meditation research

Research method integrates meditation, science: the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

[Brown University] —

Mindfulness is always personal and often spiritual, but the meditation experience does not have to be subjective.

Advances in methodology are allowing researchers to integrate mindfulness experiences with brain imaging and neural signal data to form testable hypotheses about the science — and the reported mental health benefits — of the practice.

A team of Brown University researchers, led by junior Juan Santoyo, will present their research approach at 2:45 p.m on Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the 12th Annual International Scientific Conference of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Their methodology employs a structured coding of the reports meditators provide about their mental experiences. That can be rigorously correlated with quantitative neurophysiological measurements.

“In the neuroscience of mindfulness and meditation, one of the problems that we’ve had is not understanding the practices from the inside out,” said co-presenter Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience in Brown’s Contemplative Studies Initiative. “What we’ve really needed are better mechanisms for generating testable hypotheses – clinically relevant and experience-relevant hypotheses.”

Now researchers are gaining the tools to trace experiences described by meditators to specific activity in the brain.

“We’re going to [discuss] how this is applicable as a general tool for the development of targeted mental health treatments,” Santoyo said. “We can explore how certain experiences line up with certain patterns of brain activity. We know certain patterns of brain activity are associated with certain psychiatric disorders.”

Structuring the spiritual

At the conference, the team will frame these broad implications with what might seem like a small distinction: whether meditators focus on their sensations of breathing in their nose or in their belly. The two meditation techniques hail from different East Asian traditions. Carefully coded experience data gathered by Santoyo, Kerr, and Harold Roth, professor of religious studies at Brown, show that the two techniques produced significantly different mental states in student meditators.

“We found that when students focused on the breath in the belly their descriptions of experience focused on attention to specific somatic areas and body sensations,” the researchers wrote in their conference abstract. “When students described practice experiences related to a focus on the nose during meditation, they tended to describe a quality of mind, specifically how their attention ‘felt’ when they sensed it.”

The ability to distill a rigorous distinction between the experiences came not only from randomly assigning meditating students to two groups – one focused on the nose and one focused on the belly – but also by employing two independent coders to perform standardized analyses of the journal entries the students made immediately after meditating.

This kind of structured coding of self-reported personal experience is called “grounded theory methodology.” Santoyo’s application of it to meditation allows for the formation of hypotheses.

For example, Kerr said, “Based on the predominantly somatic descriptions of mindfulness experience offered by the belly-focused group, we would expect there to be more ongoing, resting-state functional connectivity in this group across different parts of a large brain region called the insula that encodes visceral, somatic sensations and also provides a readout of the emotional aspects of so-called ‘gut feelings’.”

Unifying experience and the brain

The next step is to correlate the coded experiences data with data from the brain itself. A team of researchers led by Kathleen Garrison at Yale University, including Santoyo and Kerr, did just that in a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in August 2013. The team worked with deeply experienced meditators to correlate the mental states they described during mindfulness with simultaneous activity in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). They measured that with real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They found that when meditators of several different traditions reported feelings of “effortless doing” and “undistracted awareness” during their meditation, their PCC showed little activity, but when they reported that they felt distracted and had to work at mindfulness, their PCC was significantly more active. Given the chance to observe real-time feedback on their PCC activity, some meditators were even able to control the levels of activity there.

“You can observe both of these phenomena together and discover how they are co-determining one another,” Santoyo said. “Within 10 one-minute sessions they were able to develop certain strategies to evoke a certain experience and use it to drive the signal.”

Toward therapies

A theme of the conference, and a key motivator in Santoyo and Kerr’s research, is connecting such research to tangible medical benefits. Meditators have long espoused such benefits, but support from neuroscience and psychiatry has been considerably more recent.

In a February 2013 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Kerr and colleagues proposed that much like the meditators could control activity in the PCC, mindfulness practitioners may gain enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms. Those brain waves help regulate how the brain processes and filters sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.

Santoyo, whose family emigrated from Colombia when he was a child, became inspired to investigate the potential of mindfulness to aid mental health beginning in high school. Growing up in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., he observed the psychiatric difficulties of the area’s homeless population. He also encountered them while working in food service at Cambridge hospital.

“In low-income communities you always see a lot of untreated mental health disorders,” said Santoyo, who meditates regularly and helps to lead a mindfulness group at Brown. He is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and contemplative science. “The perspective of contemplative theory is that we learn about the mind by observing experience, not just to tickle our fancy but to learn how to heal the mind.”

It’s a long path, perhaps, but Santoyo and his collaborators are walking it with progress.

More doctors embrace meditation as medicine

As evidence of its effectiveness grows, more doctors are prescribing meditation to help boost the body’s healing powers.

The stress of caring for her ailing parents, then grieving their deaths eventually caught up with Sharyn Resvick.

She suffered from shooting pain in her shoulder from a pinched nerve. Worse, she could feel her heart pounding and battled feelings of panic.

“My body just crashed,” said Resvick, 55, of Plymouth.

Instead of going on medication, she took a different tack: meditation.

Her remedy of choice was endorsed by her doctor, who scanned her heart to rule out other issues, then suggested she use mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) — a popular meditation program — to manage her symptoms.

As with yoga a decade ago, meditation is slowly expanding beyond its fringe following, appealing to a wider audience, even in the data-driven medical world. More doctors are prescribing meditation to help treat anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and manage pain, according to a recent study by the Harvard Medical School. It’s one of several studies showing that meditation can actually alter how the brain works.

“It’s that kind of scientific research that really changes physicians’ minds,” said Dr. Henry Emmons, a Minneapolis psychiatrist and author of “The Chemistry of Joy” and “The Chemistry of Calm.”

The trend has gained a foothold especially among health professionals, some of whom practice meditation themselves to cope with the demands of their stressful occupations. Ever so gradually, they’ve moved from practicing the technique to preaching it.

For a long time, doctors who meditated were quiet about it, said Dr. Selma Sroka, medical director of Hennepin County Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Clinic.

“It wasn’t professional. It wasn’t medical to talk about it,” she said. “I think things are getting more open.”

The mindful revolution

Sroka is a big believer in meditation’s healing powers.

The body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight,” is aggravated by emotional or physical stress, she explained. The opposite of that reaction is the body’s relaxation response. Meditation triggers that response.

“Any chronic illness can be benefited from emptying one’s mind and not thinking, and breathing more deeply,” Sroka said. “That’s all part of meditation.”

She often recommends that her patients give their minds a rest for a few minutes each day to help their bodies heal. Getting a patient who has suffered a heart attack, for example, to see the importance of the mind-body connection to their recovery is the first step.

“Then, right there in the exam room, I will teach them a simple deep-breathing technique and have them do it for three to four minutes,” Sroka said. She instructs her patients to aim for meditating for 10 minutes a day. “I’m trying to plant seeds,” she said.

Like Sroka, Dr. Debra Bell, a family medicine doctor, regularly prescribes meditation to her patients.

She works for Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis and recommends several meditation resources to her patients. She suggests classes and books to help them learn different techniques and gives some basic instructions herself.

Work Stress: An Email Meditation To Reduce Tension At Your Desk

Checking your overflowing Gmail inbox — or sending out a message to an important business contact — is a pretty surefire way to make your pulse quicken and your mind start racing with worries about deadlines and obligations. In fact, one study actually found that checking and sending email at work can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, and cause levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body to spike.

“People expect us to respond within 24 hours … just handling the amount of email we get can be stressful,” Dr. Lillian Cheung, mindfulness expert and editorial director of The Nutrition Source at Harvard, tells the Huffington Post. “But instead of getting stressed and overwhelmed with emails, I think it’s an opportunity for us to refresh and restore ourselves.”

Taking a moment to perform a short meditation before sending an email can be an easy way to lower your stress levels and integrate mindfulness into your everyday work life. Before sending out your next message, try a simple breathing exercise outlined by Cheung and zen master Thich Nhat Hahn in their book “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.”

After writing an email, stop and take three deep breathes, focusing on each inhale and exhale. You can repeat to yourself, “Breathing in, I thank the power of the Internet. Breathing out, I am fully conscious of my current email actions.” Then, input your recipient and cc-recipient addresses, and click send on the email.

“Not only are you helping yourself to calm down, but you’re also preventing yourself from making mistakes,” says Cheung. “It’s just a moment of pause and it doesn’t take long.”

Read the original instructions from “Savor,” and click here for more ways to de-stress at your desk.

via Work Stress: An Email Meditation To Reduce Tension At Your Desk.

 

New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM

We are planning a series of blog posts to highlight some exciting work from our research portfolio. Research we support has led to more than 3,000 peer-reviewed papers; hundreds are published each year. We plan to highlight a few here, choosing examples that illustrate both the promise and the challenges of research on complementary health practices.

Currently one intriguing area is the effect of meditation on the brain. Meditation can be viewed as a kind of ‘mental exercise.’ NCCAM has supported a fair amount of research on its potential health benefits. We still do not have all the answers, but a number of studies support the notion that this ‘mental exercise’ helps regulate attention and emotion and improves the sense of well being. New insights are coming from incorporation of brain-imaging studies into meditation research. In particular, studies suggest that meditation is accompanied by changes in activation of select regions in the brain, particularly the amygdala, a region associated with processing of emotion.

A new NCCAM study, by Desbordes and colleagues, goes further and concludes that the changes in brain function in the amygdala seen during meditation are persistent, enduring even outside meditation sessions. Results were published this month in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. You can read more about how the study was conducted in our research spotlight. This is a small, single study that fits into the larger body of evidence. I would agree with the authors who noted the need for further research, but I do think the findings provide additional insight into the effects of meditation on the brain—insights that may help to understand the determinants of mental states and the role of traditional practices like meditation in health.

via New Research on Meditation—It’s All About the Brain | NCCAM.

 

The “best” meditation is what works for you! by Karah Pino, MAcOM

The results of a research study from San Francisco State University came out in July of 2012 that asked the question: “What is the best meditation?”

Meditation practitioners around the world would say: “The meditation I do!”  and as it turns out, the research shows that it is absolutely true!

The study followed people who learned different styles of meditation and tracked the effectiveness of the meditation program.  What was shown is that those who learned a style that suited them tended to follow up with their practice better than those that didn’t particularly like the style they were taught.  But the results of the different styles were equally effective, so long as they were practiced regularly. This confirmed what I had noticed for my students over the years.  Any technique will help you deal with stress to improve your health,  smooth your relationships, and help you enjoy your life.

“A new study just published notes the importance of selecting a meditation method that is most comfortable to the new meditator, not the one that is currently the most popular. Choosing the one you are most comfortable with increases the likelihood that you will stick with it, says Adam Burke, the author of the study and a professor of health education at San Francisco State University.”Read More

Helping people find a style that works for them is the goal of the Unwind your Mind curriculum.

Unwind your Mind Meditation CD

Meditation Instruction CD

This class is designed to give an overview of the types of different techniques to people newly interested in meditation.  The four categories of meditation techniques are: Mindfulness, Visualization techniques, Sound techniques and Movement techniques.  The types of techniques introduced in the three hour class include breathing techniques, guided meditation, chanting, self observation and QiGong.

To take this class or purchase the CD, please visit: MindUnwind.org/Meditation

mommy-and-alvin-sqKarah Pino, MAcOM has a master’s degree in Acupunture and Chinese medicine including meditation techniques for healing.  She is a meditation instructor at the University of Washington Experimental College and Mind Unwind Gallery.  Courses are offered regularly in Seattle, WA on on retreats offered through Mind Unwind.

Templeton Foundation awards grant for meditation research

Templeton Foundation awards grant for meditation research

 

November 19th, 2012

 

The John Templeton Foundation has awarded a grant of $2.3 million over three years to continue and extend the Shamatha Project, the most comprehensive investigation yet conducted into the effects of intensive meditation training on mind and body.

 

The Shamatha Project is led by Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain and MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis.

 

This inaugural Templeton Prize Research Grant, “Quantifiable Constituents of Spiritual Growth,” was announced Nov. 18 during a special session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Chicago in honor of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, winner of the 2012 Templeton Prize, who gave a videotaped presentation.

 

“This project represents a true long-term perspective on the developmental consequences of intensive meditation training. Nothing quite like this has been done before,” Saron said.

 

At several meetings sponsored by the Massachusetts-based Mind and Life Institute, Saron has presented results from the Shamatha Project to the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project. Saron and his colleagues have also shared results from this research with scientific and lay audiences around the world.

 

“The Shamatha project is a remarkable scientific odyssey that is changing our understanding not only of how contemplative practices may affect human cognition, emotion and brain function, but also how we view the relationship between mental function and health. This major award from the Templeton Foundation will help Dr. Saron and our team expand the boundaries of this innovative research,” said Ron Mangun, dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UC Davis and a co-investigator on the grant.

 

With the new funding, Saron, project co-director Bajinder Sahdra, a former postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis and now a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney in Australia, Mangun and their colleagues will continue and expand the analysis of data from the Shamatha Project. The latest phase of the project will address two big questions: After going through intensive meditation training, what differentiates people who develop their lives in ways that relieve suffering for themselves and others close to them from those who do not; and how are measured changes in cognitive, psychological and physiological processes related to peoples’ life experience years later?

 

Michael Murray, executive vice president of programs at the John Templeton Foundation, said that the foundation was impressed with the size and scope of the project.

 

“There are more data points per subject in this study than I have ever encountered in a meditation research project,” Murray said. “The dataset is unique and unusually multidimensional in the sense of taking multiple measurements of cognition, behavior, emotion, experience, biomarkers, neural indicators, self-report and other-person judgment, and then repeating many of these at multiple time-points.”

 

The project is investigating the effects of two three-month retreats held in 2007. A total of 60 volunteers received intensive daily instruction from Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace in developing calm, focused attention and cultivating compassionate concern. Throughout the retreats, they were tested for a variety of psychological, physiological and cognitive measures. Participants in the second retreat were also interviewed about their experiences during training, and all participants provided spoken accounts of their experiences five and 15 months later.

 

In a series of papers and conference presentations, the team has described how retreat participants reported improved psychological functioning, were better able to sustain visual attention and inhibit habitual responses, and were more engaged with and sympathetic to suffering. Participants also showed greater activation of attention-related brain regions during meditation after training and had improved measures of cellular health that have been linked to aging. In addition, those participants who reported greater mindfulness had diminished stress hormone levels.

 

The new funds will aid completion of analysis of the original data set as well as support follow-up data collection. In new work, the researchers will carry out structured telephone interviews with the participants, assessing their experiences of the retreat six years later and investigating what changes it made in their lives and how those changes continue to affect them.

 

Saron, Sahdra and colleagues will use a sophisticated network analysis to see which physiological and psychological measures made during the retreats are associated with long-term personal growth years later—and which are not.

 

Additionally, they will interview other people, including family members, colleagues and friends of the retreat participants, to garner their observations about the long-term changes in the participants.

 

“We’re relating how things that we can measure in the laboratory reflect meaningful changes in peoples’ lives,” Saron said.

 

“A common way people think about meditation is as though it is a formulaic process. Take a person, follow the instructions, obtain a result—but meditation is not so mechanical,” Saron said. “We view it as a commitment to investigate the nature of one’s mind in a developmental process of becoming familiar with ‘the world within.’ This promotes a more knowing and friendly attitude towards oneself. We think this greater comfort ‘within our own skin’ will be reflected in mental and physical health, our actions in the world, and felt by those with whom we interact.”

 

“We fundamentally care about individual differences,” Saron said. “Why do people change? How can we develop a sense of purpose?”

 

A sense of “purpose in life” is gaining increased recognition within the field of psychology as a key to sustained health, Saron explained, whether or it not involves meditation as such.

 

Saron sees a wide potential impact for the project to health and medicine, law, business and society at large. He has spoken about the Shamatha Project to audiences as diverse as former California state prison administrators, agricultural leaders, and major corporations such as Google. Saron is currently working with researchers at UC San Francisco and other colleagues to develop a short intervention to help reduce stress for parents of children with autism.

Provided by UC Davis

Templeton Foundation awards grant for meditation research.

Meditation Influences Emotional Processing Even When You’re Not Meditating: Study

Meditation may influence the way the brain processes emotions — even when you’re not actually practicing it, a new study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Emory University found that meditation changes the way the amygdala brain region responds to emotional stimuli — but that this effect on emotional processing takes place even when a person is not in a state of meditation. The amygdala is a brain region involved in emotion and memory processing.

“This is the first time that meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state,” study researcher Gaëlle Desbordes, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University’s Center for Computation Neuroscience and Neural Technology, said in a statement.

Researchers had study participants undergo one of three eight-week courses: one course was on mindful attention meditation, where they were trained to be more attentive and aware of their thinking, feeling and breathing; one course was on compassion meditation, where they were trained to feel compassion and kindness to other people and themselves; and one course just provided general health information.

Then, 12 people from each group underwent fMRI brain scans as they looked at 216 images that were meant to provoke positive, neutral or negative emotions. There was no mention or instruction of meditation while the study participants were undergoing the brain scans, and they were followed up with after to make sure they were not meditating while undergoing the fMRI scans.

The researchers found that the people who took either of the meditation courses experienced decreased activity in the amygdala in response to images that provoked negative emotions — a sign that they were coping well with stress and were experiencing stability of their emotions. But people who only went through the health education class experienced an increase in the amygdala in response to images that provoked negative emotions.

Previously, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found that eight weeks of meditation training was linked with more density of grey matter in the hippocampus brain region (which plays a role in memory and learning), as well as parts of the brain linked with compassion and self-awareness. That research was published last year in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

via Meditation Influences Emotional Processing Even When You’re Not Meditating: Study.

Meditation Boosts Mood, Eases Pain & Stress | Care2 Healthy Living

Meditation Boosts Mood, Eases Pain & Stress

While most people associate meditation with religion, this simple and powerful practiced transcends religious beliefs. Meditation is like a short vacation away from the stresses of everyday life to allow you to center your mind and create a peaceful feeling. And, the research is showing that meditation is great for your health.

In one study published in Health Behavior News Service, scientists found that brain scans and blood tests showed positive effects of meditation. In this study of 48 employees at a biotechnology company, half were trained in meditation and practiced it for one hour a day, six days a week using guided meditations that had been prerecorded. The other half of the participants did not meditate. Dr. Richard J. Davidson at the University of Wisconsin found that the meditators had greater electrical activity in their brains than the non-meditators. Some of the effects of meditation continued for up to four months after the participants discontinued their meditative practice.

Other research shows improvements in mood, pain threshold, immune system activity, and bronchial and arterial smooth muscle tone. The studies also show a decrease in stress hormones and a reversal in the effects of chronic stress.

Daily practice offers the greatest benefits. Over time it becomes easier. By meditating on a regular basis you can train your mind to relax and release stress.

There are several ways to meditate: breathing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, and visualization. Choose the type that has the most appeal for you and best fits with your lifestyle and health goals.

Breathing meditation is one of the easiest and most convenient forms of meditation. It can be done anywhere at almost any time, even if you only have several minutes. It requires no special equipment other than your lungs. You can do a breathing meditation while you are waiting in a doctor’s office, grocery store lineup, or at your desk. You can use a regular reminder throughout the day to help you remember to breathe deeply. You could choose to take deep breaths on commercial breaks while watching television or at red lights while you are traveling.

Make time for meditation, even if it is on the bus ride home from work, or while you are sitting in your office, but try to practice it daily. The rewards are far greater than the time and effort it takes to meditate. Soon you will discover that meditation requires little or no effort at all.

Adapted from The 4-Week Ultimate Body Detox Plan by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD. Subscribe to my free e-mag World’s Healthiest News to receive monthly health news, tips, recipes and more. Follow me on Twitter @mschoffrocook and Facebook. Copyright Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD.

via Meditation Boosts Mood, Eases Pain & Stress | Care2 Healthy Living.

How I Meditate | Mindful Parenting

Let me be clear about this. I am not the “meditating type,” if such a type actually exists. I don’t wear long flowery skirts, I’m not into mystical rituals, and chanting has always creeped me out. To be perfectly honest, I always thought that meditation was for weirdos who would be better served by a little self-discipline and a well-crafted to-do list.

via How I Meditate | Mindful Parenting.

Until I had kids, and realized that perhaps I had become one of those weirdos, and that self-discipline and to-do lists weren’t the answer. I put on my research brain, determined to find a way to get myself back on track. Virtually every article I read about dealing with the challenges of parenting and balancing multiple roles came back to one idea: mindfulness practice, both formal and informal. (Formal practice includes meditation and yoga. Informal practice refers to those random moments during the day when you decide to purposefully pay attention—I’ll talk more about that later.) Once I started looking into it, I realized that there’s nothing woo-woo about all of it. It’s just about paying attention to whatever is happening, and accepting it without judgment. I found an entire body of research outlining the benefits of mindfulness meditation, including improved memory and concentration, stress reduction, and decreased emotional reactivity. It sounded like exactly what I was looking for.

I found an 8-week mindfulness meditation course, which taught me the basics of meditation, including different types (such as the body scan and focused breathing) and how to sit properly. Now, most days of the week, I sit for 20 minutes or so and just breathe. I don’t have a specific meditation space (we have a small house) or a fancy set-up, just a meditation cushion to help with my posture and a yoga mat that I fold over and sit on to cushion my knees. From there, I close my eyes and simply pay attention to my inhalations and exhalations. I don’t change my breathing, I am just aware of it. Every time I notice my mind wandering (which happens approximately every 8 seconds, or perhaps every 6), I bring my attention back to my breathing. And then I do it again, and again, until the timer on my iPhone goes off.

 

Am I a calmer, better person since I’ve started meditating? Some days I start to think so, but most days, well, I’m not so sure. Meditating is a bit like training for a sport—the more time you spend on the practice field, the better you’ll be able to perform during the big game, which in my case happens when I’m exhausted, my daughters are nagging me, and I can’t find a single piece of chocolate in the house. I’m definitely still a newbie. I do know that my brain is no unlike my young daughters: easily distracted, moody, and in need of a serious time out every once in awhile. So, I’ll keep sitting and breathing. I don’t expect to turn into the Dalai Mama any time soon, but hopefully I’ll feel a little more grounded than I might have otherwise.

If you’re interested in meditating, here are some resources to get you started:

Here is a list of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction, the program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn) trainers throughout the country.

– There are many books on getting started with mindfulness practice, but I particularly like Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness, The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, as well as Dr. Ronald Siegel’s The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. Both books come with audio recordings of guided meditations.

– Wildmind.org has a great section on good postures for meditation.

– This is the meditation cushion I use. It is filled with buckwheat hulls, and feels a lot like a bean bag. However, there are other ones that feel more like pillows. Ideally, you should find a store where you could try them out and see what is most comfortable for you.

– I shelled out $1.99 for the Insight Timer app on my iPhone, because I like the (fake) sound of the Tibetan Singing Bowl for starting and ending my meditation. There’s also a version for Android phones. In the event that you are looking for a real singing bowl (which I don’t own), you should probably find a store and check them out for yourself. They come in many different tones, and you should find one that really resonates with you.

So, what do you all think? What do you use for meditation? What has worked for you? I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts.

 

Huff Post: 3 Ways to Increase Your Focus During Meditation

On a recent flight to Jackson, Wyo., it wasn’t only the plane that soared to new heights — so did a conversation with my seat-mate.

 

I had an inclination of something that might occur when she took out a book on Buddhist wisdom. So it came as no surprise that after laughing about some shared travel experiences, the topic shifted.

“Do you meditate?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I can’t stop my thoughts from swirling around in circles when I do,” she told me. “For instance, my yoga teacher asked me to focus on ‘1’, but I just kept thinking — does she mean the number 1 or the word o-n-e?”

I laughed and said, “I totally get it!”

 

It can be hard to quiet our thoughts, whatever we’re doing, despite our best intentions — whether we’re in a class, in a meeting, behind the wheel, or even sitting in silence. (Sometimes especially when we are trying to sit silently!) My to-do list keeps insisting it needs my attention, or I might find myself ruminating on a past or future event.

But it’s worth it to mentally quiet down. It’s now well-documented how a practice of regularly calming our thinking is healthy — evidence abounds showing that meditation is good for emotional and physical wellbeing.

The Journal of Neuroscience reported recently that newly-trained meditators showed a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness after just a few sessions of meditation. Other recent research found that mindfulness-based stress reduction methods can decrease loneliness and, remarkably, may reduce “pro-inflammatory gene expression” in older adults.

These two studies focused on using a tightly structured program of meditation. But there isn’t just one way to practice it.

I asked a few Boston-based yoga instructors what kind of training they’d received. They said it runs the gamut. They’d received training about many different ways to meditate, and incorporate different ideas they find helpful into their own practices and classes.

It’s not just yogis, martial artists and people taking an active interest in Eastern philosophy who meditate. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that over 20 million Americans meditate to improve their health.

Even the website for the movie Escape Fire — a documentary to be released October 5 about radical changes needed in the U.S. health care system — has a meditation app in its solution area.

This indicates how widespread the approaches taken to meditation can be.

One definition of meditation is to engage in contemplation or reflection. Another is to engage in mental exercise to reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness. Often, people associate meditation with Buddhism or Hinduism, or even consider it to be a purely secular activity.

But contemplative practices are also deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian scripture. For example, in one of David’s songs, he says: “I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands.”

Rather than the practice of emptying one’s thought, this suggests an approach of consciously filling thought with something good, of meditating on a divine influence that acts throughout our day.

 

Time and time again, I’ve found that this brings a feeling of release from needing to control every aspect of my experience.

That may sound great in theory, but in practice, we may go back to trying to figure out how to stop wondering about that tricky question sitting in our email, or why we’re stuck folding so much laundry every week.

So how can we move past this pesky mental chatter and think about a broader perspective? Here are a few ways I’ve found helpful to fill my thoughts in my moments of meditation:

1. Silently ask a really big question.

Simply allowing ourselves to consider big questions can completely change the trajectory of our thoughts. For example, I’ve asked questions like, “How unlimited is divine spirit, or just how good is divine love?” And then I’ll wait to gain some sense of that.

I’ve found that when I accept the insights that come to me, it transforms my thinking. It gives me a peaceful feeling of stillness and a sense of release from concern about my ability to accomplish what lies ahead.

2. Consider the idea that you’re connected to the divine.

After my flight landed in Jackson, Wyo., I headed out to a rural destination for a friend’s wedding, and in the night sky I could see the Milky Way so brilliantly. As I reveled in the vastness of the universe, I thought about the oneness of everything. It’s not like we are in one place and the stars are in a separate place — I was glimpsing that time and space are constructions of a limited perspective. There is nothing that divides us from each other because we are all linked directly to and through the divine.

 

This had a unifying aspect to it that enabled me to feel as though I was part of the spiritual spokes that emanate from a divine source along with everything I could see in the vast sky and everyone else around me.

 

Contemplating this idea of connection with the divine and with one another in this way made it feel simpler for me to navigate and enjoy the busyness of the wedding weekend.

3. “Marinate” in those ideas.

Just as marinades work through chemical reactions with food — to make it more tender and enhance the flavor — letting new insights overtake old ways of thinking can tenderize and enhance our being.

When a new perspective comes in response to contemplating a big question or a sense of connectedness, we can be humble enough to soak it in and let it calm and still our thought. Humility helps provide the mental space to consider a new angle. And having this mental space makes it easier to bring fresh insights into our next activity after we have finished meditating.

I find that considering even just one spiritual point expands my thinking and changes me. I also find that I need to practice this type of thinking regularly in order to feel the benefits consistently.

Before my seat-mate and I parted, I mentioned some of these thoughts on contemplative thinking. She said, “I’m definitely going to try asking a big question the next time I meditate!”

Later, at the ranch in Wyoming, overlooking golden-colored aspens clapping in the wind, it was easy to delight in the stillness of the moment.

 

But getting back to my daily routine, that “ah-ha” moment hasn’t completely left me. I’ve returned to Boston with a slightly more joyful spring in my step and a touch more peace in my heart.

 

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Sharon Frey: 3 Ways to Increase Your Focus During Meditation.