Massachusetts General Hospital

Bill George: The Tipping Point for Mindfulness

The Tipping Point for Mindfulness

Posted: 06/21/2013 8:32 am

Mindfulness practices like meditation have been in existence for thousands of years, but only now are they reaching the tipping point in the Western world. Today’s pace and stress are so great that people are searching for new practices to find resilience in the midst of chaos, and mindfulness programs are helping them find better ways to live.

Mindfulness, the practice of self-observation without judgment, encompasses an array of activities in which we focus inward on our minds and our inner voices. New research studies are demonstrating conclusively that meditation and mindfulness are good for your health — and for your soul. This is why each of us should consider balancing the fast-paced nature of our lives with individual practices that cultivate mindfulness.

My Experiences with Meditation

I began meditating thirty-seven years ago after my wife Penny dragged me “kicking and screaming” to a weekend training program in transcendental meditation at the University of Minnesota. I started meditating twenty minutes, twice a day, and stayed with the practice because I felt better and was more effective at work and at home. Meditation helps me relieve the stress of the day, gain clarity about what’s important, open up creative ideas, and find added energy and a deep sense of well-being. For a practice that costs nothing and doesn’t involve medication, that’s a good bargain.

For years I was reluctant to talk about meditating, as it sounded too “new age,” especially to the media. Today, mindfulness is becoming mainstream, no longer confined to closed-door meditation circles and therapy sessions. Public interest in mindfulness is increasing, as evidenced by the proliferation of literature on the subject; an Amazon search for “mindfulness” brings up 4,006 books.

Let me describe how meditation works in my daily life. When I open my emails, I am bombarded with requests and information. There are packages to read from the boards on which I serve, messages from Harvard colleagues, inquiries about speaking, and an unending stream of requests. Meanwhile, the phone is ringing, people are stopping by my office with questions, and I am trying to prepare to teach my next class. Navigating through these issues requires constant context shifting, which can leave me mentally drained.

After I meditate, I feel calm and centered, having slowed my mind from the adrenalin-fueled, frenetic workday pace. Consequently, I am able to focus deeply on the big questions and do my most productive thinking. The clarity that comes with meditation enables me to escape from my never-ending “to do” list and concentrate on my most important priorities, not letting them be overtaken by the urgent, less important tasks that can be delegated. The self-awareness that comes from meditation helps me understand how others perceive me and how to empower them.

The Science of Meditation

Research has shown that meditation is powerful enough to alter the makeup of the human mind. Thanks to the personal dedication of the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute he founded in the U.S., neuro science researchers are studying mindfulness meditation. Breakthrough research using fMRI technology conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated the correlation between mindfulness and changes in the regions of the brain related to learning, memory, and emotion. Other studies have shown that mindfulness is as effective for treating depression as antidepressant drugs.

A Massachusetts General Hospital study discovered that meditation has the ability to change one’s gene expression (which genes are turned “on” or “off”) in as little as six weeks, based on blood samples before and after meditation. Genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance were enhanced while genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways were reduced. Another Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that eight weeks of meditation shrunk the amygdala, the portion of the brain modulating response to fear and stress.

Meditation and its Applications

In a recent Huffington Post article, my wife Penny highlighted the importance of mindfulness in integrative medicine in connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Integrative medicine encourages patients to practice inexpensive and non-toxic activities such as yoga, massage, healthy eating, and mindfulness meditation in combination with conventional Western medicine. Mindfulness is also practiced by health professionals in order to cope with the immense stress of their work. Allina Health, the largest health system in Minnesota, offers resilience-training programs for employees that encourage mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise to manage anxiety and depression.

Most leaders do everything they can to shape their enterprises, but if they don’t step back from constant action, they lose perspective and their sense of priority, as well as their ability to create original solutions. That’s why many companies like Walt Disney, General Mills, and Google have made mindfulness an important element of their company cultures by offering it to their employees.

Thirty years ago, Disney brought in Ron Alexander, a meditation teacher, to teach seminars to inspire their creative teams. Following the meditation seminars, Disney’s teams dreamed up Tokyo Disney, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Today, the company incorporates meditative practice into its workplace and is regarded as one of the world’s most innovative companies.

For the past seven years, General Mills employees have engaged in meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices while at work. General Mills reports that 80 percent of employees practicing mindfulness were able to make better decisions with greater clarity and 89 percent reported enhanced ability in listening to others. Marturano recently formed the Institute for Mindful Leadership to bring mindfulness training to corporate executives.

In April 2012, Google announced a new program titled “Search Inside Yourself,” a free course for employees designed to teach emotional intelligence through the practice of meditation. The program was designed by Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer looking for a way to ease the burden of Google’s fast-paced, demanding environment. Mr. Tan’s program is very popular among employees, generating a waiting list each time it’s offered.

Cultivating mindfulness takes daily practice. Mindfulness allows us to live in the present, bringing a deeper understanding of what is happening and how we respond to it. I urge you to give it a try. You will be glad you did, and so will those around you.

Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.

Bill George: The Tipping Point for Mindfulness.


The Big Chill-Out: How Meditation Can Help With Everything | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

Changing the way your genes express themselves, coaxing you to actually understand yourself, and finally letting you really relax: Meditation is well worth getting familiar with.

By: Drake Baer

At the start of the monsoon season two summers ago, I was sitting cross-legged in a humid classroom in in the foothills of the Himalayas. As an aside to her laughing explanations of contemplative life, our teacher was telling us that just as Arctic people have many words for snow, Tibetans have a rich vocabulary for mental actions–and among all those words for ascertaining and understanding, the Tibetan word for meditation is göm.

Göm, she says, translates most directly as familiarization. Not stillness or clarity or insight or any of the other transcendental yearnings that I had heaped upon my meditation practice, but a simple becoming-familiar-with-ness. Just as you come to know neighborhoods by wandering around them, people by talking to them, or darkened guesthouse rooms by stumbling into their furniture, you become familiar with your mind by sitting still with it.

What is it to become familiar? A sort of intimacy, and with that, a sort of vulnerability; The sociologist Brené Brown writes of how people insulate themselves from their experiences for fear of the shame they’d feel for feeling the way they feel. The practice of meditation, then, is a becoming familiar with these layers of feeling the way that you feel in the same way you get to know a friend: like those little Russian matryoshka nesting dolls, you get to know an identity layer by layer.

What meditation does for you

Interestingly, the modern Western tradition of objective research is increasingly corroborating the ancient Eastern tradition of subjective research into meditation–and the results are as intuitive as they are fascinating, as intriguing as they are motivating.

We’re usually not very good at reporting on our experiences: We’re more racist than we care to admit; we’re all sure we’re plenty popular; and if we think we’re good at multitasking, at least we aren’t the worst. But experienced meditators are adept at introspection: As the authors of one study on the topic conclude, “the simplest interpretation … is that subjects with greater meditation experience may provide more accurate reports of mental experience.”

But perhaps even more profound than that, a Massachusetts General Hospital study found meditation changes your gene expression. How? While when we experience stress, we usually have the tense mobilization of fight-or-flight response, people with a little meditation training are able to instead bring to mind what psychologists call the relaxation response to stress, allaying anxiety and hypertension.

Meditation isn’t “just relaxing,” co-author Dr. Herbert Benson told Atlantic writer Lindsay Abrams. Instead, when you begin to mediate, you start to have “a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress.” The genes associated with inflammation turn off; the genes involved in energy metabolism and other functions turn on.

And these microscopic changes have macro effects.

How meditation translates into work

As we’ve discussed, cultivating a meditation practice can help you become a better leader and more creative–it worked for Disney.

So how to begin? Therapist and meditation teacher Ron Alexander once gave us a place to start:

Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position, or in a straight-backed chair with your feet on the floor, or lie down. If seated, close your eyes gently; if you lie down, keep your eyes slightly open.

Set an alarm for between 12 and 20 minutes.

Focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils or on the rise and fall of your belly.

When thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise, don’t try too hard to push them away. Acknowledge them, but then refocus on your breathing.

And after enough hours of on-the-cushion familiarization, you gain a hard-to-articulate skill.

Study: How Yoga Alters Genes

via The Big Chill-Out: How Meditation Can Help With Everything | Fast Company | Business + Innovation.


Meditation: “It’s Not New Age nonsense” | 360 Degrees of Mindful Living

Meditation: “It’s Not New Age nonsense”

By Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

In meditation research the news keeps getting better and better:

“Previous studies have reported changes to the brain while people practise [meditation, yoga and prayer] activities, but a new study shows for the first time that gene activity changes too. […] “It’s not New Age nonsense,” says Herbert Benson of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He and his colleagues analysed the gene profiles of 26 volunteers – none of whom regularly meditate – before teaching them a relaxation routine lasting 10 to 20 minutes. It included reciting words, breathing exercises and attempts to exclude everyday thought.”

An 8-week course of meditation of this kind resulted in a change of gene profile:

“The boosted genes had three main beneficial effects: improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells; boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar; and preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable and so prevent cells wearing out and ageing.”

Plus there was a decrease in the activity of “a master gene called NF-kappaB, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers.”

Furthermore: “by taking blood immediately after before and after performing the technique on a single day, researchers also showed that the gene changes happened within minutes.”

So, I ask you, why not sit down for a few minutes to settle down your mind? The news doesn’t get any better than this! With news like this, this whole business of meditation is now really a matter of mental hygiene. Indeed, what if we – as a culture, as a civilization, – framed the matter of meditation as a matter of hygiene? Chances are you brush your teeth every day. Why not scrub your mind of “everyday thoughts” every day too?!

Ref: Meditation Boosts Genes That Promote Good Health, Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, May 2, 2013

via Meditation: “It’s Not New Age nonsense” | 360 Degrees of Mindful Living.


Meditation Produces Opposite Effect of ‘Fight or Flight’ | Psych Central News

By Traci Pedersen Associate News Editor

Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on May 4, 2013

Meditation Produces Opposite Effect of ‘Fight or Flight’ A new study reveals that practitioners of meditation experience changes in gene expression that are the exact opposite of what occurs during the “flight or fight” stress response.

Specifically, genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance are turned on, while those involved in inflammation are turned off.

These effects are more significant and consistent for long-term practitioners.

People who practice simple meditation aren’t “just relaxing,” explained the study’s senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson. Instead, they’re experiencing “a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress.”

It’s been shown that repeating a yoga pose, prayer, or mantra while disregarding other thoughts protects against anxiety and depression as well as physical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.

For the study, published in the open access journal PLoS One, researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Subjects trained 26 adults with no previous meditation experience for eight weeks.

The participants practiced deep breathing, repeated mantras, and learned to ignore intrusive thoughts.

At first, they were given blood tests immediately before and 15 minutes after listening to a 20-minute health education CD. This was repeated after their training, except this time with a CD that guided them through meditation. Twenty-five other individuals, who had long-term experience in evoking the relaxation response, were tested as well.

All of the subjects’ blood samples revealed changes in gene expression following meditation. The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight. In the long-term practitioners, the effects were more pronounced and consistent.

Although the study only explored one way of reaching a relaxation response, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation.

This is the first time, however, that researchers have been able to show that these practices actually produce a change in gene expression.

The findings show that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes. “Do it for years,” said Benson, “and then these effects are quite powerful in how they change your gene activity.”

Source: PLoS ONE

via Meditation Produces Opposite Effect of ‘Fight or Flight’ | Psych Central News.


How the neuroscience of meditation rewires the brain for love – San Francisco Women’s Health |

Essential to human survival early in life is the ability to form a secure bond in infancy. It has been said that babies who receive food, water, clothing, and all their basic physical requirements but lack human connection do not thrive. Why is attachment so intrinsic for people? Our species are a social bunch and like infants who are deficient in affection from primary caregivers, adults that lack strong interpersonal bonds with friends and family are more prone to the havoc of stress. The ability to bond with others begins literally in our own minds. Sometimes this capacity may be atrophied after an extended period of social isolation. Fortunately the brain can be retrained back to a state of love through meditation. This is not romantic love but the “agape” kind which comes from the Greek and refers to a love of humankind. Close relationships are a vital foundation for well-being but if your mind is rewired against love, it can be a sabotaging force in all areas of one’s life. Dr. Marsha Lucas, a Washington-DC psychologist and neuropsychologist, is the author of Rewire Your Brain For Love which explains how the neuroscience of meditation can rewire the brain back to love. Dr. Lucas answered the following Q&A about her book and the benefits of mindfulness meditation and its clinical applications.

How would you describe mindfulness meditation to someone who has never heard of it before?

I think the best definition of mindfulness practice is one from Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.

If you’ve never meditated before (or even if you have), you may have some idea that meditation requires sitting on the floor like a pretzel with no distractions or discomfort, in a blessedly quiet, sublimely inspirational room, legs crossed in lotus position, serenely closed eyes, and your mind completely still.

Gaahh—no wonder so many people think they can’t meditate! Who can achieve that?

So what does it look like? You bring your attention to something. Your mind wanders (naturally!). You notice that your mind has wandered, and you gently – nicely, lovingly, kindly (you get the point) – bring it back. Lather, rinse, repeat. The more your mind wanders, the more chances you have to notice and return – which ancient practice and neuroscience researchers alike think may be the “magic moment” in which change in the mind and the brain occur.

From a neuroscience perspective, how does the practice of mindfulness meditation “rewire” the brain?

We have the capacity to create actual changes in the connections and pathways in our brain, throughout our adult lives. That’s a relatively new finding in neuroscience – “neuroplasticity” – the brain’s ability to grow new neurons and new connections beyond about age 21 – wasn’t widely accepted until 10-15 years ago.

To put it very simply, whatever your brain does the most, it commits the most resources to. Hebb’s “law” states that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, if you practice playing piano, you can see increased density and connections in the brain areas controlling fine motor control of both hands. If you play the violin, same results – except only for the left (fingering) hand. Studies have shown that these changes occur even if you never actually use your hand(s) to practice – but just visualize the activity of your hands on the piano, for instance.

Now, here’s what’s most exciting to me as a psychologist, because I know that the brain can work for us, or against us, in our relationships: The research being done in neuroscience and brain-imaging labs has been showing that the practice of mindfulness meditation seems to change the size and activity in brain regions that are deeply involved in how we “do” relationships. These include the insula, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and other areas I talk about (in plain English!) in the book.

Is creating vibrant relationships through mindfulness meditation about reducing “automatic anxious responses” in people who tend to have over-developed fear responses?

That’s definitely a part of it – developing pathways in the brain that let you have better, smoother, and in-the-moment ways to keep your “alarm button” (in your lower brain, your amygdala) from hijacking you, so you don’t end up having fear-based, anger-based, or sort of “knee-jerk” defensive responses – the ones that get you into relationship trouble.

There’s more, though – developing a more integrated brain helps you experience so much more in your relationships, much more than just managing your fear better.

What are the 7 key relationship benefits you detail in the book from mindfulness meditation?

Perfect question to follow up with! Here’s the best way I’ve found to summarize the impact of mindfulness practice on relationships:

1. Better management of your body’s reactions
2. Regulation of your “fear” response
3. Greater emotional resilience
4. Increased response flexibility
5. Improved insight or “self-¬knowing”
6. Healthier, balanced empathy and attunement – to yourself and others
7. A perspective shift from “me” to “we”

I’ve found that the growth of these seven acquirable skills — that’s important: we can acquire these! — has such potent impact on our relationships with others that I call them the seven “high-voltage” relationship benefits of mindfulness.

How come people are on autopilot in their automatic reactions to certain situations? What is the brain wiring behind that response?

Think about getting a nasty “ouch” when we’re very little. Maybe a kitten accidentally gave you a painful (and surprising!) bite when you were a baby. You won’t explicitly remember it (our baby brain can’t yet store memories with “date and time stamps”), but thereafter, you’ll be likely to sort of automatically avoid (or distrust, or dislike) cats, since your brain just “knows danger when it sees it.” So you automatically practice that avoidance, reinforcing it. Good way to survive, right? Learn once and it’s in there – you don’t even have to think about it, because it’s a reaction without “thought.”

We’re talking about implicit memory, and much of what we learn in the first two years of life are implicit memories – we don’t have “conscious” awareness of the events or feelings, but we learn from them and are shaped by them (literally, in our brain’s pathways).

From birth until about two years, during a staggering amount of brain development and wiring, we’re very busy with one of our most important jobs as babies – developing attachments with our caregivers, so we’ll survive. Those early experiences of love, attachment, vulnerability – being with a caregiver who “gets” you and responds accordingly, or not — get stored in implicit memory. So, much like recognizing a cat instantly and knowing what it “means” to you, your partner’s disappointed look evokes that instant “knowing” and long-ago wired-up expectation and reaction (maybe trying harder to please, maybe going silent and withdrawing). Being emotionally vulnerable and getting close to someone – that could fire up the implicit memory of a cold and distant parent, and that’s implicitly remembered and acted upon just as unconsciously as your fear of small furry things with teeth.

Those “unthought knowns,” as Christopher Bollas calls them, can affect us like a puppet master pulling the strings on a marionette, or like the autopilot program on a plane – without our awareness. Breaking out of autopilot is the key to better relationships.

How long does it take for a person’s brain to show changes on a brain scan as a result of mindfulness practice?

You don’t have to practice for years to see these changes in the brain — some of the most recent findings have looked at people who have never practiced meditation, then taught half of those folks how to meditate and had them practice it for eight weeks. When the researchers compared the “never meditated” group to the “meditating for eight weeks” group, the people who had meditated for just eight weeks showed beneficial brain changes. Richie Davidson, PhD, a phenomenal researcher in this area, talks about changes in as little as two weeks of regular mindfulness practice, and there are more and more studies showing up in the research supporting that.

That fits well with what I’ve seen in my clinical practice – my patients often start to report (and show) changes in how they’re relating to themselves and the rest of their world within three to six weeks of regular mindfulness practice.

Describe the direct connection between specific meditations and how they improve relationships?

I’ll give one example here – in each chapter of the book I describe brain areas, their relationship connection (and the related research), and a meditation exercise that taps into that brain area getting a beneficial workout.

The insula is an area related to bringing information about what’s going on in the body from down low in the brain, up into our higher, more “intellectual” brain areas. A number of studies have shown that practicing mindful awareness of sensations the in body (like in a Body Scan practice) can plump up and bring greater activity to the insula. One benefit of that? There’s a study out of Dartmouth that found a correlation between activation of the insula and the quality of orgasm in women. (Just in case anyone’s interested in that.)

Do you recommend certain resources that people can utilize in their local area to reinforce their practice, such as meditation groups?

Many of the patients in my practice who have tried meditation previously and found it too difficult come to realize—after finding a group of others to “sit” with—that this was the missing element for them in being able to maintain their commitment and their practice.

There are resources in many communities now for meditation in groups. The form of meditation that I focus on (and that has been the subject of what I find to be the most compelling neuroscience research) is mindfulness, or insight, meditation. Here are some of the larger communities, organizations, and practice centers. An online search for these – or even simply a search like “mindfulness meditation Topeka Kansas”, should lead you to some near you.
• The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society
• Insight Meditation Society
• Spirit Rock Meditation Center
• InsightLA

If you’re looking for other tools to support their practice, maybe because you’re too far from any mindfulness classes or “sits”, Kate Crisp of the Prison Dharma Network has put together a list of apps, and I agree with her recommendations. You can find them listed here:

In addition, a lot of my patients have found “Insight Timer” (for iPhone, Android, and other platforms) ( to be great not only as a handy timer for how long you’re meditating, but also as a “community” because it can connect you with others around the world who are practicing at the same time.

The development of new, more integrated circuits in the brain through mindfulness, how are these structural changes intrinsic to improving relationships? What areas of the brain have these new circuits develops?

There are so many aspects of how a better-integrated brain supports our well-being, and then there are some specific areas and pathways between them to talk about – it’s hard to distill them down and have it still make sense, so I’ll just consider these as breadcrumbs to lead along this big, beautiful trail . . .

Structural and functional brain changes that impact our relationship skills have been found to change in response to mindfulness practice – studies have shown increased activity (or helpful inhibition) in the following areas, and/or increased gray matter (neurons and their connections with one another – one time it’s good to be “dense” in your brain!):

• the insula: important in attunement and empathy toward others, as well as self-awareness in general

• the amygdala: involved in immediate “knee-jerk” fight-or-flight emotional and physical responses, and the implicit memories we have about attachment, related to developing and expressing trust

• the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): a big player in the communication between the cortical areas (the upper, sort of “thinking” part of your brain) and the subcortical (your lower, more “raw-feeling” brain parts, like your amygdala). Important in emotional regulation, the ability to recognize one’s emotions, and motivation to communicate with others

• the left prefrontal cortex: with increased activation (as seen in mindfulness meditators), the left PFC improves positive mood, approach (vs. withdrawal), and other relationship goodies

• the OMPFC (orbitomedial prefrontal cortex): a key structure in gathering and processing “social information.” If you see a facial expression that looks like someone who is about to blow her top, you can thank your OMPFC for helping you draw on context and previous experiences—allowing you to calculate your reaction based on whether the face belongs to your scary exploding boss or your two-month-old niece.

• And don’t get me started on the hippocampus (involved in calming down the amygdala so you don’t wig out during an argument)… the smart vagus (an evolutionary circuit supporting safe emotional connection with others)… von Economo neurons (possibly major players in empathy and compassion)…

Other articles by Dr. Lucas can be found on Psychology Today or at DailyOM. A free download of her basic mindfulness meditation is also available on her website. She has also recorded a video segment on YouTube titled “Breaking Out of Autopilot”.

How the neuroscience of meditation rewires the brain for love – San Francisco Women’s Health |