starting February 1, exploring the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the gentle effort to be continuously present with our experience. When we’re not mindful, we get carried away with our thoughts and emotions, which leads to stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and distractedness.

When the quality of mindfulness is present, we have a greater ability to choose our thoughts and emotions. It has been clinically proven to reduce stress, promote feelings of wellbeing, and improve mental and physical health.

Register today for Living with Awareness!

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14 Day Mindfulness Meditation Challenge (Feb 1–14)

Our mindfulness meditation challenge is both a meditation event exploring the practice of mindfulness of breathing, and an opportunity to set up a rock-solid daily meditation habit.

With the aid of Bodhipaksa’s accessible and down-to-earth guidance, you will learn how to set up the habit of meditating daily, develop a greater ability to be present with your experience, and experience reduced emotional reactivity and a heightened sense of being in control of your life.

Register now for a daily dose of mindfulness!

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Meditating in the morning

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buddha silhouette

By way of background, despite having been a meditation teacher for years, I used to have difficulty maintaining a daily meditation practice. I’d meditate daily for weeks or months, but then miss days here and there. For the last few years, though, I’ve been more of a rock-solid daily meditator.

Still, although I’ve meditated virtually every day for the last three years, my practice can still be a bit thin at times. This is because I’d gotten into the habit of meditating in the evening. Why? In one word, kids. Having two young kids does not make it easy to meditate in the mornings. My personal time shifted to the evenings, when I could reliably assume that my children would be sleeping. Mornings were, on the other hand, more unpredictable. For a while my daughter would wake up at 4:00AM quite regularly!

Once a habit has established itself, I find I sometimes don’t even question it. Although I’m now divorced and don’t have the children at my house most mornings, I kept sitting later in the day — sometimes in the morning or the afternoon, but most often in the evening. And sometimes, because I’m a night-owl, those sits would be really late, and because I was tired they’d be short.

But then I realized that since meditation is central to my life, perhaps it should be the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning, and the first thing I do? What’s normally my first thought? Email! When I wake up I usually pick up my phone to see what time it is, and then see all the email notifications, and then get sucked into dealing with work. If I’m honest with myself, it’s work that’s been most central to my life, and not meditation. And even though my work involves meditation, that’s not good.

So, apart from the weekends when I have the kids, and the occasional weird day (like the one recently when I had to be out of the house shortly after 6:00AM) meditating has been close to the first thing on my mind when I wake up, and it’s been the first thing I’ve done. Usually I sit on my bed, either cross-legged, which I’m experimenting with, or on my Kindseat meditation bench.

This has been very good for me, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, I’m becoming less of a night owl! I’ve often felt naturally very tired in the evenings and I’ve been going to bed early. This means I’ve been waking up early too, and sitting before dawn.

The other big benefit is the loss of the anxiety that surrounds having to remember to meditate. I’ve realized that meditating in the evening means that all day there’s this sense at the back of my mind that there’s something I need to remember to do. As soon as I’ve finished sitting in the morning, I feel a sense of relief: OK. That’s one less thing I have to remember.

I don’t think meditating should be something I have to remember to do. It should be something I just do.

After all, I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.

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Dodging sticks and chasing carrots

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photo-1442782844694-d3cb0de38fd4Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.

And that’s just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes – by any means necessary. She doesn’t care if we happen to suffer along the way – from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger – or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field.

You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it’s great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here’s how to take in the good – in three simple steps.

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.

Good facts include positive events – like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It’s private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable – but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience.

Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.

People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

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Meditation, mindfulness may affect way your genes behave

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Ben Locwin, Genetic Literacy Project: In the world of psychotherapy and biopsychology, mindfulness has experienced a tremendous amount of attention recently — mostly because in many of the challenges of the mind it is put up against, mindfulness has fared very well — performing as well as (or better than) drug therapies in some cases.

Mindfulness is endorsed by the American Heart Association (AHA) as a preventive therapy for cardiovascular disease and they also recommend mindfulness as a strategy for overeating.

However, for physicians and patients to fully unlock …

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More thoughts on remembering to be happy

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Young woman eating strawberryRecently I wrote a piece saying that I’m making a effort to remember to be happy. When I say that I need to remember to be happy, what I mean is that I need to pause, be mindful, and notice if there’s anything I’m doing that is inhibiting my well-being. Often I do this through asking the question, “Could I be happier right now?”

Often when I ask this question I find, in fact, that I’m being a bit willful and overly intense in the way I’m working. I get very focused on the thing I’m doing (writing an article, for example) and lose touch with how I’m feeling while I’m doing that task. Consequently I’m a little unhappy, or at least less happy than I could be.

When I become aware that there’s tension and unhappiness in my experience, I can relax my effort, allow myself to become more playful, allow the body to soften, and drop down to my heart, notice how I’m feeling, and be a bit kinder. Sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable feeling present I’ll just sit with it, allowing it to be there. Sometimes it shifts, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter.

The difficult thing is remembering to do this! When I’m very focused on getting stuff done, I can forget to broaden my awareness out and to become more mindful. Ideally I’d like to have the question: “Could I be happier right now?” pop into my mind at least a couple of times an hour during the course of the day. I’d prefer that this happened organically, rather than with the aid of a timer, but I don’t rule out the use of some kind of artificial aid like that.

For me, the word “happy” in the question “Could I be happier right now?” is just shorthand. I don’t literally expect to be full of joy all the time. For me the word happiness stands for a constellation of qualities, including calm, peace, an awareness of feelings, acceptance, and a sense of well-being. Actual happiness (joy, contentment, even bliss) may be a part of what arises when I allow myself to relax and be at ease, but it’s kind of like a delicious side-dish to a satisfying main course of well-being. It’s lovely to have it, but the meal is just fine without it.

There is in fact more than one type of happiness. In the Aristotelian tradition, there was hedonic happiness and eudaemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness arises from having pleasant experiences. For example you can find hedonic happiness through having a large and beautiful house, being surrounded by lovely objects, going out to bars and restaurants, partying, socializing, doing exciting sports, shopping, etc. Eudaemonic happiness, on the other hand, arises from a life lived well. It arises from living ethically, being honest, being kind, helping others, being patient,feeling that our life has purpose and meaning, etc. We don’t pursue eudaemonic happiness directly, because that would be self-defeating. Eudaemonic happiness is not a goal, but a side-effect of pursuing the goal of living a good life.

From the point of view of hedonism, spending time helping in a soup kitchen would make you unhappy, since you’re not just working, but also coming into contact with poor and probably unhealthy people. In fact, for the eudaemonist, this activity is deeply satisfying. Again, to the eudaemonist, bearing patiently with suffering is an activity that will lead, in the long term, to a sense of wellbeing. To the hedonist, suffering is simply to be avoided.

Although you might think that happiness is happiness, however it arises, hedonic and eudaemonic happiness even have different physiological effects. A 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that hedonists and eudaemonists who self-reported high levels of happiness had very different patterns of genetic expression. The hedonists showed high levels of expressions of genes related to inflammation (which is commonly used as a marker for general health), while the eudaemonists had much lower levels. In other words, doing good seems to be beneficial for your health in ways that merely feeling good can’t.

Buddhism is a eudaemonic tradition, and so when I talk about happiness I mean eudaemonic happiness. Perhaps my question should not be “Could I be happier right now?” but “Am I doing anything right now that is inhibiting my well-being, and can I let go of doing that?”

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Mindfulness: the craze sweeping through schools is now at a university near you

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Harriet Swain, The Guardian: Slowly take a raisin and examine every wrinkle and fold of its surface. Feel its texture with your fingers. Inhale its scent. Squeeze it and hear how it sounds. Raise it to your lips, place it in your mouth, explore it with your tongue. Prepare to chew. As you bite into it, notice the bursts of taste and how these change, and be aware of when you feel ready to swallow. Finally, feel the raisin travel into your body.

This is a common introductory exercise in mindfulness – a practice derived from Buddhist meditation that involves paying attention to the …

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