Learn to Be Still – and Heal

photos-28-5-2010-007I met Peter at a seminar of meditation teachers. He was a good-looking man of about forty-five, an architect by profession. He told me in conversation that he had cancer once and conquered it with meditation. I was very impressed until he told me that he had also used chemotherapy and herbal remedies. So I asked him how he knew it was the meditation that cured his cancer if he was doing all these other things at the same time. It could well have been any of them, or a combination of them all. He shook his head and insisted that it was meditation.

Then he told me his story and it moved me very much, and, though I have long since lost contact with him, I will paraphrase what he told me:

He said, “I knew I was going to die. So I was doing all these things, the chemotherapy and herbal stuff as well as meditation. I wasn’t doing them because I believed in them, as much as I hoped they’d work. Understandably, with a hit or miss attitude like that, I got worse.

“But one night it all changed. I was meditating, and it was just like all the other meditations, full of morbid thoughts and defeat. I was very depressed. So I was trying to concentrate on the idea of living, frantically visualizing white light and chanting and imagining all this other positive stuff.

“But all the time, I could hear this clock ticking, an old grandfather clock in the hall. And no matter how hard I chanted my affirmation, I felt like it was ticking the remaining seconds of my life away. I felt like I was being pushed to the edge of an abyss by a slow and gentle passing of time, and right then I started to panic.

“That was when I hit a wall of absolute desperation. In that moment I gave up on the affirmations and white light. I gave up on everything. I thought, ‘nothing is ever going to work. I might as well just go out and get drunk and have a good time.’ But for some reason, I kept on meditating. The timer buzzed the end of the forty minutes I had allotted myself, but I kept going. I kept going because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I’d lost all hope.

“But you know, incredible as it seems, it was that loss of hope that changed everything for me. From the moment I lost hope, meditation began to take off. The blackness cleared like some kind of mucky fog, and for the first time I knew what it was like to have a clear mind. I could see the morbid thoughts and feel the desperation, but it was all from a distance. I wasn’t involved. And at that moment, I didn’t care if I lived or died – it wasn’t an issue any more. All I was interested in was each moment as it passed. Each moment was so sweet and full of everything.

“When I finally came out of the meditation, I felt a profound change had come over me. I felt great – and the air felt sweet to breath – a weight had been lifted from my chest, and life felt good, so good.

“I think, paradoxically, that it was the loss of hope that changed me. I gave up my single pointed and very anxious obsession with wanting to live, and it opened up meditation for me and gave me back my life.

“That was the only thing that changed in my routine from then on. I did the same chemotherapy I’d been doing for ages, and took the same herbal stuff, but from that night, I just knew I was going to live. I didn’t hope any more – I knew. And that made me want to meditate more and more, because I could feel life pulsing within me during the meditation. I could feel my body as a friend – a lover even. So meditation got deeper and more satisfying. I was like a man dying of thirst drinking gallons of cool, clear water. And here I am. I’m alive.. And the only reason I’m alive is because I gave up clinging to life, and began to live.”

I found Peter’s story unique, and inspiring. His initial hope had formed a goal. It had been something specific he wanted from meditation. And this wanting only served to twist his mind in tight spirals of ‘wanting but not having’, ‘wanting but not believing’.

It wasn’t until, in a peak of desperation, he gave up this wanting and opened up his mind to the unconditioned and unknowable potential of life, death, meditation and whatever happened, that he began to experience what life actually meant to him, rather than just imagining and hoping for it.

So it is for all of us with meditation.

In order to meditate well, you have to do something which in Western terms is unthinkable. You have to not want anything from it. You have to not bother about whether you are ‘good at it’ or ‘not good at it’. To meditate well, you should practice because you have chosen to practice – just do the business, the routine.

To want anything from meditation – to be always grasping or hoping or clinging, is to defeat it. All of these graspings only create their own avenues of frustration and suffering, and stillness is lost.

To meditate efficiently, you must train yourself to let everything go. Stillness appears in the space that is left, and in that stillness the forces of nature will give you all that you need.

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In the hyperactive, and very artificial world we humans have created for ourselves, where everything responds directly to our actions, from light-switches and taps in our houses, to our car and the jobs we work at, we’ve been conditioned to the view that if we don’t take action, nothing will happen.

That is, to make something work, or change, or heal, we have to do something – flick a switch, turn a key, take a drug, pay someone, or do something.
This arrogant, and particularly human view includes within it a profound forgetting. We forget that there are immense universal forces other than human will, which are more powerful and intelligent than us. We forget that we live within a vast universal river of energy we call ‘nature’.

And it’s very telling that we usually refer to nature as something separate from ourselves. But we’re not separate – our body is a manifestation of these forces, as is our life and everything in it. Everything we are, and everything we do is a tiny cross current in a vast river of natural forces.

So what do I mean by ‘natural forces’?

Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear. Depending on your position, and how you are perceiving it, all physical manifestation develops in a pattern. Why it does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself. Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other. What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa. For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seems to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years, but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.

Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub, but when you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see that there is a pattern, nature has formed itself into a particular design.

‘Nature forms patterns. Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’ [‘Chaos’ by James Gleik, Cardinal, London 1990, p 309]

Nature always adjusts itself to these patterns. They are the invisible line that it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.

At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine. The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.
Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, but when they got there a depressing sight greeted them. The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, creating dust in summer and mud in winter.

The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money to regenerate the forest, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off. It was too expensive. The biologists went back to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.

About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site, so he stopped the car and walked into the forest. It took him a long time to find the site and when he found it, it was barely recognisable from the rest of the forest.

Life had returned in that ten years. All the wildlife, the trees and all the plants had quietly reclaimed and re-established themselves. The forest had healed itself and equilibrium had returned. The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it reformed itself according to its own ancient design.

This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is a pre-eminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfection.

‘The universe continually confronts us with this obvious, and far-reaching fact. It is not mere confusion, but arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts. The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.’[Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55]

This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force. If left to itself nature will always recreate itself according to the patterns it knows – the patterns it has been forming itself into for billions of years. And those patterns are physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony. This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.

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So how do we get the natural forces to work for us?

Well, I’ll start my answer with another question. What does an animal do when it is sick? It stops. It lies down. It withdraws its body from action. Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious. It simply shuts down its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.

And what do we humans do when we’re tired or sick? We get fearful and take action.

We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything. And though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, this resilience gets harder as we get older. Our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to. And we might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension, but that is only a very small part of the reason.

The main reason is, we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness they needed to rejuvenate.

Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, and find balance in its own way. We tell ourselves we don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that. There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence. In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or distracting ourselves – trying to forget.

Forget what?

Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious anxiety, our loneliness, ourselves. We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.
And all the things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us. Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.

So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.

Have you ever watched a cat? Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting. Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill. Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch. It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds. No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness. A sound comes? The ear swivels to pick it up. The sound goes, it’s gone. Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact. No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace. They are practised in the art of ‘being here now’. Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them. And as we practice meditation, so it gradually comes to us as well.

We learn to stop.

To let go.

To become still, and surrender the mind and body to nature.

Because that’s what we’re doing when we learn to meditate. When there is stillness, all the reactive cycles between mind and body slow down. Life becomes a series of momentary sensations in an exquisite emptiness. And in that emptiness natural forces take us over, reclaiming, rebalancing and healing us. And we don’t have to do a thing.

Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity.

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LINKS

Get Some Sleep!

head“It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
                                                                           – John Steinbeck

James was a chef at a large hotel where he did breakfasts and lunches, and he hadn’t taken a holiday for three years. The skin on his face was dry and slack and the bruised bags under his eyes indicated a metabolism struggling with exhaustion. He complained of frequent headaches and lethargy. He told me he had to drink coffee constantly throughout the day just to keep his energy levels up so he could complete his shift.

“Part of the trouble is my hours,” he went on, “I get home about 3.30 in the afternoon, and I’m so stuffed I’ve just got to sleep. I try not to, but it’s overwhelming. So I sleep until about 7 PM and wake up feeling lagged as hell. So I have something to eat – but then, when I go back to bed I can’t sleep. So I toss and turn all night and get up at 4 in the morning feeling terrible again.”

He thought meditation would help his fatigue, but I had my doubts – he seemed too exhausted. Even so, we tried it out – but sure enough, within minutes, he was fast asleep. I let him sleep for about twenty minutes, then woke him up. He looked surprised when he opened his eyes and apologised, saying, “let’s try it again.”

I said, “James, it’s no good. You haven’t got a hope of learning to meditate in the state you’re in. You’re punch-drunk with fatigue. What you need is about two weeks holiday so you can get some good unbroken sleep.”

“Can’t.” he said flatly.” I’ve got a mortgage, kid’s at school, car payments…”

And so it goes. I told James if he didn’t get some quality sleep soon, his deteriorating health would force him to stop. He shrugged and said he’d think about it. I never saw him again.

James’s case is not exceptional. As time goes on I’m meeting more and more men and women just like him – people so tired they’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel fully awake. At this time in the Western world, most of us are chronically under-slept. And as the studies and research into our sleep habits are done, it’s becoming clear that this cumulative exhaustion is a possible cause of many other apparently unrelated problems, such as obesity, cancer, allergies, heart disease, colds, and the list goes on.

Sleep is essential – without enough of it, we fall apart – quite literally, we mentally and physically disintegrate. If prevented from sleeping, a laboratory rat will die after about two weeks – and what they die of is a total breakdown of their immune defences, leaving them susceptible to to infections, cancer cells, and bacteria and other infections. And when we’re deprived of sleep, that’s what happens to us as well.

Sleep is the ultimate healer of so many things – mental as well as physical. During sleep our mind and body rejuvenate and recharge with essential hormones that regulate our immune system, brain functions and organs.

For instance, there is a hormone called Leptin, which tells the body when we’ve eaten enough. As we sleep, Leptin levels are replenished in the body. But without sleep, Leptin levels drop. And when Leptin levels drop, our body craves carbohydrates, even when we don’t need any more food. The result is we develop a habit of craving ‘comfort foods’ that, when combined with the sluggish metabolism of an exhausted body, inevitably leads to obesity.

And so it is with many other small and subtle body adjustments that take place in the workshop of sleep, which regulate and sustain our body.

One of the biggest problems we have with sleep is that, in the world we have gotten used to, we’re working harder for longer hours than ever before – so we’re taking our leisure later and later. Where our forbears were usually in bed by 9 or 10 pm, the average Westerner considers it normal to go to bed at 11 pm or midnight.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is becoming so universal that Thomas Wehr, chief of the section on biological rhythms at the National Institute of Mental Health, believes few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested. “Perhaps we modern humans have never really known what it is to be fully awake,” says Wehr.[Brink, Susan, Sleepless Society, US News & World Report, October 16, 2000, p.64]”

It’s interesting that lack of sleep has come to be seen as a kind of badge of honour among the more hairy chested among us – a signature of prowess. They’ve been named “the short-sleeping elite” – a club that famously features Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, as well as many top executives and leaders, each of whom swears they don’t need sleep. And some may well have that kind of constitution – but most are probably just good at masking the effects of slow coming exhaustion. Because though these people may appear to function adequately, the physical and mental attrition of sleep deprivation is cumulative and slow-building, and depending on their levels of stamina, will eventually compromise their health.

It’s estimated that the average urban human needs around 7-9 hours of solid sleep every night. And for every hour of sleep we miss, we need to make it up later – a ’sleep debt’ to be paid at some time in the future. So if we only sleep for 6 hours a night throughout a five day week, to keep our mind and body clear and healthy, we need to make up that lost 10 hours on the weekend, on top of the 16 hours we would sleep over those two days.

If we are under-slept, we instinctively reach for nervous energy to push through. Nervous energy is a resource our body usually only keeps for emergencies. For this reason, the hormones of adrenalin and noradrenaline that cause it are commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormones. We produce this nervous energy by using various substances – coffee, tea, sugar foods, cigarettes, and the many energy drinks that have large amounts of guarana on them – another form of caffeine.

Though these things certainly boost our energy levels, it’s the wrong kind of energy if used over a long period of time. Nervous energy is a frenetic kind of energy more suited to violent action than the consistent concentration and calm attention we need to deal with our daily life.

Trouble is, when we’re under-slept and fatigued, this kind of nervous energy is very seductive – it lifts our mood and makes us feel more confident. Plus, with so many culturally sanctioned ways of accessing this kind of energy, it’s easy to lapse into the habit of a quick coffee to get us going – a Red Bull to compensate for the sleepless night before.
The more we resort to this kind of energy, like any drug, the more we need it, and gradually it usurps our perception of normality – that is, the frenetic energy of adrenalin becomes a substitute for the normal, calmer metabolic energy we should be using.

For a few years, we can get away with it – the physical costs are slow to accumulate so we don’t notice the way we’re ruining ourselves until we become ill. First indications that we’re not handling it are, we find ourselves getting more colds and more susceptible to the ‘bugs that are going around’. Our body begins to ache, and our moods become more changeable.

And if we ignore these signals and keep on using nervous energy to push through, we eventually develop ‘adrenalin toxicity’ which manifest is all kinds of different ways, the most notable being:

  • Digestive problems, ulcers, irritable bowel, diarrhoea or constipation, occurring because adrenalin has diverted blood away from the internal organs, causing them to become sluggish.
  • Aching muscles caused by a build-up of lactic acid (residue of unused sugars –unused energy) in the muscle fibres.
  • Irritability, anxiety and depression.
  • Inability to sleep because the body and mind have been overstimulated and are still processing excess adrenalin.
  • General fatigue caused by inability to sleep, or inefficient sleep.
  • Inability to concentrate with any deep understanding. (While adrenalin certainly mobilizes aspects of the brain that make quick decisions, it dampens the deeper, more analytical aspects. And when adrenalin stimulation has gone on too long, profound mental exhaustion sets in. At that point even the most basic functions shut down and the mind tends to either wander or go unconscious. Hence the famous indication of battle fatigue in soldiers who had been in extended action, the ‘thousand yard stare’ where the subject would gaze at an unseen distance, not thinking, or feeling, or able to engage – in a semi catatonia of exhaustion. The stage after this is nervous breakdown, where the mental and perceptual processes break down and profound mental confusion occurs.)
  • Apathy, a lack of interest in love, or giving – a strong feeling of emptiness.
  • Sexual dysfunction. (Though in the short term, the sex function is stimulated by adrenalin, if the wear and tear continues for a continued time, eventually the sex drive will shut down.)

And there are many more problems  – but you get the idea.

To meditate, we need the calm alertness of metabolic energy – not the jittery hyper activity of nervous energy. Nervous energy creates restlessness and an aching body.

If you’re building a meditation practice, it’s important to be well slept, at the very least, and control your use of stimulants. Though meditation certainly has a calming effect, it’s difficult to develop the skills it entails if your mind and body crave sleep every time you practice.

So if you ever find yourself becoming drowsy when you begin meditating, perhaps take a nap and try again later.

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LINKS

 

Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

NEUROSCIENCE NEWS DECEMBER 7, 2016

Summary: A new study reports the rhythm of your breathing can influence neural activity that enhances memory recall and emotional judgement.  Source: Northwestern University.

Breathing is not just for oxygen; it’s now linked to brain function and behavior.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered for the first time that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe through the nose or mouth.

In the study, individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. Individuals also were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. The effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.

“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

The study was published Dec. 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The senior author is Jay Gottfried, professor of neurology at Feinberg.

Northwestern scientists first discovered these differences in brain activity while studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery. A week prior to surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains in order to identify the origin of their seizures. This allowed scientists to acquire electro-physiological data directly from their brains. The recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.

This discovery led scientists to ask whether cognitive functions typically associated with these brain areas — in particular fear processing and memory — could also be affected by breathing.

Image shows the location of the amygdala in the brain.

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing, in particular fear-related emotions. So scientists asked about 60 subjects to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. Presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, the subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing.

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In an experiment aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects. Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings imply that rapid breathing may confer an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another potential insight of the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.

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ABOUT THIS MEMORY RESEARCH ARTICLE

Other Northwestern authors include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Dr. Stephan Schuele and Dr. Joshua Rosenow.

Funding: The study was supported by grants R00DC012803, R21DC012014 and R01DC013243 from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Marla Paul – Northwestern University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Video Source: The video is credited to NorthwesternU.
Original Research: Abstract for “Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function” by Christina Zelano, Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele, Joshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 7 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016


 

Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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The Brain Changes Itself

Meditation is not a panacea or any kind of quick fix. Nor is it simply a relaxation exercise, as it’s often marketed.

When we meditate, we’re training the mind to be more efficient. We’re training it to be more in command of its processes and less cluttered with superfluous thinking. And this training is long and subtle, and sometimes quite difficult – there’s no way of avoiding that, regardless of what the commercial media tells you about meditation.

As such, it’s very valuable to understand the processes within meditation – to know what you’re actually doing when you sit for long periods of time, patiently altering the way you apply your attention – which is one of the purposes of this blog.

And one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge to cling to, is the clear fact that, in patiently sitting, and mindfully altering the way you use your attention, you’re not just changing mental habits – you’re creating an incredible physical transformation of the most important organ in your body.

This physical transformation is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it refers to  the brain’s ability to constantly reorganize itself by forming new neural connections in response to the way it’s being used, and the habits that are being enacted.

And this physical dynamic is particularly intensive during meditation.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend you watch the following documentary, based on a fascinating book by Norman Doidge – ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’.

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Don’t Fight to Meditate.

img_0349-001Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.

But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

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When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.

Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.

To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.

In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.

And it’s understandable.

From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.

And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.

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So let’s go back to the beginning.

For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.

By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.

So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.

This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.

So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.

To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.

Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.

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But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.

But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.

With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.

To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.

In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.

This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.

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As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.

We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.

Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.

And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.

But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.

And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.

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Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.

So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.

The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.

So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.

 

When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.

This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.

In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.

In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.

I hope this has been helpful.

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Depression: Is it The Immune System?

One in 10 of us will experience depression at some point. Just what causes this highly debilitating disease, and the best way to treat it, remain controversial: last month, Danish researchers reported that antidepressants raise the risk of suicide when taken by healthy people.

The most widely prescribed antidepressants, such as Prozac, are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and work on the basis that depression is caused by low levels of the brain chemical serotonin and that it can be treated by correcting this imbalance.

Down: But it's not down to serotonin.
Down: But it’s not down to serotonin. Photo: iStock

For decades, we’ve been told that serotonin is the key culprit for mood disorders, but now a growing number of doctors are subscribing to a radical new theory of depression – that the problem, at least for some people, is in fact the result of inflammation in the body, caused by the body’s immune system reacting to an infection or stress.

This is one of the hottest areas in psychiatry right now, and it may bring welcome news to approximately half of depressed patients, who don’t respond to first line treatment with SSRIs.

The serotonin question

Increasingly, experts are questioning the concept that depression is a serotonin problem. In April last year, Dr David Healy, professor of psychiatry at Bangor University, published a paper in the British Medical Journal called “Serotonin and Depression: The Marketing of a Myth”, which concluded: “The lowered serotonin theory [of depression] took root in the public domain rather than in psychopharmacology – a piece of biobabble.”

Dr Kelly Brogan, a psychiatrist in New York, concurs: “In six decades, not a single study has proven that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. There has never been a human study that successfully links low serotonin levels and depression.”

Dr Brogan explores the theories of the causes of depression and the scientific evidence that lay behind them in her new book, A Mind of Your Own. She, and others, believe that depression can instead be the result of our immune system working in overdrive, causing inflammation that may manifest in the brain. “Depression is often an inflammatory condition, a manifestation of irregularities in the body that can start far away from the brain and are not associated with the simplistic model of so-called ‘chemical imbalances’,” she says.

Such an argument challenges traditional ideas of depression as a genetic illness, suggesting instead that our experiences and environments could play more of a role than we thought.

How the immune system can make us depressed

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response when we’re sick.

“The substances we produce in response to an infection such as a virus are called cytokines, and they signal the immune system to activate,” says Dr Valeria Mondelli, senior clinical lecturer in psychological medicine at King’s College London.

Dr Mondelli believes that high levels of inflammation can decrease the number of neurons in our brains and affect the way they communicate, leading to depression. “We’ve seen repeatedly that people with depression have higher levels of inflammation in their brains, and we think this could be a new theory of depression in competition to the chemical imbalance theory.”

One third of depressed patients have increased inflammation, she says, and they are the same people who don’t respond to SSRIs.

We’ve all experienced how having a cold or flu can affect mood – we become less sociable, more withdrawn and generally fed up. Perhaps this isn’t just feeling sorry for yourself because you’re run down, but inflammation acting on the brain, causing classic signs of depression.

More evidence for the theory comes from the fact that people with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) suffer from higher levels of depression than average.

In a study at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, doctors noticed that when patients with RA (caused when the immune system attacks the joints) were given precise anti-inflammatory drugs to calm down the immune system, their mood improved. Brain scans showed the volunteers weren’t just feeling happier because their pain had improved. “The brain pathways involved in mediating depression were favourably changed in people who were given immune interventions,” says Prof Iain McInnes, a consultant rheumatologist who ran the study.

The role of stress

It’s not just physical illnesses and infections that may trigger inflammation: cytokines are also activated in response to stress.

Dr Mondelli last year published a meta-analysis which found that people who had experienced traumatic effects in childhood had higher levels of brain inflammation in adulthood. “We found that having had severe stress during childhood predisposes you to mental health problems by increasing the levels of inflammation.”

She believes that people who experienced high levels of infection or trauma as children may develop compromised immune systems. As a result, they may be more susceptible to developing depression as adults after subsequent, repeated stress or infections in adulthood. “Childhood trauma and infections can prime the immune system, and that may then become a risk factor to developing depression in adulthood,” she explains. “If they then face another stressful event, they may be more likely to develop depression, because their immune system is already threatened.”

The new blood test that could change everything

The inflammation theory could have major implications for how we think about, and treat, depression. Although SSRI antidepressants do provide relief for many people with depression, a significant minority do not respond, and a string of studies have shown that this same group tend to have high levels of inflammation.

In July, researchers from King’s College London published a study in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in which depressed patients were given a blood test that focused on two biomarkers measuring inflammation in the body. Patients with high levels of inflammatory markers were the ones who didn’t respond to SSRIs.

Though more research and development of the blood test is needed, the team at King’s say it paves the way for more “personalised psychiatry”, where treatment is guided by such blood tests, rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach.

“Patients who have blood inflammation above a certain threshold could be directed towards earlier access to more assertive antidepressant strategies, including the addition of other antidepressants or anti-inflammatory drugs,” said Prof Carmine Pariente, a leading psychiatrist and senior author of the study.

It seems, then, that what was considered for centuries as a mental illness might originate – at least for some – in our physical bodies.

“Finally, we can say that depression is not always something that is only in your mind, it could be a problem in your body as well,” says Dr Mondelli.

“If people start to think about depression in this way, it could be less stigmatising because we would be seeing depression as a real physical illness, much like diabetes. It could, in time, also lead to a revolution in treatments.”

Natural anti-inflammatory treatments

Dr Kelly Brogan, author of A Mind of Your Own, recommends lifestyle changes with a natural anti-inflammatory effect that can help improve your mood.

  • Exercise “Depression can result from chronic ongoing stress and exercise acts like a biological insurance plan against the bodily effects of stress,” says Dr Brogan. Twenty minutes, three times a week or more, of anything that gets you sweaty is all that’s needed.
  • Diet Eliminate processed foods, especially sugar and refined carbohydrates, which may increase inflammation in the body. Eat plenty of natural foods, including fruits and vegetables, pastured animal products and eggs and wild fish.
  • Meditate Dr Brogan says meditation stimulates the expression of genes that are powerfully anti-inflammatory. Just 10 minutes a day of mindfulness, deep breathing or gratitude journaling can help to improve your mood.

By Anna Magee – editor of healthista.com