I’m participating in Mindful in May, a transformative one month online mindfulness program which brings together the world’s best meditation teachers, wellbeing experts and neuroscientists to teach you the tools to transform your mind towards greater well
Now, to be honest, I thought I could wrap up a week of Mindful in May a lot more succinctly than has turned out to be the case! This post has ended up being quite a bit longer than first anticipated. If you’re interested in Mindfulness, Meditation, reducing stress, increasing calm, understanding how our brains work, things like that … hopefully you won’t mind the length of this post. You can read it all or just skim and read the bits of interest. Anyhoo – here we go!
ONE: An interview with Rick Hanson – ‘Mindfulness for Greater Resilience’
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and New York Times best-selling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and on the Advisory Board of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.
Rick’s latest book is “Reslient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness” so much of the conversation centred around the topic of resilience.
- In Rick’s words “Mindfulness is sustained present moment awareness, applied to both the inner and outer worlds”.
- How Mindfulness supports resilience: Mindfulness allows us to be aware of what’s really happening around us and our reactions to it. Some people are hijacked by their emotional reaction. That’s not resilience! Resilience means you maintain a core of strength inside yourself even if everything else is falling apart.
- You can’t grow resilience without being mindfully aware.
- The famous saying by the Canadian scientist Donald Hebb – ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’. The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.
- ‘Linking’ – a concept to help yourself heal. How you can use new, positive experiences to soften and eventually replace old, negative ones.
TWO: A guided meditation by Elise Bialylew – ‘Getting focussed by settling into the body‘ (8 minutes, 49 seconds)
I really enjoyed the meditation – particularly the focus on earth, fire, air and water which is something I had not come across in meditation before. For example – EARTH meant to bring your focus to where your body made contact with either the ground, or the chair you were sitting on etc. FIRE was to bring awareness to the temperature of your body. Did you feel hot in places or cool or cold. My body felt warm but I noticed my feet were feeling a bit cold. AIR was to notice if you could feel a breeze or air moving over or around you. Could you feel your breath on your skin? WATER was to be aware of moisture – like the moisture within your mouth. These things all help you to be present and aware of your body and you’d be surprised how by doing that your mind stops its usual busy noise!
ONE: A guest meditation with Shauna Shapiro – ‘Relax with the Breath‘.
Shauna L. Shapiro, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at Santa Clara University and an internationally recognised expert in mindfulness. Dr Shapiro has recently featured at TedX with her talk “The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger” and has been featured by many media outlets, such as: Wired magazine, USA Today, Dr. Oz, the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, and the American Psychologist. You can find out more about her work in her critically acclaimed books The Art and Science of Mindfulness and Mindful Discipline: A loving approach to setting limits and raising an emotionally intelligent child.
This was a 13 minute meditation. I lay down on the lounge and put a cushion under my feet. I made myself comfortable! I liked this meditation so much, I did it twice!
ONE: An interview with Daniel Goleman – ‘The science of mindfulness and it’s lasting benefits’
Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist and science journalist. He is co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He is also a board member of the Mind & Life Institute. He currently co-directs the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. As a science journalist, Dr. Goleman was awarded the Washburn Award. He was also awarded the Lifetime Career Award from the American Psychologists Association and was made a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has authored many books, the most lauded of which is Emotional Intelligence in 1995 which was on the New York Times Bestseller List for a year and a half. His latest book is Altered Traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body.
- Daniel says: Mindfulness is like ‘standing guard’ – management of your mind. Mindful meditation helps you to recover more quickly from stress.
- The Amygdala is a section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events (release of cortisol, adrenalin etc). It’s the part of our brain that handles emotions.
- Regular Mindfulness meditation strengthens the pre-frontal cortex resulting in improved Cognitive Control: 1) Management of Amygdala gets stronger; 2) Ability to allocate attention where you want it; 3) An ability to calm yourself down when you get upset.
- Mindful meditation for anxiety and depression is very effective.
- Mindful meditation is being introduced into many schools as studies have found that regular practice, especially from childhood, results in better health and financial success as adults.
- Studies on long-term meditators who have a daily practice have discovered that their genes for inflammation down-regulate (go quiet).
- Daniel Goleman has written a lot about Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence means: 1) Self Awareness (mindfulness); 2) Self Management (mindfulness); 3) Empathy (social awareness); 4) Relationships (awareness management).
- Loving Kindness & Compassion practice – involves bringing to mind someone you love, and wishing that they are safe, well, and happy – either out loud or to yourself. The practice continues by extending these well wishes outward to those around you: maybe a more neutral party, or even a difficult person in your life.
- Daniel Goleman offers Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification HERE for anyone interested.
TWO: A guest meditation with Rick Hanson (interviewed on Day 1) on ‘Courage’.
This wasn’t what I’d call a meditation, however it was a very interesting and informative listen. It seemed to me to be more about how we talk to people than courage, but then perhaps it does take courage to look within and assess how we are speaking to others and make changes where needed. I liked these points that he said below.
The fundamental attributes of wise speech are:
- Well intended – is the intent of what you’re saying good?
- Beneficial – is what you’re saying beneficial to the person you’re saying it to, and yourself?
- True – is what you’re saying true?
- Not Harsh – are you being unfairly harsh?
- Timely – is it the right time to raise this? …. and
- This one is optional but desirable: Speech that is wanted – is it?
ONE: A 13 minute meditation with music guided by Elise.
I enjoyed this meditation very much. It’s the first one this week with relaxing background music. At the end of the meditation a bell chimes. This was followed by 5 minutes of silence before a further 3 chimes to signal the end. You could stop the meditation after the guided part or keep going for the extra 5 minutes of silence. I chose to keep going. I found though that I felt a bit lost during the silence. I prefer to be guided and told what to do. When no-one told me what to do I floundered. In the end I just tried focusing on my breath and that seemed to work ok.
ONE: An interview with Richard Chambers – ‘Mindfulness for improved learning and better relationships’
Dr. Richard Chambers is a clinical psychologist and internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. He has published The Art of Mindful Origami and two previous books, Mindful Learning and Mindful Relationships. He is regularly interviewed by mainstream media and consults for a growing number of businesses, sports clubs, healthcare organizations and educational institutions. Richard is spearheading a world-first, university-wide mindfulness initiative at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He is also one of the developers of Smiling Mind, a free mindfulness app with over 1 million downloads.
- Richard says: Mindfulness is being fully present, aware and engaged in each moment. Mindfulness allows us to notice our judgemental ways. Once we notice, we can practice letting go of that and being more open.
- There are 3 distinct types of meditation:
- Focused Attention (eg focus on breath & when mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. This is the one people normally associate with mindfulness meditation)
- Open Awareness (eg – staying present using the body or senses as an anchor. Allowing thoughts & emotions to come and go without getting caught up in reactions to them. This one gets at the real heart of what Mindfulness is)
- Heartfullness Practices – like Loving Kindness & Self Compassion
- Studies show we spend at least 1/2 our lives distracted – eg mind wandering, mental chatter, thinking about ourselves. Dr Chambers believes it’s more like 80-90% of our time we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing. This is often referred to as our DEFAULT MODE. Default Mode is not always bad though as this is where a lot of creativity happens.
- Too much time in DEFAULT MODE is linked to things like anxiety, depression and stress.
- Paying attention is foundation to learning and education.
- Mindfulness is the opposite to DEFAULT MODE.
- Meditation changes the brain. Neuroscience studies have shown a strengthening of the pre-frontal cortex which strengthens our Executive Functions, like:
- Managing Emotions
- Inhibiting Impulses
- Self Awareness
- There’s a well known Buddhist teaching that says “I am the mountain. All the rest is weather.”
TWO: The Body Scan meditation with our host Elise Bialylew (10 minutes, 22 seconds) – apparently a MiM tradition!
I’ve done a similar body scan meditation before and I do really enjoy them, just as I did this one. It basically is a tune in to your body starting at your toes and working your way to the tip of your head. You notice where you’re holding stress, where might be a bit sore etc. You’re encouraged to soften and relax and release the stress. It’s a very relaxing and worthwhile meditation!
ONE: An interview with Sarah Lazar – ‘The Impact of Mindfulness on your brain’
With a PhD in microbiology at Harvard University, Dr. Lazar has led numerous scientific studies. Her most notable research observes changes in the brain, also known as neuroplasticity in long-term meditators under Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Dr. Lazar’s research has been covered by numerous news organizations including The New York Times, USA Today, Time Magazine, CNN, ABC Evening News, National Public Radio, WebMD, and the Huffington Post.
- Sarah studies/looks at the brain of people who do yoga and meditation.
- Sarah says: Mindfulness is awareness without being judgemental.
- A favourite quote of Sarah’s is “You’re not trying to quiet the storm, you’re trying to find the quiet within the storm”.
- Study 1 – Scanned the brains of long-term yoga/meditators and compared to the brains of people of the same age/education/gender but who had no previous yoga or meditation experience. Results: Several brain regions differed – those areas of the brain important for emotions and sensory perception (especially being aware of internal sensations). Critics/sceptics said maybe those yoga/meditators are just different and their brains were always like that, so then came Study 2.
- Study 2 – Took people who had never meditated before and randomized them. 1/2 the group went through an 8 week meditation program and the other 1/2 were just scanned 8 weeks apart. The second group were just as interested in meditation as the first group but had to wait until after the 8 weeks were up and the 8 week scan before they could do the 8 week meditation course. Results: There was a change in the brains of those who did the course as compared to those who didn’t. Regions of the brain that changed were:
- POSTERIOR CINGULATE (PCC) – responsible for the sense of self and mind wandering. There was more grey matter here which indicates the mind is not wandering quite so much.
- HIPPOCAMPUS – important for learning and memory. It got bigger, which suggests improvement in memory & learning capacity.
- AMYGDALA – main stress/fight or flight part of the brain. It got smaller. The more stress reduction = the smaller the Amygdala got.
- Neuroplasticity – our brains are very plastic, meaning the brain is constantly remodelling itself.
- At the time of the interview Sarah’s new study focus is to ‘connect some dots’, eg: Are Amygdala changes really related to reduction in stress. There’s been a recent study (no results yet) to look at Cortisol levels via stress tests. Do people with a smaller Amygdala have less stress? Hippocampus – the memory part of the brain. They’re doing some memory tests and some mind wandering tests. Next will look at longer term meditation and yoga practices beyond 2 months, eg 6 months, 1 year etc.
- Depression – it was found that the Hippocampus is important with regards to depression. People with a small Hippocampus tend to have a worse prognosis than those with a large Hippocampus. Meditation helps to make the Hippocampus bigger, so meditation helps with prevention of depression relapse but also helps depression symptoms. Studies are showing a similar scenario when it comes to Anxiety and the Amygdala.
TWO: A meditation to build greater confidence with Rick Hansen (interviewed on Day 1)
To me this wasn’t a typical meditation experience, however it was relaxing to listen to and interesting and informative!
Rick Hansen tells us that confidence is much more than just self-esteem. It’s a bone deep sense of our own worth, that others care about you, and that you can be caring yourself. He says that to have a good sense of being cared about will help us to be more resilient. One of the most powerful ways to grow that sense of confidence is to repeatedly be aware of being cared about and then let the recognition of those facts actually become a feeling, an experience, a warm sense in your own body that you are cared about. He then listed 5 different ways to feel cared about:
- Be aware of ways in your life currently or in the past that you have felt INCLUDED (eg part of a group, team, neighbourhood, friendship circle, profession, interest group)
- When have you had the feeling of being SEEN? People who may not completely understand you but they’re trying. They are empathetic.
- Think of times in your life when you have felt APPRECIATED. Recall times when you have felt respected, or others have been grateful to you, valued you or sought you. Perhaps they simply complimented you or said thank you.
- Be aware of times in your life these days or in the past that you have been LIKED. Times when people have been friendly or warm towards you and clearly they like you.
- Be aware of times in your life these days or in the past that you have felt LOVED. Doesn’t have to be perfect relationships but the love for you was true.
Day 7 is a day for reflection and integration. You’re asked to revisit your favourite meditation and note that your inner landscape may be different than last time you did it and so it will be a different experience each time. I decided to do two meditations:
- From Day 2: Guest meditation with Shauna Sheparo ‘Relax with the breath’. I had found Shauna’s voice very calming and enjoyed this meditation so it was nice to do it again.
- From Day 4: A meditation with music guided by Elise. I had enjoyed this meditation and found it very relaxing so enjoyed doing this one again.
We were also asked to reflect on these questions:
- How was your effort this week? I am pleased with my effort. I couldn’t have given it any more effort.
- What got in the way of your practice (if anything)? Noises that distracted or stressed me when I was trying to meditate (eg barking dogs).
- What could you do differently next week to support your practice? I don’t think there is anything I need do differently. I’m listening to the interviews in the mornings when I’m more alert. I’m meditating in the afternoons. This seems to be working ok right now.
If you’ve read all the way through to this point – well done!
So I’m totally a neuropsychologist now and am ready to take on patients! All jokes aside, I find this subject matter so fascinating and interesting. Our brains are such incredible organs and it’s wonderful to think that with a bit of training, we can improve their function and better our lives!
I wonder what Week 2 will bring? A wrap up of Week 2 will be published next Thursday.
Tell me, was there one particular gold nugget of information or ah ha moment within this post for you? Do you practice Mindfulness and/or Meditation?
Ciao for now,
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