Wednesday, March 2, 2011
I have practiced meditation for more than 25 years. Primarily I have practiced mindfulness or insight meditation (vipassana), a Buddhist method which consists of sitting quietly and paying attention to inspiration and expiration. In this method, when you find your mind wanders from the focus on the in- and out- breaths, you gently note the distraction (“thinking,” “pain in foot,” or whatever) and return your attention to the breath.
Many people tell me that they “can’t” meditate because they find that the mind wanders. They have gotten the idea that “doing meditation” means having unwavering attention. Meditation is a practice, like any other practice, in that you never succeed 100%. If you practice archery, you won’t hit the bullseye 100% of the time, especially not in the novice stage. You practice to increase the number of times you hit the mark. The same with meditation. The more you practice, the more often you hit the mark of peaceful attention to your breathing.
What’s in it for you? For me, it all boils down to freedom. Moshe Feldenkrais once said something like “You can’t change what you do until you know what you are doing.” Meditation increases your self-awareness, particularly awareness of the thoughts and emotional reactions that precede your actions.
When you start practicing meditation, you quickly learn that much of what you do is mechanical. You find your mind filled with automatic responses to various stimuli, which produce automatic actions by domino effect. You find that certain stimuli put you into a trance, and when in trances like this, you say and do things that you later regret. Meditation practice enables you to loosen the links between stimulus and response, and even rewire the brain, so that you can change your reactions and behavior.
Does meditation have an evolutionary basis? I have often been struck by the quiet alertness of various non-human species sitting in wait for something, like the frog that sits patiently alert, just waiting for the moment to reel in a bug with its rapid release tongue. The photo of the gorilla to the right looks similar to the depiction of the Buddha above left. Perhaps meditation does have evolutionary precedents, but more important to me, it works as a tool for personal evolution, helping me to realize my full human potential.
Here are some reasons to consider incorporating mindfulness meditation into your primal lifestyle.
1. Mindfulness meditation can help you eat better and lose weight. A pilot study titled Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL) provided ten obese patients with “Six weekly two-hour group classes (with two monthly follow-up classes). Content included training in mindfulness meditation, mindful eating, and group discussion, with emphasis on awareness of body sensations, emotions, and triggers to overeat.”
Notice that this trial did not include any nutrition education, only mindfulness training. The results?
“Compared to baseline data, participants showed statistically significant increases in measures of mindfulness and cognitive restraint around eating, and statistically significant decreases in weight, eating disinhibition, binge eating, depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, negative affect, and C-reactive protein.”
2. Mindfulness training can help you stop binge eating. Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., has done pioneering research using mindfulness training to treat binge eating disorder. Her research has demonstrated that Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training can decrease binge episodes by more than 50% in just 8 weeks of intervention.
3. Mindfulness training can improve your awareness of the physical effects of stress. Researchers at UC Berkeley compared the emotional body awareness of well-trained dancers, practitioners of insight meditation, and a control group not trained in dance or meditation. They found that the meditators had more awareness of the effects that emotions have on the physical body than either dancers or the control group. Despite having a very high degree of motor control, dancers did not differ from the control group in awareness of the physical effects of emotions.
4. Mindfulness training changes neuronal connections in regions of the brain. Kilpatrick et al
reported that eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training improved attentional focus, sensory processing, and reflective awareness of sensory experience, and “Significant MBSR-related differences in functional connectivity were found mainly in auditory/salience and medial visual networks.”
5. Mindfulness training changes grey matter density in regions of the brain. Holzel et al found that 8 weeks of MBSR actually increased the grey matter density of the brain in regions involved in learning, memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.
Together the studies by Kilpatrick et al and Holzel et al demonstrate empirically that that how you use your intention to direct your attention and awareness can change the physical properties of the brain.
6. Mindfulness practice improves mood. Segal et al compared the antidepressant effects of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy to maintenance antidepressant pharmacotherapy, and found that “For depressed patients achieving stable or unstable clinical remission, MBCT offers protection against relapse/recurrence on a par with that of maintenance antidepressant pharmacotherapy. “
7. Mindfulness training can also make you smarter. Zeidan et al found that just 4 days of mindfulness meditation training “significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.”
8. Mindfulness training can help you manage pain. Zeidan et al also compared mindfulness training to relaxation therapy or math distraction as methods of dealing with pain induced by electrical stimulation. The team found that mindfulness reduces severity of perceived pain by reducing anxiety and enhancing awareness of the present moment.
9. Mindfulness practice can reduce useless or harmful repetitive mental activity. Jain et al found that mindfulness practice works better than relaxation training for reducing distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors that cause distress.
10. Finally, mindfulness practice might help you live longer. We have reason to believe that long term mindfulness practice may reduce the rate of cellular aging and preserve telomere length. Epel et al has reviewed data linking telomere length to cognitive stress and stress arousal and presented new data linking cognitive appraisal to telomere length. They “propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.”
Jacobs and Epel et al compared the telomerase activity of participants in a mindfulness meditation retreat to those of a wait-list control group matched for age, sex, body mass index, and prior meditation experience. The 30 retreat participants meditated for about 6 hours daily for 3 months. They found that at the end of the retreat, the intensive meditation practitioners displayed decreased neuroticism, and increased perceived control (freedom), mindfulness, sense of purpose in life, and telomerase activity, which might increase cell longevity.
Of interest, it appeared that the participants increased sense of purpose in life mediated the increase in telomerase activity. In other words, those who had the greatest sense of life purpose had the greatest telomerase activity. This may give us evidence that having a sense of purpose in life can extend your life, whereas having no sense of purpose can shorten it. I believe this is true. Many of us know of someone who was in very poor health, near death, but had a purpose for remaining alive, and lived to see that purpose realized.
As I suggested in my post on Shamanism as Evolutionary Medicine, the accumulating research on the health effects of meditation show us what shamans knew for millenia: how we use our minds and awareness (not one and the same) can have profound effects on our health and happiness. While primal dieting is beneficial, it is not the end-all of health care. Sometimes what we do with our minds may trump what we do with our bodies.
What do you think? Do you have experiences with mindfulness or other meditation methods? Do you notice an effect on your health?
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