I had the opportunity to sit in Vipassana meditation last month over Thanksgiving. It had been three years since my last course which was during my pregnancy. Motherhood has been an amazing challenge and finding ways to meditate throughout the day has been difficult, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to revitalize my practice again.
These are the notes I made in the clarity after 3 days of meditating 12 hours a day, observing my breath, observing my physical sensations and observing all the roiling thoughts in my mind that were taking my attention from the present moment.
You are lost in thought again: your thoughts, the thoughts of others, thoughts started in the distant past, thoughts unfinished. Thoughts re-crafted over and over of what you might have done or what you didn’t do. Thoughts of the future, the distant future, the immediate future, thoughts of a possible future if only you act now. Thoughts of people, of circumstances of dreams and expectations. Thoughts of passion, of regret, of emptiness, thoughts of what might have happened if only you had done or said something different than what had happened.
These thoughts boil and churn, tumbling over one another again and again, perhaps with slight variations as you reinforce them with your creative mind. If only, of only, of only…..
These thoughts grip your mind, freezing it in a static stasis of immobility. If only, if only, if only. But…but…but…
Resist the temptation to reinforce the past you are trying to correct, it is impossible. Practice being aware of these thoughts without engaging them. Observe how they rise. Observe yourself engage them. Observe how your physical structure reacts to this process. And then observe yourself observing all this.
Be still. Observe awhile and eventually you will see the spaces between thoughts. Continue observing with attentive awareness and those spaces of clarity will expand. As you observe, you will see how thoughts arise into the spaces and you will observe yourself engaging those thoughts for awhile before letting them go and watching them fade away. Do not become elated at this fading away. Do not expect the momentary peaceful clarity to last. For, certainly, another thought will arise again.
We are not able to change our thinking by eliminating the thinking process. We can learn to not react to thoughts and by not reacting to them. It is inevitable that they will fade away as part of the nature of life which is always and unavoidably ever-changing. The law of nature is that all is ever changing.
In the first hours of Noble Speech once silence has been broken this past vipassana course, something that always comes up is the question of how it is that we have all come to vipassana as students. Despite the wide variety of backgrounds and life experiences, it is always interesting to learn that we each came to vipassana in response to an inner call to wholeness. My story is similar to many others: A friend was talking about her experience at her first vipassana course. Her description of the meditation schedule, though rigorous, struck me as exactly what I needed at the time.
My practice has waxed and waned of the subsequent 10 years through graduate school, business and child-rearing. At times the discipline was strong and I was able to weather intense times of change with easy breaths. At other times the responsibility to others overwhelmed me and I did not make time to practice and the challenges of life became intense struggles. But always the same call to wholeness resounded and I returned to find the lessons of attentive awareness once again.
After this past course, I noticed the difference between myself as an older student and the expectations of the newer students that I once shared. As an older student, now, I no longer expect to have a sudden change of life that will enable me to maintain this clarity. I don’t expect that I will be able to instantly be able to fulfill the directive to meditate for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. And I can accept that without judgement. I will do what I can do with gratitude for the moments of clarity that come as life keeps changing, changing, changing, ever-changing.
Vipassana Courses are offered around the world through the teaching of SN Goenka who transcended life this past September. His recorded lessons teaching the technique and offering guidance to meditation ring true to new students and old students, young and old of all backgrounds and cultures. Vipassana Courses are offered freely and donation of funds, time or other service are accepted but not expected. To learn more, visit www.dhamma.org may all beings be happy.
- Vipassana meditation teacher and populariser SN Goenka passes away (presentbharat.wordpress.com)
- Our Teacher Has Passed (livingvipassana.com)
Mediation is the dance going on inside. The climax is very beautiful. Just like a young one has come out of womb. Just like baby bird has come out of the Egg. It takes time for the egg to hatch. Similarly , reaching the final chapter is not a One Day Job. The meditation was happening in my from my birth. In fact later I understood that it is called meditation.
Meditation is fall inside. Falling back to the originality. So many things come on the way. Confusion comes and many times questioning goes on continuously happening inside. Some times angerhappens as well. Thoughts run like traffic. The fight continuously happen. Again I would call it as a happening . There is no you kind of thing who is doing all this. It’s just a happening. Just like falling .
But when you settle deep down within yourself, you will feel as if thousands of Christmas bells are ringing inside. Just like Buddha is laughing inside .
Though you can start meditation at any time, it’s harder if your life is chaotic, and if you’re feeling paranoid, if you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities, or if you’re sick. But even starting under these conditions, meditation will help you to clear things up a bit. Slowly you reorganize your life to support your spiritual journey, At each stage there will be something you can do to create a supportive space. It may mean changing your diet, who you’re with, how you spend your time, what’s on your walls, what books you read, what you fill your consciousness with, how you care for your body, or where and how you sit to meditate. All these factors contribute to the depth and freedom that you can know through meditation.
You are under no pressure to rush these changes. You need not fear that because of meditation you are going to lose control and get swept away by a new way of life. As you gradually develop a quiet and clear awareness, your living habits will naturally come into harmony with your total environment, with your past involvements, present interests, and future concerns. There need be no sudden ending of relationships in order to prove your holiness. Such frantic changes only show your own lack of faith. When you are one in truth, in the flow, the changes in your life will come naturally.
You start cleaning up your life when you feel that you can’t go on until you do. Cleaning up your life means extricating yourself from those things which are obstacles to your liberation. But keep in mind that nothing in and of itself is an obstacle; it’s your attachment to it or your motive for doing it that is the obstacle. It’s not an issue of eating meat or not eating meat; it’s who’s eating it and why.
If your senses can be caught and held by something, you are still chained to the world. It’s your attachment to the objects of your senses that imprisons you. Failing to break off the attachments of the senses ultimately holds you back. The minute you aren’t preoccupied with what’s out there, then that pull is lost. You are free to go deep in meditation.
It’s not easy. It’s a stinker to get to that level of purity. You start out with things like what you eat, who you sleep with, what you watch on TV, what you do with your time. Many people fool themselves and imitate someone else’s purity. They do it in an imitative way, one of fear of being unholy. Abstaining from something for the wrong reason is no better than doing it. You can’t pretend to be pure; you can only go at your own speed.
As changes occur through meditation you find yourself attracted to things that are inconsistent with your old model of who you are. Usually, for example, after having meditated in a rigorous (and somewhat righteous) fashion, I have then taken time off to wallow in television, go to movies, take baths and relax. Then, to my surprise, I found myself not being attracted as much as before to these diversions, but being pulled toward just sitting quietly. This new way of being didn’t fit with my model of who I was. It was as if I were living with somebody I didn’t know very well. My models of myself hadn’t changed fast enough to keep up with who I was becoming.
“Inside yourself or outside, you never have to change what you see, only the way you see it.” – Thaddeus Golas
– Ram Dass, excerpt from Journey of Awakening: A Meditator’s Guidebook
- Everyone’s A Guru: Ram Dass is the Man (writeyourchapter.wordpress.com)
Wonderful discussion about Meditation as Art and Art as Meditation
Part of the Play and Creativity Series with Mary Alice Long of Play=Peace
From The Ryan James Gallery Facebook Page:
Difference between Tai Chi & Qigong
Often at retreats and from students the question arises; “What is the difference between qigong and tai chi?” In this article we will explore this question, understanding that this is a more complex matter than it seems, and cannot be fully answered in a few simple sentences. This is because there are literally hundreds of styles of qigong (chi gung) and ﬁve major schools of tai chi with numerous variations.
This is a lot of tai chi and a lot of qigong from which to make a simple statement. Accurately distinguishing between them is like separating out all the color ﬂows and shadings within a single beautiful but complex painting.
Cultural Translation Issues
There is another issue that muddies the waters and makes answering this qigong question difﬁcult. Many obtain information on the differences and similarities from a local qigong or tai chi instructor, or from a Chinese instructor who cannot translate from one culture to another easily, or who may not want to share what has been secret, etc.
The trouble is that instructors may only know details about the speciﬁc type of qigong they do, and not other types or its relationships to chi-energy arts as a whole. This is not unusual, just as in the ﬁeld of science, biologists often don’t know that much about civil engineering, and vice versa. As a result, misinformation and half-truths abound.
Comparing Qigong and Tai Chi
Anything of truly great value always has great subtlety, whether or not it looks simple and easy on the surface. Some other differences not mentioned here are too technical, and will not be covered as they may confuse rather than clarify. To bypass complex technical issues, just as is done when you want common sense to tell you how computers work, we will look at the four most commonly given simple answers to the original question—what is the difference between tai chi and qigong?
Each answer gives a progressively more complete answer. All are only partial truths, but at least they are the most accurate answers that can be given without going into excessive detail.
Level 1: Tai chi is a form of qigong, or, qigong is tai chi’s parent
This is the most common answer.
The accurate part of the statement is this: the invisible chi or internal power aspects included within the tai chi part of tai chi chuan derive directly from one branch of the 3,000-year-old Taoist qigong tradition, whereas Taoist qigong does not come from tai chi. However, the statement is misleading because it omits Buddhist or Confucian qigong, which have little in common with tai chi’s roots in Taoist qigong or Taoism. Learn more about this in the Five Branches of Qigong.
This answer also involves a common error in logic: since to the Western ear it sounds as if the word energy is contained in both words, they must mean the same thing. Right? Wrong! The qi or chi of qigong means energy, the chi of tai chi does not. In tai chi the chi means ‘ultimate’.
To add to the confusion, the chi in tai chi and qigong are almost universally pronounced by Westerners as “chee,” which is accurate for qigong and inaccurate for tai chi (“gee”) chuan. Those who commonly both see and mispronounce tai chi as chee also tend to assume both mean the same thing, which they do not.
Confusion escalates and gets reinforced when you ﬁnd out both tai chi and qigong work with chi-energy (however often in different ways) and have similar beneﬁts. Adding to the potential confusion, although many people may have heard the name, most in the West have only seen tai chi or qigong in still photos, on television, or at the cinema.
When shown visually, if these arts are even named, usually narrators inaccurately call both tai chi, because they don’t know the difference. This commonly leaves the impression that qigong is tai chi or vice versa. The public subsequently has an association that slow-motion movements + Chinese something-or-other = tai chi. Consequently, the public and the media are more familiar with the name tai chi than qigong, and commonly do not make much distinction between them.
Level 2: Tai chi is a martial art, qigong is purely for healing
The accurate part of this statement is that qigong has speciﬁc techniques or styles that are particularly effective for speciﬁc diseases beyond the ken of tai chi. For instance, there are speciﬁc qigong methods for helping those with cancer and mitigating the effects of radiation and chemotherapy. In China one set used for this was Dragon and Tiger Medical Qigong.
The misleading part is that although all tai chi powerfully heals and maintains health, only a tiny fraction of participants do any of its practical martial arts techniques. On the other hand, qigong also has within it practices for increasing the power you need to make self-defense techniques effective, even though qigong per se does not include the ﬁghting techniques themselves.
Level 3: Tai chi and qigong have different movements
Although the ﬁrst part of this answer can be a little murky, the second part is relatively clear. Both tai chi and some (but not most or all), aspects of qigong do what they do using flowing, fluid, slow-motion movements. To an untrained eye, all regular, smooth, slow-motion movements would tend to look the same, no matter how different they are in reality. Yet a casual observer would be able to clearly distinguish between different kinds of movements done at a faster speed. Nevertheless, slow-motion movements are only fast movements done slowly.
The second part of the answer is this: just because tai chi and qigong movements are done in slow motion does not mean that their movements must basically be the same. There is an exceptionally wide range of different movements, each requiring different kinds of physical coordination. Moreover, although the slow-motion movements of different tai chi styles may be somewhat different, on the whole they are basically variations of the same theme.
In contrast, slow-motion movements in a particular qigong style can look radically different from either tai chi or other qigong systems. Take, for example, two well-respected members of the Taoist qigong tribe—tai chi chuan and Wild Goose qigong. Wild Goose has as many moves as a tai chi long form, yet looks radically different from tai chi. Likewise, non-Taoist medical and Buddhist qigong systems also contain movements not to be found in tai chi or each other.
There are many ways to move the body, as can be seen in the differences in the dance world between styles of ballet, ballroom, tap, disco, and hip-hop. Like dance styles, within the hundreds of qigong schools you can move in other ways besides regular, smooth, slow-motion movements. There are techniques which involve shaking, jumping up and down, vibrating, shouting, alternating speed with staying dead still, ﬂapping like a bird, squatting ﬂatfooted, and even moving freely and spontaneously in ways almost too strange to describe, while making weird, otherworldly sounds.
Above and beyond moving, qigong also has primary methods that specialize in:
- Standing, either with your arms by your sides or in all kinds of positions.
- Sitting, both on the ﬂoor and in chairs.
- Lying down in various positions.
- Sexual and all kinds of human interactions, including talking.
Although tai chi may use standing, sitting, and lying down techniques, they are ancillary to the primary technique of slow-motion movements for health, longevity, and stress management.
Level 4: Tai chi and qigong may work with chi-energy differently
Why are you doing these movements in the ﬁrst place? From a purely physical viewpoint the body needs to move and exercise to prevent problems. A different perspective is that the movements are designed to speciﬁcally promote the ﬂow of chi within you. Therefore, if you want to generate a speciﬁc chi ﬂow in your body, one type of movement may make it easier whereas others may make it harder.
Tai chi is based upon the potential to fully incorporate all 16 parts of the neigongi system seamlessly into every movement; qigong normally tends to partially utilize some, but not all, of the 16 neigong components in any speciﬁc movement or entire form. In tai chi, although some speciﬁc moves may make it slightly easier to initially learn or solidly assimilate any one of the 16 components, for an advanced practitioner, the other 15 are ideally always present and integrated within each and every move of the form.
Some Taoist qigong schools will teach the entire 16 components initially through a series of short qigong forms, each of which emphasizes two or three speciﬁc parts of the neigong, until the ﬁnal form which encompasses all 16. After this the student has a complete background within which to engage learning the full energetic potential of tai chi. The Energy Arts Qigong Exercise Program, for example, does this in his teaching work, using five very short qigong sets plus Dragon and Tiger Qigong, the ﬁrst ﬁve of which initially emphasize only one to three components of the entire 16 neigong components.
Qigong also often separates speciﬁc chi functions into separate movements or different forms. For example, while doing a qigong form, during one move you might direct energy through a speciﬁc acupuncture meridian (the lung or heart meridian for example), and in the next move you might direct energy through a different meridian. Or in one move, you might draw energy through a particular acupuncture point in your body, and in the next release the energy from a different one. Or within the same form during one series of moves you could deliberately only exclusively activate and work with one of your three tantiens or centers of energy, and later within the same form, in a different series of moves,deliberately solely activate a different tantien and its functions, or other speciﬁc elements of the Taoist neigong system.
Ideally, in tai chi, an experienced practitioner will not separate these energy practices in this way. So that provides you with four different ways of looking at the question. All have truth in them and help elicudate the difference between qigong and tai chi.
Article extracted from Tai Chi Health for Life Book. To order this book click here.
I want to meditate. I do. I want to be calm and happy and live in the now. I want to try to deactivate genes associated with stress and inflammation and turn on those associated with mitochondrial function and telomere maintenance. I want to be mindful, darn it. And yet, like George Costanza, who wanted to be a Civil War buff without the bother of actually learning about the Civil War, I’ve yet to put tush to cushion.
“You want to meditate like you want to wear a bikini,” a friend observed. “You want to change your life, but only if no effort is involved.”
Who has 20 minutes a day to spare? There are detailed analyses of “Mad Men” to devour, photos of friends’ meals to “like” on Facebook, computer passwords to remember. Please don’t throw that Gandhi quote in my face — “I have so much to do today, I will need to medidate twice as long.” I’m busy.
And yet, the studies showing the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are so relentless that I need to retreat to a monastery just to get away from the news. Nothing’s more stressful than hearing about the advantages of something you’re not doing.
Researchers published almost 600 studies on the subject last year, according to the editor of a new high-end magazine sold at Whole Foods called — what else? — Mindful. That’s up from 10 in 1993, when meditation was more associated with incense than with the US Marine Corps, which recently ran a pilot Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training program.
These days, top money managers are meditating. So is US Representative Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). He wrote a book on the subject, “A Mindful Meditation,” and says that to his knowledge, no colleagues have accused him of going New Age. Eager to lower stress-related business costs — $300 billion annually in the United States, according to the World Health Organization — corporate America is getting in on the action. At Google, employees can take a “Search Inside Yourself” course.
From a merchandising perspective, meditation has a lot to learn from yoga, but it’s making progress. In Lawrence, DharmaCrafts sells $349 Sherpa meditation cloaks and $59 zabutons (meditation cushions) for kids. Earlier this year, Electrolux tried to use meditation to promote its new ultra-quiet vacuum. “In an age of anxiety every opportunity to reduce stress matters,” the press release read. “Electrolux is now transforming the chore of vacuum cleaning into a resource for personal well-being, with a meditation program developed especially for vacuuming; an opportunity to clean your home — and your mind.”
The well-off are building meditation rooms and taking luxury meditation retreats. At the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, Calif., a single suite perched at cliff’s edge with a stunning view of the Pacific, and Internet access, goes for $1,750 per weekend.
In Hudson, N.H., former Miss Taunton Katie Boyd, a pageant-fitness guru, recently started teaching meditation at her Miss Fit Club. “It’s not always about are my boobs perky enough? How does my [rear end] look in this swimsuit?” she said, noting that meditating gets rid of negative energy.
“When these girls walk into the judging room, they’re nervous nellies, and the judges can feel it.” Now that they’ve started meditating, she added, she gets pageant-day calls from clients who are nervous because they are not nervous.
A pastry shop selling “mindful cupcakes” has yet to open, but it can’t be far off. No less a trend omnivore than Arianna Huffington is all over it (in tweets and blog posts, on TV, and at her company’s New York headquarters, where employees can participate in breathing and meditation sessions). In January, a meditation workshop debuted at the buzzy Davos World Economic Forum meeting. Perhaps most significant, the movement has crossed over to the pet world. In the book “How to Meditate With Your Dog,” the authors James Jacobson and Kristine Chandler Madera explain that “meditating with our dogs is one of the most caring things we can do for them.”
How did we get here? Barry Boyce, the editor in chief of the new Mindful magazine, said a key moment came in a 1993, when Bill Moyers’s “Healing and the Mind” series featured the groundbreaking stress-reduction work Jon Kabat-Zinn was doing at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Before that, the word “mindful wasn’t really in play,” Boyce said. “I’m 57, and when I was in college, [meditation] was considered religious and a little weird. Everyone seemed to think you had to have a beatific smile on your face and a chant going through your head. Now, 40 years later, there has been a health revolution that emphasizes self-care. Mindfulness can be a religious thing but it doesn’t have to be.”
Despite all the evidence of its benefits, most people don’t meditate, but the numbers of those who do are growing, according to the National Institutes of Health. In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 9.4 percent of American adults had meditated within the past 12 months, up from 7.6 percent in 2002.
To her dismay, Monika Lutz is not one of them. “I always seem to find an excuse,” said Lutz, a junior at the Harvard Extension School and the vice president of its student association. “If I’ve got 15 minutes free, I think I could go for a quick run or finish some task or call this professor or work on my resume. I think that if I could just get it all done then I’ll reduce my stress and I won’t need meditation.
“But when I do get it done, something new always pops up.”
Lutz went on a 10-day meditation retreat after high school, and she’s been unable to incorporate mindful meditation in her everyday life. “To say that I can only relax my mind when I’m four states away in complete silence surrounded by strangers — it’s not sustainable,” she said. “I need to be able to do it on the Red Line.”
Boston-based publicist Kate Conti is also in what might be called a pre-meditative state. With clients in the health and fitness field, she and her firm, KC Public Relations, have promoted meditation’s benefits, yet Conti is unable to reap them for herself. “I even have gone through a yoga teacher training program where we had a special session on meditation, and I struggled with being able to stay focused for a short 10 minutes,” she said. “I signed up for a Deepak Chopra online mediation e-mail, but I didn’t stick with it.”
You know who else doesn’t meditate? Elizabeth Gilbert , the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” a travelogue of spiritual seeking. Even so, people regularly ask her for advice on how they can do it. “What they forget about ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is how poorly I did it,” she said. “Even when I was in the ashram, it was hard for me. If you live in New Jersey” — where she does — “it’s even harder.”
Gilbert, also the author of the forthcoming novel “The Signature of All Things,” says she has a “pretty religious yoga practice” and finds peace in gardening. “But I completely intend to begin a disciplined meditation program,” she said. “Probably tomorrow.”
She paused, and then gave me some advice. “You should meditate,” she said.
I plan to.
Getting started is the hardest part
Everyone knows that. OK, sometimes with dieting — and exercise and dense nonfiction and house cleaning and just about everything else — the middle also presents a challenge. And the end can be tough, too. But if you’ve been wanting to try meditation but are unsure how to begin, here are tips from Barry Boyce, the editor in chief of the new Mindful magazine:
1. Go online to get a clearer picture of just what mindfulness meditation is, anyway. Mind the Moment at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care offers a series of short, fun, and accessible videos. A YouTube video called “What Is Mindfulness?” with Jon Kabat-Zinn is also a great place to start.
2. Learn how to do mindfulness practice online: A great resource is www.mindful.org — in particular the section called “Mindfulness: The Basics.”
4. Find a local group and set up an appointment to meet someone who can teach you face-to-face how to meditate. Mindful Boston offers drop-in classes.
I am so excited and honored to be joined by two brilliant young artists this June at Mind Unwind Gallery!
Having the addition of their presentation and origami contribution enriches the exhibit and extends it beyond my own capacity. The Origami Seascape emphasizes the intention behind The Sacred Shadow Self to encourage viewers to reach deeper into themselves and remember the excitement and impassioned investigation that is inspired by the instigating sparks of our own passions. It seems all to easy to forget that vital force of life in our busy lives.
Remembering and sharing that excitement is what I see as my job an an artist. I feel very lucky and honored to be sharing this time and space with two brilliant young artists also inspired by origami! Bringing together their contributions into the same wall was magical. Enjoy!
Cole Durnwirth is a 9 year old origami artist from West Seattle. He started folding at age 5 after he saw the documentary Between the Folds. For this exhibit he has contributed “Albatross II” a life-sized 11 ½ foot long origami Albatross folded from one sheet of paper. A practice sketch is also hanging.
Media: Art paper. Classic Origami Construction from a single sheet
Caroline Byrne lives in Seattle, is 9 years old and is in the 3rd grade. She first became interested in origami in preschool when they made paper hats and fortune tellers. Then in Kindergarten she was inspired by the 1,000 paper cranes project that the 3rd creates each year. That Christmas she asked for origami paper and Santa delivered. Caroline has been experimenting with origami ever since. Her favorite thing about origami is seeing a flat piece of paper turn into a piece of art. Her contribution to this installation are sea anemones. This origami is her own creation and was inspired by origami chrysanthemums. Caroline also loves experimenting with many different types of materials to create unique works of art. She hopes to be an artist when she grows up.
Media: Art paper. Modular Origami Construction with 10, 8 and 6 interlocking sheets.
Karah Pino became interested in origami in the 4th grade when she learned to make boxes at school. That Christmas she and her family did a factory line, making 100’s of boxes out of old Christmas cards. After graduating art school in 1998, she began to teach Origami as part of an after school program and was challenged by the excitement of the kids to learn more to teach them. Her love of origami comes from her enjoyment of mathematics, geometry and engineering expressed in art. Her contribution to the Origami Wall is a free formed Cloud Maker which produces a cloud shape in its shadow.
You are invited to appreciate the Origami Seascape through the entire month of June at Mind Unwind Gallery in West Seattle. Meet the Origami Artists during Artwalk on June 13th from 5-7pm during the Youth Origami Invitational.
Here’s a small study of what will be a wall-sized Mandala with glints of Refracted Light:
And this is what happens when you use small scissors to fold and cut lots and lots of thickly folded
I upgraded to new fancy titanium blades with molded handle scissors at Utrecht Art Supplies and found out they’ve been bought by Blick. Hmmmm…
Here’s the study for the show title. I’m still working on my “SELF” (HA!):
Down to the wire, now, my friends. I’m curious to see if I’ll pull this all off. 🙂
See how it all comes together starting June4th at Mind Unwind Gallery with the opening Artwalk June 13th and Closing June 28th. See more Sacred Shadow Studio updates and read the Artist Statement.
There are times when I think I’d be much happier if I could spend the rest of my life lounging on the sands of the Mediterranean, having someone fan me with palm fronds while feeding me superfood grapes. In other words, life would be better without any stress. Or would it?
According to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, a little stress may not be so bad for us after all. While chronic stress may be harmful, acute (short-term) stress may actually boost our cognitive function. The findings are supported by other research suggesting a little bit o’ stress may have beneficial effects for our brains and bodies. The key, of course, is knowing when we’re too harried for our own good.
What’s the Deal?
Before we get into the science, let’s be clear that most of the research in this area involves rats, not humans, so it’s not entirely clear that the findings apply to people. For a while now, researchers have suspected that the effect of stress on the (rat) brain is like an upside-down U: Up to a certain point, stress boosts cognitive function; after that, it starts to take a negative toll  .
In this latest study, researchers wanted to see if short-term stress really would turn regular old rats into geniuses. So they subjected rats to acute stress by confining them in their cages for a few hours. The stress caused the rats’ corticosterone (a stress hormone) levels to shoot up for a few hours, and also caused the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory function.
Two days after the stressful event, the researchers tested rats’ memories, and found nothing had changed. But two weeks later, the rats’ memories had significantly improved. Then the researchers got super-techy and figured out that the cells produced after the stressful event were the same cells involved in learning during the second round of memory tests. In other words, the acute stress had made the rats smarter. The scientists concluded that acute stress has a beneficial effect on cognitive function.
Is It Legit?
Possibly. Again, we’re talking about rats here. And while the researchers behind the latest study believe the findings apply to humans as well, there’s currently no way to monitor neural stem cells in the human brain, according to study co-author Daniela Kaufer.
There’s some evidence that acute stress is not only beneficial for rats’ brains, but also for their immune system. Stress hormones released in response to acute stress may warn the immune system about upcoming threats such as an infection . On the other hand, studies of humans suggest that if the immune system is chronically exposed to stress hormones, we may become more susceptible to diseases .
Together these findings imply that acute stress — think a job interview or even a ride on a scary rollercoaster — might actually be necessary for our physical and mental health. It’s chronic stress — like being stuck in a bad job or relationship — that causes our health to decline, contributing to issues as serious as heart disease and obesity.
Still, it’s worth noting that some forms of acute stress may actually cause serious damage, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The UC Berkeley researchers say it’s still unclear why some types of acute stress have positive effects, and others can be so damaging. It might just be a question of individual experience, so it’s worth figuring out where our own optimal stress level lies.
Do you think a certain level of stress can be beneficial? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.