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


 

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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LINKS

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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LINKS

Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.

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For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’

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Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
Stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.

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So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.

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Mindfulness and Habits

IMG_6714Roger – I meditate every day and I think it helps my life. But I’m told by my teacher I should be mindful as well as meditate, and I’m not that sure about how they link up together. Wondering if you could shed some light on that.
Thanks
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Mindfulness is more important than meditation.
Though meditation certainly has benefits of its own, it is only through mindfulness that we can transfer the skills we’ve learnt in meditation into daily life.
So meditation practice is a bit like a workshop – a set of tools we use to develop and hone the ability to be mindful in our life.So before we look at mindfulness, let’s look at meditation – the first stages .

Once we sit down to meditate, the first thing we do is take our attention into the body – to feel what the body is telling us in its own language – to listen to it unconditionally, without judging whether we like it or not.

The body speaks to us with sensations – which we’re usually too preoccupied with the business of life to listen to. But now, as we sit quietly with our eyes closed, we notice all the sensations we’re usually not aware of – tensions, itches and aches as well as various combinations of sensations indicating emotions we’ve not had time to feel.

On suddenly feeling all this, our first reaction might be ‘what’s wrong with me’, but we have to remember at that point that we cannot change if we do not first know. And that’s what’s happening. The body is telling us what we usually are oblivious to.

So now we know what we feel, our next job is to see if we can let go of the most obvious tensions – to settle the body down and create a relatively calm environment where we can meditate.

So we pay attention to the tensions we’ve found and give the muscles permission to let go. Some sensations and tensions resolve themselves as we pay attention to them, while others take some time, but at some point the body is settled and calm enough to begin practice.

The next step is to take the active part of mind, our attention, to the breath and rest it there. And we know as we do this, that our attention will struggle because it is not used to staying in one place. But in the light of that understanding, we’re very patient. So each time the attention flits away from the breath, we gently bring it back to re-settle it, and we keep doing this until it has gotten used to being there. This takes a while – but with practice our attention gradually settles down.

The next step is we become more specific about which part of the breath we pay attention to. Our intention is to calm the attention enough so it can happily rest on only one small part of the breath – either the movement of the belly or the sensations around the nostrils.

Again this takes a lot of practice – largely because we have to find a balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. If we try too hard, we either drift into an unconscious state or our attention becomes hyperactive and uncontrollable. But if we don’t try hard enough, our attention drifts all over the place, usually back to its usual playground of dreaming and thinking. So in focussing on the breath we’re looking for a balance between too much effort and not enough.

The middle way.

Now, throughout this whole process, we’ve noticed our attention is constantly being pushed and pulled by a mind that is more used to being the centre of attention. Like a petulant child, our mind keeps pulling the attention back to itself by using the old lures of dreaming, worrying, fantasising and so on.

So, we use the various meditation methods to keep teaching the attention to let go. That’s what the methods are for – they’re tools to help the attention let go of all the tricks the mind plays so we can keep bringing the attention back to the breath and the body – where it can calm down and learn to be still.

So why is it so important for the attention to be still?

Well, that’s because it’s our attention that generates all the excitement and tensions in mind and body. It’s the attention that ties us up in knots. If we didn’t pay attention to all the thinking the mind naturally generates, we wouldn’t be disturbed by it. But it’s because we do pay attention to all this stuff, that all the thinking and reactions have so much power – and this kind of stressful excitement affects the body in many ways, creating hormonal changes, muscle tensions, fear reactions and so on.

So when we’ve finally learnt to settle attention down, and it’s still and calm on the breath, in the space that appears, our mind and body naturally unwind themselves and relax as the stress hormones are processed. Given stillness, the mind and body, being naturally self healing, self adjusting organisms, healing themselves in whatever way is needed.

But more than that, as the unwinding process happens, the other  effect is, our mind acclimatises to a new paradigm. The more we practice meditation, the more we learn we don’t have to think about everything.

We learn that before we think, we know. We slowly develop a new relationship with an intuitive intelligence much more in tune with our life experience than the thought reality we’ve always lived in. The result is, we think less, but know more – and the effect of this over time is, our attention softens and merges back into awareness. And that’s when the mind and body become more interconnected.

As we become more aware of what is happening in the body, it in turn becomes more responsive. And that’s when meditation evolves into mindfulness.

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Okay, so lets look at mindfulness.

Superficially it’s simple. Mindfulness is when mind joins with body, in real time. No thinking or imagining – no scanning forward or back in time. When we are mindful, we fall into the real-time experience of our body, and our life – sensing it all as it happens NOW.

No thoughts or reactions or judgements – just knowing what is happening as it happens.

This kind of ‘present moment awareness’ is what meditation practice trains us for. In this, mindfulness and meditation support and reinforce one another. When we meditate we are practising the skills we need to be mindful. And when we practice mindfulness in daily life it makes it easier to slip into meditation whenever we want.

But more importantly – mindfulness helps us evolve. Mindfulness helps us to change what we are.

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Most of us live mindlessly. Our lives are so densely packed with activities and distractions, we often forget we’re even in a body and a life.

Think about a typical day in the life on an urban human being.

We wake up and maybe check our mobile phone for the news or turn on the radio or TV. Perhaps then we cook breakfast while thinking about what we’re listening to, then we drive to work while listening to music, or to the radio, or chatting with a friend. Throughout the day we do our work, which these days almost always involves thinking, analysing, calculating and juggling complex information. Then we drive home listening to the radio, maybe go for a run while listening to music, then chat with our family while eating dinner, then watch television and go to bed with our mind still whirling with all the thinking it’s been absorbed in throughout the day.

This is the life we’ve been trained for. From the day our mother and father began teaching us language – then school, university and work, we have been trained to spend almost our entire lives in our head while our body obediently does our living for us. We live in castles of thought, and except for occasional moments like when we’re making love, or experiencing something exceptional or shocking, we’re almost completely estranged from the lives we’re actually living.

Effectively, we’re passengers in our own lives.

Maybe a thousand years ago, when most of our life was spent doing physical things – planting crops, building, hunting, finding our way through forests and jungles and across deserts – we lived in the real time experience of our life. We had to be mindful because it was essential to our survival to ‘be here now’ – to be aware of changes in the weather, of animals and reptiles in the forest, and where to find what we needed.

But now our survival needs are different. Everything we need in the modern world is in head-space. And that makes us very susceptible to habits which have become dysfunctional. Living in the groove of our habits and estranged from our body and our life as we often are, we  don’t feel the subtle tensions of dysfunctional habits until it’s too late.

In the disconnect we’ve become used to, between mind and body – that’s where most of our dysfunctional habits breed – depressive illnesses, anxiety, over-consumption, addiction and so on – all of these things are physical and mental habits that we never noticed until it was too late.

We see it all around us – people who have become sick, addicted, or mentally and physically rigid as they age – entrenched in habits they never noticed until it was so powerful it owned them.

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So now lets look into habits, and how mindfulness can help us change.

Habits are sequences of remembered actions and thoughts which, once formed, fall into the unconscious. Once there, they function automatically – triggered by certain circumstances, they act themselves out in the same sequence every time without us needing to pay attention to them. Left to itself, our body does everything according to these conditioned habits.

For example, when we drive a car.

If you think about it, driving a car is an extremely complex set of action sequences. Yet, once our ‘driving habit’ has been learnt, we are entirely capable of driving through the densest traffic while thinking of other things, and reaching our destination without even remembering what actually happened on the way.

And so it is with most of our life – we eat, work and take care of the business of each day, usually while our attention is elsewhere.

Some habits we choose, and the work for us, like my example of driving a car.

But other habits are more pernicious – they arise stealthily from the natural vicissitudes of our life as our mind/body ‘learn’ certain reactions which gradually become habitual – particularly emotional habits, where childhood experiences have created anger or sadness or frustration. As childhood is left behind and the experiences suppressed or consciously forgotten, these unresolved reactions often evolve into habits of anxiety, depression, or addiction of one kind or another.

Everyone knows the maxim, ‘practice makes perfect’. So it is with our habits. The more they are allowed enact themselves in our life , the stronger they get. So if we are un-mindful of the subtle encroachment of certain habits on our life, by the time we reach middle age, we can find ourselves becoming overpowered.

And so it is with many of the things we regard as illnesses – they begin as subtle inclinations and idiosyncrasies in our youth, but as we age and they go on enacting themselves, they evolve into anxiety and panic disorders, chronic depression, insomnia, binge eating, drugs and alcohol addiction and more.

All of these disorders began as subtle twinges of need in the body, and inclinations in the mind, which we obeyed over and over again. Each time the twinge arose we would allowed the habit to enact itself, largely because we weren’t really present enough to withdraw permission. We were elsewhere – living in head-space, oblivious to the twinges and quiet whisperings of our habits as they drove us. And what made the problem worse is, the more we ignored the signals our body sends us, subtle as they are, the more we became unconscious to them.

And that’s when the habits began running us and our lives.

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When we practice mindfulness, we develop an intimate and present relationship with our body sensations as they occur – we learn the language of our body and the way it uses sensations and subtle tensions to get us to act when a habit has been triggered.

It’s only with this kind of knowing that we can take action to weaken a habit – simply because we can spot it coming before it becomes to strong.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example.

I had a client, Neil, who had a habit of binge drinking – he wasn’t alcoholic in any pathological sense. His life habits had just channelled him in such a way that his entire social life and sense of belonging pivoted around alcohol.
“I’ll be passing a bottle shop or a bar, and suddenly I’d find myself buying a drink. I never meant to … I’d just find myself in there. And all my drinking friends were there, so one thing would lead to another and next morning I’d wake up with a splitting hangover …”

So, as Neil began meditating, I emphasised that his practice should not be restricted to the two half hour sessions he was already doing during the day.

“Keep bringing your attention into your body during the day. Feel what you’re doing as you do it. As you walk, instead of leaving your attention to wander about in the mind, bring it into the body – feel the body walking. Instead of just letting your habits pull you through the day, with your attention wandering in and out of head-space, pay attention to what you’re doing as a real-time physical experience. Know what you’re doing as you do it.”

Neil enjoyed meditating, but he found using mindfulness throughout his day very difficult.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “The day sort of cascades and it’s difficult to keep remembering to be aware.”
I said, “That cascading effect happens when your habits have taken over. So you’ve got to keep on interjecting, so to speak. Keep pulling your attention into the automatic flow of the habits and taking command. Over time, this itself will become a new habit, which will over-ride all the other habits.”

Gradually Neil found it pleasurable to ‘be in his body’. And he discovered he could feel habits as they arose in his body.

“It’s an uncomfortable tension that I feel,” he said. “Like a spring getting tighter and tighter. Then I notice the thoughts ‘naturally’ coming up – ‘ooo, time for a drink’ or ‘a glass of wine would go down well’. And that’s when I automatically begin heading for a bar and ordering a glass … a perfectly choreographed procession of urges …”

Neil could feel the mechanic of what was happening inside him, as it happened, in real time. So now he had choice.
Where before the habit led him by the nose, now he could choose to not obey. And each time he refused to obey the push of the habit, he won back control of that part of his life. But it took a long time – because as he described it, ‘the perfectly choreographed procession of urges’ was so subtle and strong.

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So the practice is as I said – in the same way as we pull our attention into the body during meditation, and concern ourselves with purely physical events in real time, we do the same thing in our daily life.

Keep pulling your attention out of your head and into the body – notice the physicality of whatever you do – your posture, your muscles working, the sensations as they occur. Take an interest in what your body tells you, and work with it to adjust things you notice are out of balance.

Notice how the habits arise reactively. Sometimes it’ll be sensations in the body followed by ‘thought propaganda’ – as the conditioned mind tries to get you to enact what it thinks will relieve the tension you feel. Other times it’ll be thoughts which trigger the tensions and excitement in the body compelling you to act.

Whichever way it happens, if you’re mindful of what you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you’ll notice the habits arise, and be able to relax around them – and most importantly, resist their call for you to act. The more you resist, the less powerful they become. And slowly, you become the master of your domain.

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LINKS

Love Your Pain!!

Roger's Iphone pics 076-001Most people, as they go through the process of learning how to meditate, pass through a number of stages, some pleasant, some unpleasant. And no matter whether pleasure or pain, all these stages are good.

These stages arise naturally as your mind acclimatizes itself to the strange and wonderful environment of stillness.

You’re teaching yourself the skill of being still. To be still in mind, and still in body whenever you choose. You’re learning to sit and let go of your reactions to everything. Surrendering the mind and body to their own processes while ‘you’, the meddlesome aspect of mind you call by your name, go still.

More importantly, you’re learning to be happy to be still – to be able to sit still without getting bored, or worried, or impatient or anxious – which are our usual reactions to being still.

So it is that, as with learning any skill, as the mind and body slowly acclimatize themselves to stillness, together with all the feelings that come with it, you will struggle sometimes. Which is what the meditation methods are for – to help you pass through struggle in all its forms as easily as possible.

But for the methods to work, you must accept struggle as an inevitable and integral part of the training.

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So what do I mean by struggle?

Well, think about all the things that annoy you in meditation – periods of over-the-top thinking, aches, itching, restlessness, boredom, frustration and even pain. We tend to regard these things as impediments in meditation. We think when these things are happening that ‘something is wrong’ with the way we’re meditating, and we wonder what we are doing wrong – because ‘meditation is not working’.

Not so. These apparent disturbances are not wrong. They are right. They are a natural result of mind and body learning to adapt to being still, just as muscular aches are a natural result of weights training in a gym. Indeed, the disturbances we experience during meditation are an integral part of the training process.

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One would think stillness would be easy. After all, we only have to stop.

Our dog and cat can do it, and they take great pleasure in doing it. But for us, stillness is very hard to do.

To the average modern human being, even the idea of being still is utterly foreign – even threatening.  In the busy world we’ve created we’ve become acclimatized to action, restlessness, excitement and distraction – not stillness. Stillness has never been a part of how we’ve been taught to live, nor is it spoken about, or given any value or encouraged.

And even if we do get the opportunity to be still – in a doctors waiting room or waiting for a bus, or sitting in our lounge-room, we’re not used to it, and we don’t know how to react to it. Hence the irony that even when we have the opportunity to be still, we can’t do it – it creates feelings of irritation, boredom, restlessness and so on. Unlike every other creature on the planet, who use stillness to rejuvenate themselves throughout the day, we have lost the ability to be still.

Which is why we have to learn how to do it by using meditation.

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There is an immense amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence for how essential regular periods of stillness are for our mental and physical health.

When we are still the mind naturally re-organizes itself, re-patterning recent information and clearing the decks by storing unneeded information into the unconscious. Also, in union with the body, the mind uses the space of stillness to process the emotional reactions it has recently experienced. This cleansing activity appears to the passive meditating mind as errant thoughts, memories and worries that arise and pass away, as well as temporary feelings, patterns of sensations, aches, twinges and pain in the body.

During meditation all this activity appears naturally. And if we allow it to happen, all the anxieties and emotions that cause it will pass away as quickly as they arise. And once processed, we are free of it.

There is a profound union of mind and body that occurs when we meditate. Stillness in mind creates stillness in the body and vice versa. And in that union our muscles are able to let go of retained tension, and our organs have the time to rejuvenate and process the backlog of hormones and any leftover toxins on the blood.

And this cleansing process can only happen when stillness is present. Once we become active, and the mind and body become focused on some external task, this healing process becomes secondary to it’s primary purpose of serving our needs and desires.

The problem with stillness is, people think it should feel pleasurable –  blissful, peaceful, calm and so on.

Maybe once you’ve trained yourself with meditation it will be. But in the beginning stages of meditation, stillness is filled with all the things that arise into it and clutter it up.

So all the things you think are disturbing you in meditation.The boredom, aches, itches, passing memories, worries and squalls of errant thinking – they wouldn’t arise if stillness wasn’t accessed by the meditation methods. These things arise into the space that stillness creates. They are mind and body naturally seeking to throw off mental and physical tensions – to find their own balance. And they need the space that stillness creates to do it.

And this process of ‘throwing off tension’ is sometimes fast, and sometimes slow depending on how complex the problem is – but if you just keep using the methods, like a boat crossing a river you will eventually get to the other side – and any mental or physical glitch you were struggling with, once processed, is gone –  you are free of just a little more of the weight you have been carrying.

So learn to love the suffering that arises when you meditate. It’s the only way you’ll be free of it.

Use the meditation methods to accept and let go of everything as it passes through, because all of it is a part of the healing and rejuvenation that is itself the path to a stillness that becomes increasingly spacious and profound the more you meditate.

The more you practice acceptance of the struggle, and use the meditation methods to remain detached from any suffering that might occur, the less intense the suffering will become.  You realize then, that all the things in your life you thought were problems – of worry, circular thinking, anxiety and physical discomfort – are not problems at all. They’re simply a mind and body seeking balance.

Love your pain and it becomes your friend.

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LINKS

Change Your Self, Change Your Life

A wonderful movie showing how the process arising from Vipassana meditation methods can change the way we are.

It’s by Eilona Ariel & Ayelet Menahemi, the story of a strong woman named Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, who strove to transform the notorious Tihar Prison and turn it into an oasis of peace using Vipassana meditation methods. But most of all it is the story of prison inmates who underwent profound change, and who realized that incarceration is not the end but possibly a fresh start toward an improved and more positive life.

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