Tag Archives: meditation

The Soul of Mindfulness

Written February 19, 2015 by Pete Kirchmer.

Pete Kirchmer CPCC

Pete Kirchmer is  the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.

The Meditative Experience

I can still recall one of my first experiences at a meditation course. The instructor sat nobly on stage dressed in flowing white clothing that I imagined he’d bought near the Ganges during pilgrimage in India. He recounted vivid experiences he’d had while in deep meditation, dancing with Krishna on the tongue of the Buddha. Energy flowing and vibrating down his spine. Chakra’s whirling and glowing; he was one with the Divine Mother, in a state of pure bliss. I recall being inspired and even a bit jealous at this man’s deep inner journey. A fire had been lit inside me and I knew that it was my turn to visit these magical, meditative realms. Sitting upright with dignity on my meditation cushion, I was fully committed to repeating my special mantra, over and over again, confident in it’s powers to elevate my soul.  But after twenty minutes of diligence, there were no dancing deities, vibrating energy or elevated soul. My back hurt, my knees ached and the only state of consciousness I managed to reach was one of agitation and exhaustion.

After nearly a decade of meditation practice, I’m comfortable admitting that I’ve still never danced on the tongue of the Buddha, nor do I imagine I ever will. My back and knees still sometimes hurt but I’m no longer all that agitated by it. I’m actually agitated by far less these days, which is one of the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.

There are many traditions and styles of meditation, each with their own practices, intentions and aspirations. There are forms that use Mantras, Mudras, Yantras, and Mandhalas. You can meditate with gongs and crystal bowls, chanting, singing and in silence. Some forms of meditation are to express devotion or prayer, others are seeking transcendence and expansion. All are beautiful and all are beneficial. From the buffet of traditions now available to us in the west, mindfulness meditation is the practice that has called to me. It’s simple yet deep and seeks nothing but a clear experience of what’s already happening in the present moment. It’s nothing special and at the same time, infinitely magical.

Evidence Based Practice

Part of the reasons mindfulness has so successfully integrated into medicine, academics, corporations and government is because it’s incredibly inclusive, accessible and easily integrated into everyday life.  Although Mindfulness practice has its roots in Buddhism, the modern day Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI’s) have intentionally dropped the cultural and historical baggage of religious mythology and tradition. Some say it’s “Buddhism without the Buddha”. Mindfulness is now often described as an integration of Eastern Philosophy and Western Psychology, supported by Neuroscience (referred to as, “Neuro Dharma”). Given the absence of any language or teaching that would offend or exclude anyone’s beliefs, it’s becoming an appealing practice for people of all religions and atheists alike.  There have now been thousands of research articles published on the various benefits of mindfulness from improving health & wellbeing, decreasing pain, depression and anxiety, improving attention and memory, decreasing stress and burnout, enhancing relationships, and improved performance in life, work and sport.

Has Modern Mindfulness Sold it’s Soul?

“As the history of Buddhism shows, it is a process of continual reformation in accordance with the present needs of those in front of us.”

-Edel Maex, Zen Psychiatrist

Like an Indie Rock band that’s gone mainstream, many question and even criticize the “Mindfulness Revolution” for it’s new trendiness and quickly increasing popularity. The concern is that without the context of Buddhism, modern mindfulness will lose it’s ethical framework and it’s true ability to heal and liberate. Traditionally the intention for practicing mindfulness was to end suffering and awaken to the true nature of reality. There are precepts around not harming or stealing and there is a path laid out for right living. Some fear that excluding these domains of practice will reduce mindfulness to a technique that could be used for say, training Military marksmen to focus on their targets. Or for pacifying the corporate masses so they continue to be overworked with less absenteeism or the health insurance burdens of chronic stress.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Although Buddhism doesn’t directly teach the existence of an eternal soul the way other religions might, it’s far from “soul-less”. It’s true that on occasion modern forms of mindfulness have strayed from the path, becoming myopic, watered down and over hyped, leading to the new and catch label, “McMindfulness”.  But from my perspective, much of modern mindfulness has actually successfully maintained the richness of the tradition while being “re-contextualized” from it’s Buddhist origin to better meet the needs of our culture. While on retreat at Mt. Madonna Center I had the opportunity to have lunch with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of modern mindfulness. Cramming as many questions as possible into our short time together, I hastily made a comment about his course, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as being “Secular Mindfulness”.  He quickly corrected me by making the distinction, “MBSR is not secular, it’s non-dual.” I then understood that the MBSR approach to mindfulness is not overtly “spiritual”, but it’s also not, “non-spiritual.”

Later in the retreat, Jon Kabat-Zinn warned all of us Mindfulness Teachers in training against a limited view of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is not a technique”, he said with firmness, “Mindfulness is a way of being”. It is in this particular “way of being” that we find the soul of mindfulness. As Kabat-Zinn explains, the Asian word for mind and the word for heart are the same. “Hearing Mindfulness without the Heartfulness is a misunderstanding and will lead us to mistaking it for a purely cognitive exercise.” Ethics, although not directly taught, are imbedded into and cannot be separated from a true understanding of mindfulness.

The Soul of Mindfulness

Students of mindfulness meditation are taught to rest in a non-conceptual knowing that comes before thinking, which we may refer to as “awareness”. This awareness is not purely objective but rather has the inherent quality of loving-kindness. Sounds, sensations, sights, and smells as well as mental objects such as thoughts, feelings and sensations all arise and are held gently in this “kind awareness”. This awareness is open and spacious, accepting and inviting. It is our innate goodness; it’s infinite and boundless, indefinable and knowable only through direct experience. Trying to use thought to understand awareness is said to be like trying to use a flashlight to find the source of the flashlights light. As you wave the light around the dark room it could only fall on objects but never illuminate the source.

Although profound and maybe even abstract sounding for those who’ve never practiced, this “kind awareness” that is the heart of mindfulness is actually quite utilitarian in it’s application to everyday life. It’s not reserved for advanced mediators with completely silent minds or limited to formal periods of meditation, in the morning on your special cushion. You can directly experience this “heartfulness” the next time you face something challenging in your life- however big or small.

We are conditioned to react to stressful events by automatically fighting or fleeing. Blaming, criticizing, “shoulding”, or numbing out, denying and repressing are some of our most common reactions. In these moments you can wake up to feeling the grip and contraction of stress in your body. Rather than going into your reflexive habit, you can pause, take a few breaths and allow whatever is happening to happen, without judging it. You can choose to stay with your fears rather than abandoning yourself, noticing how the thoughts come and go and how the body eventually begins to soften. Allowing life to unfold the way it is rather than resisting it, is actually a radical act of mindful self-compassion. Holding our small, conditioned selves in the light of this infinite, kind awareness is the catalyst for healing and transformation.

Although we may or may not find ourselves during mindfulness meditation, dancing with Shiva and radiating pure white light, we may eventually come to see that the whole of our lives is made up of an ever-changing present moment experience of our senses and self concepts, all arising in this vast, spacious, kind awareness. And if this realization allows us to become more grateful for this precious life, more gentle with ourselves and more compassionate to others, what could possibly be more soul-full than that?

logo-mpeakYou are invited to join and learn with Pete at our next mPEAK trainings. mPEAK is a cutting-edge training program for those seeking new levels of performance and success in their work, sport, or other challenging endeavors. mPEAK is built around the latest brain research related to peak performance, resilience, focus, and“flow”. The mPEAK program enhances mindfulness through established and empirically supported practices and exercises, tailored to fit the needs and desires of the team or individual.

Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credts are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA

For our local San Diego residence you are also invited to register for the full 8-Week mPEAK program held at the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness.

 

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Mindful Presence: Embodying sensitivity with a heartfelt presence

Professional Training Institute BannerThe UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness has partnered with Susan Woods and Char Wilkins to offer a 5-day program entitled: MBSR:Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 5-day Teacher Training, November 11-16, 2013, at the Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia, NY. The following is the second in a series of periodic posts by Susan and Char, sharing their vision and wisdom in formulating and offering this training, and exploring the territory of teaching mindfulness in general. We invite you to get to know them through this series and perhaps to reflect on your own relationship to mindfulness teaching.

By Susan Woods

WoodsSusanIn the second of these of these reflections on the nature of teaching mindfulness I thought it would be interesting to continue with the theme of mindful presence.  As teachers of mindfulness in secular settings, we bring an emotional and cognitive sensibility to our teaching that is based on our personal experience and understanding of mindfulness.  When we respond to questions from our participants via the process of mindful reflective inquiry, we are embodying an awareness that embraces and acknowledges a way of being that is able to stay quietly present even in the midst of ambiguity.  Being able to allow for those places of uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt and then know when and how to respond are important components for our teaching.  It is likely there will be times when one of our participants will ask a question or make a comment that elicits a moment(s) when we have no idea of what’s next or how to respond.  In addition these moments may touch a strong emotional reaction inside of us of doubt, worry, distress, anxiety, irritation, despondence, even anger.  I suspect we have all had some or perhaps all of these instances.

No experience is wasted; even those that have challenged me in sometimes very uncomfortable ways.  When I have found myself in those places, part of my own journey of mindfulness, has been in allowing an emotional and cognitive unfolding that can be relaxed. Remembering to take a breath can help to soften into these moments; relaxing into the body another.  This becomes a way of sensing into the current experience where understanding grows from letting all of the uncomfortableness be present, cognitive, emotional and somatic.

reflectionsBeing emotionally sensitive to these moments requires an active intention and receptivity. Being a mindfulness teacher asks that we are willing to take our seats in the uncertainty and teach to and through that experience.  This means that we include an experiential sense of our own complexity in those moments and in that awareness do our best to step out of our own way.  As we meet these moments we also notice that being gentle and patient rather than a problem solver, allows us to start from where we truly are rather than from where we think we should be.

It is this emotional awareness and sensitivity that we bring to our teaching of mindfulness.  It allows for the landscape of the moment to reveal itself, an inner and outer attunement and brings us into the present, one where we are receptive to our own experience and at the same time responsive to that of the other.  It is a moment of being attuned to an inner and outer noticing, where compassion is embodied through mindful presence, heartfelt sensitivity and through mindful reflective speech.   In this way the teacher and participant(s) are involved in co-creating a journey of relationship which entails a kindhearted understanding of self, of other and the unfolding nature of the present. These moments of connection are sacred moments of wisdom and humility.

Mindful Presence: Embodying kindness and the listening heart

The UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness has partnered with Susan Woods and Char Wilkins to offer a 5-day program entitled: Advanced Training for MBCT and MBSR Teachers: Embodying Mindful Presence and Investigating Mindful InquiryJune 9-14, 2013 at the EarthRise Retreat Center in Petaluma, CA. The following is the second in a series of periodic posts by Susan and Char, sharing their vision and wisdom in formulating and offering this training, and exploring the territory of teaching mindfulness in general. We invite you to get to know them through this series and perhaps to reflect on your own relationship to mindfulness teaching.

WoodsSusanBy Susan Woods, MSW, LICSW

Suffering is not personal, but in so many ways we are inclined to feel it in that way.  Of course the feeling of pain and heartache is universal; it’s what connects us and also what can separate us.  Mindfulness meditation practice encourages and supports us in developing a profound understanding about how we relate to pain and gives us choices on how we can respond.  It took me some time and lots of practice to relax into appreciating this.  What I became aware of was the more I could allow myself to show up and pay a kind and steady attention, without denying or pushing anything away or alternatively chasing after something, the steady momentum of mindfully noticing became compelling as an act of generosity.

reflectionsWe don’t often talk too much about acts of generosity when facing suffering; a sense that it is permissible and might even be imperative to be kind when facing the overwhelming; that by cultivating a tender abiding, embodying an intentional and attentive mindful consciousness which supports a friendly and intimate awareness we come to experience our pain, our difficulties in a different way.  We also come to notice that being mindful is dynamic and creates just enough intuitive and emotional space to acknowledge pain and the story around it without needing to react to it so much.  Learning by this measure we come to see directly the simple and powerful presence of kindness and patience, acknowledging that nothing needs fixing, residing in the meaning of being present and in the power of deep noticing and listening.  And so paradoxically we are able to let go more and more sensing what lies behind the narratives of our ego driven world.

It is this awareness, this presence, that nurtures caring which is deeply compassionate; an attentive listening heart which is quiet, calm, loving and knows from experience the storms of suffering, the rages, the hatreds, criticisms, judgments, frustrations, sadness’s and anxieties.  And when these arise, the listening heart opens, quivers, creates space, embraces, bearing witness to all while residing with the movement of breathing.  Breathing in, inhabiting this moment, breathing out, softening and letting go.  This heart has learned the worth of gentleness, has learned the value of an attending presence – a presence that asks for nothing in return, only this moment now.

In our lives and in our teaching of mindfulness, embodying a mindful presence conveys the hope that we may all slowly walk this journey of kindness with a listening heart.

Seizing the Moment and Supporting the Work: Giving Mindfulness to the Next Generation

Ellyn Wolfe (2)By Ellyn Wolfe, MEd
Co-Director Workplace Initiatives & Giving
UCSD Center for Mindfulness

Within the virtually exploding field of mindfulness, perhaps no facet is growing faster and spreading wider than that of teaching mindfulness to the youth of our society. Imagine the vast potential of transforming this generation of children into a future generation grounded in a practice that promotes stability and composure, wellness and healthy relationships, and enhanced cognitive function.  This movement is on an unprecedented ascendant path within education, clinical practice and research.

bridging2013badgeThe UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth Second Annual conference February 1-3, 2013 in San Diego is uniquely positioned to further contribute to the growth and vibrancy of the field by assembling the thought leaders, program developers, researchers and educators in an environment of collaboration, connection and dialogue. From presentations by leaders like Jon & Myla Kabat-Zinn, to the diversity found in innovative school-based programs such as Katherine Weare of the .b The Mindfulness in Schools Project  and the amazing work of bringing mindfulness and yoga to the inner city by Ali & Atman Smith’s Holistic Life Foundation,  it is all represented at the conference. This year the conference opens with first-ever research symposia covering a variety of topics, including interesting work by Lisa Flook of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds  on “Mindfulness in Early Education to Promote Self-Regulation”and a full symposia session exploring research around clinical interventions using mindfulness to address issues of kids and teens with chronic pain, HIV, and ADHD. This movement is on an unprecedented ascendant path within education, clinical practice and research.

The conference presents an opportunity for those who actively participate and contribute, to make a real and lasting difference in the course of society, and in particular, to the field of bringing mindfulness to the next generation. The Center for Mindfulness is actively seeking the financial support of individuals and corporations who are interested in making an impact on the emergent field of mindfulness as an agent for change.  These contributions are essential to our success in connecting and supporting the hundreds of educators, researchers and experts who will attend the Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth conference and then carry the practice and research learned to every corner of the globe.  Every donation as a general conference supporter or as sponsor for the Friday night Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn public lecture (which benefits the Youth and Family Programs at UCSD CFM) is important.  Every donation makes a difference.

We welcome the support of anyone in a position to give and make a significant difference in the lives of our children through supporting the important work of this conference and its attendees. If you or someone you know is interested in supporting this work, please feel free to contact us at mindfulness@ucsd.edu or by calling 858-334-4636.

One can also donate directly via the Center for Mindfulness Online Giving site.

Author’s Note: Education that motivates the individual to higher levels of being has always been a part of my life.  With a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a master’s certificate from the Fielding Institute in Evidence Based Coaching, and Clinical Training in Mind/Body Medicine with Dr. Herbert Benson at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, I train corporate leaders in the art of coaching and coach clients to be the best they can be.  For the past twenty years I have worked in the corporate world teaching mindfulness-based programs for a variety of companies, including Dr. Herbert Benson’s Mind Body Medical Institute, FleetBoston Financial and the San Diego Convention Center.  What a different place the corporate world would be if employees and leaders had grown up understanding and practicing mindfulness.

To that end, I have recently been named as Co-Director of Workplace Initiatives and Giving, a newly launched arm of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness.  I will be working with my co-director, Christy Cassisa, to develop programs that address corporate need and also to elicit support for the UCSD CFM. I look forward to hearing from you through the Center for Mindfulness at mindfulness@ucsd.edu.

The Truly Mindful Workplace: A Reality Whose Moment Is Arriving

Christy Cassisa, J.D.

Christy Cassisa

By Christy Cassisa, J.D.
Co-Director of Workplace Initiatives and Giving
UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

If you follow workplace mindfulness in the news, you’ve had quite a bit of reading material in the last few months. Businesses of all types have embraced the fact that the wellbeing of their employees improves the health of the company.  One quarter of large US companies have launched stress reduction programs of some sort, and many of those are also incorporating mindfulness and meditation trainings.  Many well-known names such as Google, Aetna, General Mills, AOL Time Warner and Target have brought mindfulness and meditation to their people.  Mindfulness is being hailed as the next great thing in the efforts to improve the performance, health and overall wellbeing of employees and leadership alike.

Mindfulness In Leadership
Both formal studies and informal self-reports show that leaders who practice mindfulness have more mental clarity and flexibility, are able to listen better and as a result, make better decisions.  Enhanced emotional resiliency and self-awareness arise as a natural byproduct of mindfulness practices, and these in turn can lead to more effective and inspirational leaders.

One such program you may have read about in the Financial Times (The Mind Business) was developed at General Mills.  Janice Marturano, deputy general counsel, phrased it this way: “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected. That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us- our colleagues, customers- that’s what the training of mindfulness is really about.” More than 400 employees and 250 executives have participated in the GM program, and the results are amazing:  83% of participants reported increased personal productivity and of the senior executives who took the course, 80% reported improved decision-making and 89% reported that they had become better listeners.

For executives, learning to do nothing to achieve more is counter-intuitive. But what they often find once they begin to look is that the very drive that has lead them to success thus far blinds them to the next steps to progress further. And this clouded vision is precisely what mindfulness meditation can clear.

Employee Well-Being
When it comes to employees, the benefits are also well-documented. Company-wide stress reduction programs are nothing new, but with the addition of mindfulness and meditation, employees have shown dramatic improvements in stress levels and overall wellbeing.  Meditation programs have shown employee results such as:

  • Reduced anxiety and increased overall sense of calm
  • Enhanced ability to bounce back from emotionally charged situations
  • Enhanced coping abilities related to everyday stress as well as severe or acute stress encounters
  • Increased creativity
  • Improved memory
  • Increased focus (staying on task longer)
  • Improved teamwork, increased respect and support for colleagues
  • Strengthened immune system
  • Lowered blood pressure

And these results are simply the performance and health-related measures. At Google, employees reported improved marriages, reversed decisions to leave the company, and more. The benefits to the employee far exceed those measured by standard health and productivity scores.

Return on Investment
What, you say, is the value of this kind of program?  What does my bottom line expect to get in return for the outlay of time money and effort into a mindfulness meditation program?

According to the Gallup Business Journal, wellbeing is an employer issue. By the numbers, they reported:

  • People who have thriving wellbeing have a 35% lower turnover rate than those who are struggling; in a 10,000-person company, this represents $19.5 million.
  • Employees with high wellbeing have 41% lower health-related costs compared with employees who have lower wellbeing. In a firm that has 10,000 employees, this difference amounts to nearly $30 million​

So incorporating these measures, your ROI of each benefit may be measured as so:

  1. Stress Reduction:  As a result of reducing the stress of your employees, look for a reduction in health care costs and absenteeism rates.
  2. Improved Employee Well-being: As a result of investing in your people, look for increased retention rates, improved employee satisfaction and overall engagement measures.  And as an interesting additional measure, you might look to your customers’ experiences as a result of this investment in your employees’ health and well-being: look for increases in sales and improved customer satisfaction surveys.
  3. Strengthened Leadership: Leadership Development programs have many measures to use to evaluate the effectiveness of executives, ranging from 360 evaluations to overall company performance. When executives are operating more effectively, the entire company benefits in innumerable ways.

In case you have not been immersed in the news of mindfulness in the workplace, I’ve summarized many of the recent articles below.  Please comment on this post to contribute additional articles as you find them so that other readers can have access to all the latest information and resources!

Note: Christy Cassisa is a former attorney, turned coach, who has recently been appointed as the Co-Director of Workplace Initiatives and Giving for the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. As she notes, “With all of the excitement surrounding mindfulness in the business community, we feel it is time to opt in. In this effort, we are thrilled to announce the launch of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness Workplace Programs.  Now you can bring the Center’s expertise to your office with a program or workshop tailored for your business or group. If you have an interest in learning more, take a look at Christy’s blog, Mindful Clarity, and/or contact Christy via the Center for Mindfulness at mindfulness@ucsd.edu

Workplace Mindfulness Articles

Developing Mindful Leaders– Harvard Business Review, Dec 2011

Meditation Makes You More Creative– Science Daily, April 2012

OK Google, Take a Deep Breath– New York Times, April 2012

How to be Happier at Work– Inc., May 2012

How to kill a thought in a good way– Forbes, June 2012

Meditation Can Keep you More Focused at Work– USAToday, July 2012

Be more mindful for a better workplace– Chicago Tribune Aug 2012

Mindfulness is not a Cure, it’s Better– HuffPost, Aug 2012

The Mind Business– Financial Times Magazine, Aug 2012

Mindfulness-based stress reduction effects on moral reasoning and decision makingJournal of Positive Psychology, Sept 2012

A Guide to Mindfulness at Work– Forbes Oct, 2012

Mindfulness Helps you become a better leader –Harvard Business Review Oct 2012

Multitasking Loses its Cool: Mindfulness is Now In – Investors.com, Oct 2012

The ROI of Practicing Mindfulness at Work– Under30CEO.com, Nov 2012

Meditation finds an ommmm in the office– Globe & Mail, Nov 2012

Mindful Multitasking– Levy, U Washington

Why Mindful Breathing Works– Huffington Post, Nov 2012

Lead by Achieving Nothing.  Seriously. Forbes, Nov 2012

New brain study sheds light on how mindfulness reduces suffering associated with pain

Mindfulness has been shown in numerous studies to effectively attenuate pain, but a new study about to be published suggested that the way in which this reduction happens is much different than other, more typical coping mechanisms. These findings go to the heart of the difference between pain and suffering, by elucidating the different patterns of brain activation associated with each and showing how suffering is reduced throughout the practice of mindfulness, even when the sensation of pain is present.

In a study comparing meditators to non-meditators by researchers from Giessen University in Germany, Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Massachusetts General Hospital, much was learned about the neural processes involved in the reduced suffering in the face of pain experienced by meditators. The findings of this study were recently published ahead of print in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Mindfulness refers to a specific inner stance of purposefully paying attention to experiences in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. For example attention is focused on the sensory aspects of a sensation alone, rather than the cognitive and emotional reactions to those sensory experiences. In mindfulness, these sensory aspects are investigated with curiosity and acceptance. Instead of being reactive and judgmental of sensations, people become fully aware of the experience in the present moment and relate to it in an objective and neutral way.

Thirty-four healthy individuals participated in the study; 17 of them were experienced mindfulness meditators. While brain activation of participants was measured in the MRI scanner at Giessen University, participants received mildly painful electric shocks on the left lower arm. Participants were instructed to relate to the shocks in different ways: with mindfulness, and with a normal, daily life stance. Participants were then asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the shocks, and the anticipatory anxiety in regard to receiving the shocks.

During the practice of mindfulness, experienced meditators experienced the pain as significantly less unpleasant. In addition they reported less anticipatory anxiety, even though they didn’t perceive the intensity of the sensations differently. The MRI images revealed interesting changes in brain activation during the state of mindfulness in mindfulness meditators: increased activation in brain regions that are involved in processing the sensory aspects of the pain experience (posterior insula/secondary somatosensory cortex), but decreased activation in brain regions that are involved in regulating pain through reappraisal (lateral prefrontal cortex). Thus, the meditators fully experienced the pain, but they suffered less from it.

This pattern of brain activation is in sharp contrast to other psychological pain modulation strategies: When participants reduce pain by reappraising it (i.e., a cognitive reinterpretation), there is an increase in activation in the lateral prefrontal cortex. Activation in sensory brain areas on the other hand typically decreases. While the pattern of brain activation revealed in this new study is in sharp contrast to other pain modulation strategies, it is well-aligned with theories of mindfulness.

“The increased activation in sensory pain areas in the brain, that we found during the practice of mindfulness seems to be aligned with the increased focus on the sensory aspects of the pain that meditators report”, says Tim Gard, first author of the study. “Simultaneously we saw decreased brain activation in brain regions that are involved in reappraisal. During the state of mindfulness, meditators seem to be in contact with the present moment experience as it is, without reappraising or evaluating it.”

“It is very interesting that the pattern of brain activation that we observed during the attenuation of pain in a state of mindfulness is in sharp contrast to other forms of pain modulation”, says Tim Gard. “It indicates that mindfulness really is a different way of reducing pain. These findings might have interesting clinical implications. The revealed unique mechanisms of pain modulation might be utilized to improve or develop new strategies for the management of chronic pain”, according to Tim Gard. “While the current study investigated the effects of the state of mindfulness on pain perception in healthy subjects, future studies are required to test whether the findings can be generalized to chronic pain.”

Reference:

Gard, T., Hölzel, B.K., Sack, A.T., Hempel, H., Lazar, S.W., Vaitl, D., & Ott, U.: Pain attenuation through mindfulness is associated with decreased cognitive control and increased sensory processing in the brain. Cerebral Cortex, published online on December 15 2011, doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr352

http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/12/14/cercor.bhr352.abstract

Wondering about ways that MBSR touches lives? This graduate says it beautifully and powerfully.

By Steven Hickman, Psy.D.
Director, UCSD Center for Mindfulness

In the course of teaching Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, I have had the opportunity to hear first-hand how participation in the program has had an impact on the lives of many people. I know from my own experience of mindfulness practice how powerful it can be, but I often struggle with how to put that into words that really capture the experience. Fortunately, every now and then, one of our MBSR participants articulates it so poignantly and eloquently that I get a new look at how this practice changes lives. Recently, in a class taught by my colleagues Luis Morones and Amy Holte, one of their participants (we will call her Katie to protect her privacy, but she has given us permission to quote her) offered some wonderful feedback about her experience that we felt would be helpful to anyone considering embarking on a practice of mindfulness or in taking an MBSR course. Here is what she had to say:

“Thank you … for letting me attend most of the recent class  (in which I had) a 60% attendance rate, which makes me laugh because in addition to suggesting kindness to ourselves and not always striving towards something (like counting attendance) a mere 60% of your class has changed at least 90% of my life.  Although I have read only the opening of the book and made very little time to practice outside of the class, I cling to the concept of my breath always being there for me, or my feet being planted on the ground, and that has consistently redirected my next action in every situation.  Pausing for a moment to just be present gives you the time to envision a desired outcome or at least remember your long-term goal in any given interaction.

“Always a mellow driver, I now am even more inclined to let others race along without getting upset (hard not to urge others to do the same).  When working with my children, my focus is not on being right, but on getting them to decide for themselves what is right and why.  When there is a work crisis, it is amazing how many people already have the solution but have not dared to allow themselves to solve it.  Or friends who want you to solve their problems but don’t like your solutions, you realize they want the problem, and you can let go without guilt.

“Mostly I am finding that giving myself a moment to reflect keeps me calm and much more able to enjoy everyone’s company.  Just this week, all five of my family were in 1) my bathroom, 2) my closet, 3) our bedroom, and in each instance I stopped myself from saying “why are you all here, stop following me” but thought instead, how wonderful that you want to be with me, that we trust each other and listen to each other and want to be together.”

Katie works in the same office space as that of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, and her group recently experienced a significant reduction in their workforce. The stress of the process of “downsizing” was immense, and we were moved to extend the offer of free participation in MBSR to any of their group affected by these layoffs. Katie noted, “I know that Steve may have been thinking about laid off employees when he so generously offered us a space in your class, but for those of us left behind to pick up the pieces of the dozen or so people we’ve lost, it has been stressful in a different way – survivor guilt, maybe, and the inability to share about the quality and quantity of work when we should be grateful to still have the opportunity to serve.  If I were going through all of these changes without the anchor of this class, my flame would definitely be starting to flicker!!  It is also such a grounding experience to learn from those whose life situations harbor even darker days. I do so regret having missed the retreat, I felt like I was letting my classmates down, but it was unavoidable.

“I feel so empowered about how to live my life in a way that is healthier and happier and that has positive effects on those I love.”

When I wrote to ask Katie’s permission to share what she wrote in her email to the teachers above, she responded with still more wonderfully descriptive feedback: “. . . essentially this experience has been the best gift since my wedding and the birth of my three healthy boys.  That is really not an overstatement or overly enthusiastic – I feel so empowered about how to live my life in a way that is healthier and happier and that has positive effects on those I love, which was my original goal for joining the group.  It will obviously take a lot more practice, but I can already tell that I am making better choices and just thinking before I speak (I can have a sharp tongue) is improving many relationships.”

It seems as though there is nothing else to say, as Katie said it all quite well! If someone you know could benefit from the practice of mindfulness or may be interested in taking a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, I highly recommend that you share this blogpost with that person. It could change their life in the way that it changed Katie’s. (NOTE: We have a morning sitting group on weekdays in our office and Katie continues to attend with us many times each week.)

The 2012 Schedule of MBSR Classes offered through the UCSD Center for Mindfulness is now online and available for online registration. Take a look at the lineup starting in mid-January and consider joining us to more fully experience the practice of mindfulness for yourself.

Mindfulness and Yoga: Complementary Paths of Health, Healing, and Wellbeing

By Amy Holte, Ph.D., M.Ed.

Amy Holte, Ph.D.m M.Ed.

Amy Holte

Amy teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, which is launching a new monthly 2nd Saturday workshop series entitled “Mindfulness, Meditation and Yoga” starting Saturday August 13th 9-10:30am that she will teach, with registration open to anyone. The following article draws from her work teaching mindfulness, yoga, and meditation to help people suffering from stress and stress-related conditions, including depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.

As I’ve been teaching various forms of contemplative practice over the past dozen years or so in different settings with a wide variety of groups, I have observed that people who practice “yoga” do not always have a sitting meditation practice, and that people who meditate do not always have a contemplative-oriented movement practice. This trend seems to reflect a wider societal phenomenon evident in a number of fields, notable philosophy, psychology, and medicine, over the past few hundred years to separate the realms of mind and body. Thus, one feature of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, and other mindfulness-based programs, that strikes me as particularly powerful is the blending of both of these approaches to self-development within the same course offering. In my experience, these two approaches – sitting meditation and mindful movement — are intimately tied to one another, and, when practiced together in a complementary way, inevitably deepen one’s practice.

Mindfulness is often conceived of as a moment-to-moment practice of non-judgmentally paying attention to one’s experience, a practice that is cultivated both formally through specific techniques, such as sitting meditation, and informally as one moves through daily life. In this sense, mindfulness has developed over the past half-century or so as a means of experiencing many of the psychological benefits of meditation without necessitating adoption, or even consideration, of specific spiritual, philosophical, or religious beliefs. Thus, although mindfulness grows out of the Buddhist stream of contemplative practice (Maex, 2011), mindfulness as it is practiced today offers a secular pathway for working with the mind and body.

Interestingly, the notion of “mindfulness” is also evoked to refer to a specific mindfulness program. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a systematic approach to teaching mind-body awareness and growth that was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn over 30 years ago when others teachers of contemplative paths were also practicing and teaching mindfulness, meditation, and yoga (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Included in the program of sitting meditation, attention to the breath and thoughts, and body awareness, is a “yoga” practice that resembles the type of practice offered in most yoga studies. This combined approach of MBSR and other mindfulness-based programs (Cullen, M. 2011) has been particularly useful as a means of integrating mindfulness into the therapeutic contexts of medicine, clinical psychology, and healthcare in general.

In a parallel fashion, the practice of “yoga” has also made its way into therapeutic, clinical, and healthcare contexts both on its own as a method of reducing stress and bringing health to the body and mind, and within mindfulness-based program as a means of practicing mindfulness (Harrington, 2008). Distinct from the “mindfulness” milieu, “yoga” has become widely popular as a way of achieving health, fitness, and vigor (Alter, 2004). In this sense, for many people today “yoga” means a physical movement oriented practice of various postures, perhaps also with awareness of the breath and some deeper connection of the body with the mind and other aspects of our being, with benefits of greater flexibility, strength, and diminished stress and pain-related symptoms.

However, in the ancient tradition of yoga, and, in fact, in many non-mainstream circles today, meditation is the ground of yoga. For thousands of years, even predating the era of Classical Yoga (c. 150-200A.D.), the practice of “yoga” centered on meditative practices as the means for uniting the practitioner with the greater reality (Feuerstein, 1998). One important feature of yoga, though, is the fact that it adapts to culture, historical era, etc. Thus, the system of strong physical postures and breathing techniques that we know as “yoga” today actually emerged rather late in the history of yoga, in the 13-15th centuries, and is more accurately identified as “hatha yoga” (White, 1996). This physical and body oriented method of practicing “yoga” (transformed once again from its medieval manifestation) is what has become a popular means of pursuing health and strength of the body and mind today (Alter, 2004; DeMichelis, 2004; Harrington, 2008), whether on its own or as part of a mindfulness program.

No matter one’s entry point into contemplative practice, whether it be through the physical or the mental, I invite us to consider that these two streams of practice are not separate. Rather, these are complementary means to awareness, health, and wellbeing. Mindfulness helps deepen the process of self-inquiry during physical practice, a lesson that can then be taken off the mat when we move around in life. Similarly, a regular contemplative movement – hatha yoga if you prefer the more traditional name, or simply “yoga,” – supports a sitting meditation practice. Meditators often encounter problems such as pain in the knees and back from sitting for extended periods of time; yet, when a regular “yoga” practice is undertaken, the body becomes transformed in such a way as to allow it to remain comfortably at rest for longer and longer periods of time in a single posture that supports a state of restful awareness experienced in the mind, as well. The effects of systematically practicing yoga take root in the body, transforming it on a day-to-day basis. Together, contemplative sitting and movement practices bring more ease and free practitioners from preoccupation with the pains and limitations that we may normally experience in our body-mind, thus cultivating greater wisdom and wholeness in daily life.

A plethora of scientific and clinical research has shown that both modes of practice lead to healing and stress-reduction. For example, relaxation of tense muscles, improvement of blood flow throughout the body, optimization of heart rate and respiration, and reduction of anxiety and depression (Kabat-Zinn, et al., 1992) have all been found in research on both yoga and mindfulness (Benson, H., Beary, J., and Carol, M., 1974). Moreover, improvements in chronic stress-related conditions, such as chronic pain including backaches and headaches (Kabat-Zinn, et al., 1982, 1985, 1986; Galantino, et al., 2004; Tekur, P., Singphow, C., Nagendra, H.R., and Raghuram, N., 2008), irritable bowel syndrome (Kuttner, et al., 2006; Gaylord, S.A., et al., 2011; Kearney DJ, McDermott K., Martinez M., and Simpson T.L., 2011), and arthritis (Pradhan, et al., 2007; Badsha, et al., 2009), heart disease (Ornish, et al., 1998; Sullivan et al., 2009; Allexandre, et al., 2010), insomnia (Khalsa, 2004; Kreitzer et al., 2005), and cancer (Carlson et al., 2003; Witek-Janusek et al., 2008; Ulger and Yagli, 2010) have also been shown in populations practicing both mindfulness and yoga.  Because of this overlap of the benefits of each, and that these methods are complementary to one another, perhaps it is no wonder that they are brought together in MBSR.

So how can we make sense of the observation that different people naturally gravitate towards different types of practice? It is not so difficult to recognize that we each have unique constitutions.  Some people are more introspective by nature, while others are more action and physically oriented. So sitting and practicing meditation may be a more natural behavior for those of the more introspective constitution, while engaging in physical postures, sometimes often quite challenging movements, may offer more appeal for others.

Yet in common between all constitutions is the basic reality of the intimate connectedness of body and mind. This insight is especially relevant when we consider the possibility that the “body” is not merely, or just, “physical” as it in common understandings of the body.  Embedded within the body lies our nervous system, the physical and energetic reality of our minds. Thus, in this sense, the mind resides within the body as a continuous ever-present system that is fully interactive with the rest of the body. In this view, cognitive processes, such as attention, thinking, and problem solving, and emotions as well, are embodied and deeply rooted in the body’s interactions with the world (Varela, et al., 2009). This embodied mind orientation provides an increasingly popular theoretical stance for a holistic view of human nature that the two – body and mind – are not separate.

What does this mean for practice? The practical insight here is to spend at least some time each day on the different types of contemplative practice, both sitting and movement, because each mode of practice supports, complements, and reinforces the other. By exercising the literal muscles of the physical body, we simultaneously exercise the metaphorical muscles of the mind; and, conversely, by strengthening mental acuity and clarity through sitting practice, we also benefit the body. An integrative approach to lifestyle, behavior, and healing cultivates true health and wellbeing.

Dr. Holte is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin where she completed her doctoral research on meditation and the brain, drawing from both ancient texts and current research on the neuroscience of meditation and clinical effectiveness of yoga and meditation for health conditions.

References

Allexandre, D., Fox, E., Golubic, M., Morledge, T., and Fox, J. E. B. (2010). Mindfulness, yoga, and cardiovascular disease. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 77(3), S85.

Alter, J. (2004). The Body Between Science and Philosophy: Yoga in Modern India. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Badsha, H., Chhabra, V., Leibman, C., Mofti, A., and Kong, K.O. (2009). The benefits of yoga for rheumatoid arthritis: Results of a preliminary, structures 8-week program. Rheumatology International, 29(12): 1417-1421.

Benson, H., Beary, J., and Carol, M. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry, 37, 37-46.

Cullen, M. (2011). Mindfulness-Based interventions: An emerging phenomenon. Mindfulness.

DeMichelis, E. (2004). A History of Modern Yoga. London: Continuum.

Harrington, A. (2008). The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Feuerstein, G. (1998). The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press.

Galantino, ML, Bzdewka, T., Eissler-Russo, J., Holbrook, M., Mogck, E., Geigle, P., Farrar, J. (2004). The impact of modified hatha yoga on chronic low back pain: A pilot study. Alternative Therapies, Mar/Ap, 10(2).

Gaylord, S.A., Palsson, O.S., Garland, E.L., et al. (2011). Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: Results of a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, Epub ahead of print.

Kabat-Zinn, J.  (1982). An out-patient program in Behavioral Medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation:  Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry, 4:33-47.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. and Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. J. Behav. Med., 8:163-190.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., Burney, R. and Sellers, W.  (1986). Four year follow-up of a meditation-based program for the self-regulation of chronic pain:  Treatment outcomes and compliance. Clin.J.Pain, 2:159-173.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York, New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A.O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L.G., Fletcher, K., Pbert, L., Linderking, W., Santorelli, S.F.  (1992). Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Am. J Psychiatry, 149:936-943.

Kearney D.J., McDermott K., Martinez M., and Simpson T.L. (2011). Association of participation in a mindfulness programme with bowel symptoms, gastrointestinal symptom-specific anxiety and quality of life. Aliment Pharmacol Ther., 34(3):363-73.

Khalsa, S.B.S. (2004). Treatment of chronic insomnia with yoga: A preliminary study with sleep-wake diaries. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 29(4): 269-278.

Kuttner, L., Chambers, C., Hardial, J., Israel, DM, Jacobson, K., and Evans, K. (2006). A randomized trial of yoga for adolescents with irritable bowel syndrome. Pain Res Manag. Winter; 11(4): 217–224.

Maex, E. (2011). The Buddhist roots of mindfulness training: a practitioners view. Contemporary Buddhism, 12: 1.

Ornish, D., Scherwitz, L.W., Billings, J.H., Gould, K.L.,  Merritt, T.A., Sparler, S., Armstrong, W.T., Ports, T.A., Hogeboom, C., and Brand, R.J. (1998). Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA, 280(23):2001-2007.

Pradhan, E.K., Baumgarten, M., Langenberg, P., Handwerger, B., Gilpin, A.K., Magyari, T., Hochberg, M.C., Berman, B.M. (2007). Effect of Mindfulness-Based stress reduction in rheumatoid arthritis patients. Arthritis Care & Research, 57(7): 1134–1142.

Tekur, P., Singphow, C., Nagendra, H.R., and Raghuram, N. (2008). Effect of short-term intensive yoga program on pain, functional disability and spinal flexibility in chronic low back pain: A randomized control study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(6): 637-644.

Ülger, O. and Yağli, N.V. (2010). Effects of yoga on the quality of life in cancer patients. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 16 (2): 60-63.

Varela, F., Thompson, E., and Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

White, D. (1996). The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Every Moment an Opportunity for an Epiphany

I am sure to grow old.
I cannot avoid aging.
I am sure to become sick.
I cannot avoid sickness.
I am sure to die.
I cannot avoid death.
All things dear and beloved to me
are subject to change and separation.
I am the owner of my actions;
I will become the heir of my actions.
— Anguttara Nikaya

Elana Rosenbaum

Elana Rosenbaum

Every now and then something happens that is pivotal in our lives by which we measure time, a marker event like 9/11, a marriage or divorce, a birth or death or a diagnosis such as cancer. I’ve divided time into pre cancer and post stem cell transplant for lymphoma.  The time is marked not by age but by changes in my world. Pre-cancer mortality was a given intellectually but post diagnosis I knew it in my heart, head and gut.   Death became a part of my awareness and I could no longer delude myself into believing that illness and loss happened to others but not to me. These last few weeks, with the earthquake ,tsunami, and radiation leaks in Japan  as well as war in Libya I am reminded of the universality of suffering and its pain.     I am inspired by the courage and cooperation of the Japanese people and horrified by the hatreds and violence of war. It feels like the whole world is trembling.  I ask myself daily, how am I living my life? What are my priorities? How am I putting mindfulness into action and what is possible to help others?

A favorite cartoon of mine is of two mice on an exercise wheel. One of the mice is shown peddling frantically and spinning around and around while the other is resting comfortably on the rim of his wheel with his legs dangling over it. The caption under him reads, “I’ve had an epiphany.”

Years ago my meditation teacher, Larry Rosenberg, talked about rolling over and over again and again in the mud.  I never quite understood what he meant until I began to notice certain thought patterns that refused to quit. I didn’t think in terms of greed, hatred and delusion I only knew that certain thoughts made me unhappy and created feelings, sensations and actions that perpetuated misery, mine and others.  I’ve been a psychotherapist since 1975. In working with my patients at a large HMO it seemed all too easy to slip into the morass of worry, fear and doubt. Identification with these states perpetuated misery by defining who we thought we were and what life held for us. This lead to immobility and more fear, anger and delusion.

Frustration and discouragement led me to the medical center and Jon’s (Kabat-Zinn) weekly yoga class and Larry’s (Rosenberg) meditation sessions. One short hour opened a window into possibilities. I would return to work energized and refreshed with greater clarity and patience to be with another. As my practice deepened compassion and understanding grew and real change became possible.

I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been teaching MBSR since the early 80‘s with the support of a community dedicated to mindfulness and the eradication of suffering. Community is essential. Overcoming suffering and understanding its causes is often a painful process.  We need each other for support and inspiration. Discovering what helps and what harms takes effort, high ethical standards and steady attention. MBSR is not a technique or a smart career move. It’s goal is liberation and wise action. We are all inter-connected, the rebel in Libya and his antagonist, the tsunami victim and the rescue worker.  We are all responsible for our actions. Just as aging, illness, death and loss is part of life so is compassion, understanding and growth. May our work together bring greater peace for ourselves and our world.

Elana Rosenbaum is a longtime teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and author of a book on her experience of working mindfully with her own cancer diagnosis entitled Here For Now: Living Well With Cancer  Through Mindfulness . There is also a companion Audio CD for her book available, by the same name. To learn more about Elana and her work, download her free meditation audio files, or learn about upcoming events, visit her website at Mindfulliving.com .

Dealing With the Classic MBSR Week 8 Question: Will Your Butt Be On The Cushion Tomorrow?

Perhaps the number one question asked by participants in MBSR or MBCT groups is: “Where can I go to continue to practice in a group?” The question behind the question is “How will I sustain the momentum I have built up over the past 8 weeks and continue to formally practice mindfulness?” We frequently suggest to our participants that they connect with each other to form small sitting groups. This article from mindful.org provides some nice guidelines for doing just that. We will refer folks to this helpful piece to support them in their practice.