Not So Grand Illusions

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So many of us are afraid of thinking too highly of ourselves or appearing prideful, but what about always assuming the worst. When we lack self-compassion and continually judge ourselves it becomes easier to do the same to others. It is almost impossible to judge only yourself harshly. Unfortunately judgement and negativity becomes a viscous cycle that can be hard to break. So how do we let go of negative self perceptions without swinging to the other side of the spectrum? Tuning into the truth as it is right now in the present moment………..Ok, easier said than done. Personally I have found that cultivating the skill of acceptance has been extremely helpful. When I first starting learning about 3rd Wave CBT (Mindfulness and Acceptance based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) I was really turned off by the concept of acceptance. It sounded too much like resignation or just plain giving up. Luckily I investigated further and discovered something more subtle and gentle. Acceptance is about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging our truthful feelings, possible biases, and basic desires. Acceptance is the opposite of resistance. When practiced with awareness and an open mind, acceptance can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world around us.

For example, I was recently speaking with some friends about the conclusions we jump to when we don’t get an expected response from a person we know well. It is easy to assume that someone didn’t laugh at our joke because they are mad at us or we just aren’t funny. Usually the reason has less to do with us. A usually jovial friend who doesn’t laugh is probably distracted by a task, received somber news or just is not having a good day. When we engage in acceptance we keep our mind open to current information and not succumb to making assumptions. There are assumptions that seem to be common to many of us. These are often referred to as cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are basic PSYC 101, but I never quit finding value in revisiting them.

The below list of cognitive distortions was retrieved from healthymind.com:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  1. Overgeneralization: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
  1. Mental filter: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  1. Disqualifying the positive: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. You maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  1. Jumping to conclusions: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
    • Mind reading: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you and don’t bother to check it out.
    • The Fortune Teller Error: You anticipate that things will turn out badly and feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  1. Magnification (catastrophizing) or minimization: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow’s imperfections). This is also called the “binocular trick.”
  1. Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”
  1. Should statements: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  1. Labeling and mislabeling: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him, “He’s a damn louse.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  1. Personalization: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event for which, in fact, you were not primarily responsible.

From: Burns, David D., MD. 1989. The Feeling Good Handbook. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

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Mister Rogers Meditation

“You can grow ideas in the garden of your mind.”

~Mister Rogers

Neurophysiological Effects of Meditation

Part 3 of 3 Post Series: Neurophysiological Effects of Meditation

Calm Stu


Studies uncovering neurophysiological evidence of the effects of meditation make use of neuroimaging technologies.  Neuroimaging technologies include positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG).  PET scans during a study of Yoga Nidra Meditation showed an increase in activity in the left frontal and limbic brain regions (Lou, 1999).  The left frontal cortex is associated with increased positive emotions, while the limbic brain regions are believed to be correlated with emotional regulation.  Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies showed changes in many brain regions including the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus, all of which are parts of the limbic system of the brain.  The amygdala is often referred to as the ‘fear center’, the hippocampus is the ‘memory center’ and the hypothalamus is considered the master regulator of emotions.  EEG studies backed up what was found in both PET and fMRI studies.  EEG studies found increased theta and alpha frequencies in the left frontal brain region.  This has been a common finding and has been suggested to reflect an enhanced ability to sustain attention and focus (Cahn and Polich, 2006).  According to other researchers this increased activity of low frequency theta and alpha waves is also positively correlated with increased feelings of happiness and joy (Rubia, 2009).   According to Psychology Today, “Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex. Brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.” (Barber, 2001)

Resources

  1. Barbor, C. (May 01, 2001). The Science of Meditation.  Psychology Today (online periodical). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200105/the-science-meditation
  2. Cahn, B.R., Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132 (2), 180–211.
  3. Lou, H.C., Kjaer, T.W., Friberg, L., Wildschiodtz, G., Holm, S., Nowak, M. (1999). A PET study of meditation and the resting state of normal consciousness. Human Brain Mapping, 7 (2), 98–105.
  4. Rubia, K. (2009). The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biological Psychology, 82(1), 1-11.
Published in: on May 13, 2011 at 2:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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Physiological Effects of Meditation

Part 2 of 3 Post Series: Physiological Effects of Meditation

Although meditation is usually thought of in relationship to the mind it affects the physiology of the body in many ways. Meditation enhances the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for releasing chemicals that reduce stress (Takahashi, 2005).  This enhanced activity can be seen in the reduction in cortisol levels and release of beta endorphins. It is believed that stress reduction is what leads to the lowered blood pressure found in experienced meditators (Newberg, 2003).  Meditation has also been found to be associated with increases in immune functioning and a reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease (Hoppes, 2003).   “Two controlled studies investigated the effects of six months of Zen meditation practice, and two months of Zen meditation plus progressive muscle relaxation, respectively, versus blood pressure checks in patients suffering from hypertension… The results of the metaanalysis (reviewing the studies) indicated a significant increase in diastolic blood pressure and a non-significant decrease in systolic blood pressure in meditators. (Chiesa-zm, 2010, p. 590)  Another study found that experienced Zen meditators  had significantly higher levels of serum nitrate and nitrite concentration and a significant reduced level of serum malondialdehyde than a control group. Serum nitric oxide is the predominant anti-atherosclerotic principle in the vascular wall. The researchers “reported that, in accord with previous studies that found that oxidative stress could contribute to the pathophysiology of atherosclerosis and chronic heart disease, their results suggested that Zen meditation, by reducing stress, could prevent stress-related disease such as heart attacks…” (Chiesa-zm, 2010, p. 587)

Resources

  1. Chiesa A., Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine, 40, 1239-1252.
  2. Hoppes, K. (2006).The Application of mindfulness-based cognitive interventions in the treatment of co-occurring addictive and mood disorders. CNS Spectrums. 11, 829-841, & 846-851.
  3. Newberg, A.B., Iversen, J. (2003) The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: Neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical Hypotheses, 61, 282–291.
  4. Takahashi, T., Murata, T., Hamada, T. (2005) Changes in EEG and autonomic nervous activity during meditation and their association with personality traits. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 55, 199–207.
Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 2:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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Subjective Effects of Meditation

My recent dive into the research of the effects of meditation uncovered a ton of information.  I will be posting my findings in a series of three posts.   To help with clarification I will divide my research findings into three categories (one category per post); subjective effects of meditation, physiological effects of meditation, and neurophysiological effects of meditation.

Part 1 of 3 Post Series: Subjective Effects of Meditation

Early studies of meditation focused on subjective evidence, but as technology has improved objective evidence has been uncovered that corroborates the subjective findings.  Subjective evidence was common among different studies and was often either determined through self-reports or peripheral findings during neuroimaging studies.  Meditation affected the body through deeper physical relaxation and significant stress relief.  Cognitive and psychological effects included; increased concentration, improved self-control and overall enhanced psycho-emotional balance.  Emotional effects included; increased positive mood, emotional stability and resilience to stress and negative life events. (Grimm, 2007; Saeed, 2010; Toneatto, 2007)  In general meditators where found to have “developed more mature defense and coping strategies characterized by greater maturity and tolerance of common stressors” (Chiesa-vm, 2010).

  1. Chisea, A. (2010). Vipassana meditation: systematic review of current evidence. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), 7-46.
  2. Grimm, K.G., Diebold, M.M. (2007). Complementary and alternative medicine and integrative medicine in practice. In Rakel R.E. (Ed.), Textbook of Family Medicine (7th ed.) (16).
  3. Saeed, S.A., Antonacci D.J., Bloch, R.M. (2010). Exercise, yoga, and meditation for depressive and anxiety disorders. American Family Physician, 81, 981 -986.
  4. Toneatto, T., Nguyen, L. (2007). Does mindfulness meditation improve anxiety and mood symptoms? A review of the controlled research. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 52, 260-266.
Published in: on May 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What is Meditation?

Please, remember that I do not claim to be an expert.  I am only an ongoing student and reporting on my observations and interpretations of my literature reviews.  I look forward to any comments, ideas or recommendations you may have.

Meditation is defined differently by most people.  First let us look at what some of the renowned meditation masters have to say.    One eloquent definition of meditation by Pema Chodron states, “…by learning to peacefully abide in sitting meditation: (we are) creating the space for our garden to grow. Then we can cultivate qualities that will allow us to live our lives in full bloom.” (Mipham, 2003, p. 7)   To Patanjuli, an ancient yogic sage, meditation was simply the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  A more modern take may be, Mary NurrieStearn’s (LCSW, RYT) definition, “…taking some time to sit; focus your attention on your breath, mantra or stillness; and witness your thoughts.” (NurrieStearns , 2010, p. 176)

My definition after reading uncountable definitions is:  meditation is the deliberate act of quieting the mind in order to access a state of consciousness that is serene and peaceful.  As we review the literature on meditation research, in following posts, it is important to keep in mind that due to the many ways of defining meditation and “the absence of a validated scientific model for practice”, performing statistically rigid research is difficult. (Chiesa-zm, 2010, p. 590)

Also adding to some of the ambivalence, is the fact that there are so many techniques for meditation.  Usually techniques revolve around finding a way to be physically comfortable, keeping a high quality of breathe, and finding as much mental stillness as possible. Some people never sit or find physical stillness during meditation, but it is commonly believed that the stiller the body the greater ease with which one will find mental stillness. Some of the more common meditation techniques include; moving mindfulness, rhythmic movement, sound vibrations, withdrawal of the senses, single mental focus and non-judgmental thought detachment.

Let us briefly look at these techniques.  Walking, hiking, yoga asana (physical postures) and other deep awareness movement can be categorized as moving mindfulness. Rhythmic movement refers to swaying of the body, tapping of the fingers or muscle tension and release.  The incorporation of sound vibrations into meditation happens during chanting, mantra repetition, kirtan, singing or the use of recorded sound.  Withdrawal of the senses is any technique that includes closing of the eyes, plugging of the ears or inhibition of any of the senses.  A single mental focus most often incorporates focus on a scent, candle flame, the breath, or a mantra. A mantra can refer to a single word, sound or series of words or sounds that have significant meaning to an individual.  Lastly, thought detachment, can refer to non-judgmental thought labeling and non-identification with thought or emotions.  All of the above techniques can be used alone or in conjunction with each other.

Various schools of meditation practice make use of a number of techniques and often provide guidelines for use of particular techniques to provide for specific outcomes. These specific outcomes could be used prescriptively for different pathologies or illnesses.  “Meditation techniques with emphasis on concentrative practices, for example, may be more suitable for pathologies with attention problems, while meditation techniques that emphasize emotional stress reduction may be more efficient in affective pathologies.” (Rubia, 2009, p. 9)

Resources:

  1. Chiesa A., Serretti, A. (2010). A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychological Medicine, 40, 1239-1252.
  2. Mipham, S. (2003). Turning the Mind Into an Ally. New York, New York: Riverhead Books.
  3. NurrieStearns, M., NurrieStearns, R. (2010). Yoga for Anxiety. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  4. Rubia, K. (2009). The neurobiology of meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biological Psychology, 82(1), 1-11.
Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Finding my Current Obsession

I have been working with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) now for almost one year. In that year I have worked on developing an educational program, a seven week workshop series that includes physical postures, breathing exercises, guided meditation and mindfulness exercises. The focus of the workshop is on building skills and accessing tools that encourage a healthy lifestyle and lead to better management of mental health.

The first series took place fall of 2010. I have been using this spring to evaluate how the first series went and what changes we might want to make to the program. One very evident change that needs to be made is to dedicate more time to meditation. Meditation was one of the smaller sections of the 2010 series, but after getting participant feedback, it was obvious that it was one of the most powerful tools taught.  One NAMI-consumer and 2010 NAMI~Yoga graduate said, “I was amazed at how helpful just learning to breath deeper and slower could be.  Over the course I began to recognize my physical reactions to stress before I felt the emotions.  All the lessons we learned gave me a feeling of control.”

Exit surveys filled out by students had one common thread. Everyone wanted to know more about meditation and understand why it had such a powerful effect on their level of happiness.  Even for a yoga teacher and mediator, I felt unable to answer my students’ questions.  I decided to revamp the NAMI-Yoga workshop curriculum to include more meditation and dig into the research to try and find the answers to my students’ questions.  These questions led me to my current obsession, the science of meditation.  I wanted to address the question: can meditation significantly improve mental health for those with a diagnosed mental illness?

Over the next month I will be sharing snip-its of what I have been learning.  In the meantime I would love to hear more about what you know?

Meditation Overview

Psychology Today offers a nice overview of meditation that is not overly esoteric or too scientifically heady.  I thought some of you might enjoy the read.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200105/the-science-meditation

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Simple Introduction to Meditation

What is Meditation?

It means many different things to most people. One eloquent definition of meditation by Pema Chodron states, “…by learning to peacefully abide in sitting meditation: (we are) creating the space for our garden to grow. Then we can cultivate qualities that will allow us to live our lives in full bloom.” (Turning the Mind Into an Ally, p#7) Mary NurrieStearns, LCSW, RYT, clearly defines meditation as, “…taking some time to sit; focus your attention on your breath, mantra or stillness; and witness your thoughts.” (Yoga for Anxiety, p#176)

What does meditation mean to you?

How do we Meditate?

Some people spend their whole life in pursuit of this answer, but we aren’t going to make it that complicated. To begin your meditation practice you just need to find a way to be physically comfortable, keep a high quality of breathe, and find as much mental stillness as possible. Some people never sit or find physical stillness during meditation, but it is commonly believed that the stiller the body the greater ease with which you will find mental stillness. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. The important thing is to find what works for you.  Let us explore some helpful meditation techniques.  What are some techniques you use?

  • Moving Mindfulness – walking, hiking, yoga asana and other deep awareness movement
  • Rhythmic Movement – swaying, ‘mudra tapping’, muscle tension & release
  • Sound Vibrations – chanting, mantra repetition, kirtan, singing/relaxing music, ‘om’ing
  • Withdrawal of Senses – ear plugs, eyes closed
  • Single Mental Focus – scents, candle flame, breath, mantra
  • Thought Detachment – non-judgmental thought labeling, non-identification with thought

How does meditating help us?

According to Psychology Today, “Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex – brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.”

Meditating can be challenging and sometimes very frustrating, but science has proven it to be a practice of uncountable positive effects. With regular practice you can expect to be calmer, think more clearly, sleep better, and so much more.

I would love to hear how meditation has helped or challenged you? Share what has or has not worked for you.

(This post was originally posted October 2010)

Published in: on April 27, 2011 at 5:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Metta-sutta

I recently had to do a social psychology assignment that required me to either be nice or be rude for twenty four hours.  I just could not commit to being rude to people.  I am not saying that I am never rude to people, but not on purpose.  Somehow it feels unethical to be purposely rude to people.  What if my rudeness upset someone enough that they couldn’t focus during driving and got in an accident?  What if I angered someone enough that they engaged in displacement and went home and kicked their dog?  I would feel partially responsible.  Therefore, I was left with the option to be nice to people.  What do I believe “being nice” means?

My definition of ‘being nice’:  communicate with warmth, sincerity, clarity, and truthfulness…listen respectfully…be generous, compassionate and empathetic.  Be mindful of what messages your actions may communicate and cultivate ‘loving- kindness’.

To help me maintain my ‘niceness’ I  practiced a meditation called the Loving-kindness or Metta Bhavana meditation. This included recalling parts of the Metta-sutta (excerpt included below) and focusing my concentration on expanding the compassion and empathy I feel for my loved ones to all beings.  The practice can take many forms, but I prefer to use my imagination to envision compassion and empathy as a colored haze that I direct from my heart to all those beings within my sight and then let that light expand to all those unseen.  It might sound silly, but I have found it to be a very powerful exercise.

The following is a short excerpt from the Metta-sutta, which recounts the Buddha’s teaching on loving-kindness:   “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness…be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech. Humble and not conceited, contented and easily satisfied… peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful, not proud and demanding in nature. Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove…May all beings be at ease. Whatever living beings there may be; whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, the great or the mighty, medium, short or small, the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born and to-be-born, May all beings be at ease!”

If you would like to read the full Metta-sutta it can be found online or on page 92 of the following resource:

Levine, N. (2011). The Heart of the Revolution: The Buddha’s Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Kindness. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.


Published in: on April 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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