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For less ruminate, mindfully meditate

February 1, 2024

What is our brain up to when we are doing nothing?  Just like a car in idle, studies reveal an idle mode for our brain, as well. Amisha Jha’s research demonstrates a default network active at rest.  This network includes regions of our brain associated with self-referencing and negative affect. In other words, when we are doing nothing, we think about ourselves and become depressed! And just like a car's engine, we do not actively choose this mode. We naturally slip into the default network when we are not actively engaging our brain in a task.  Our typical escape from rumination is the denial/distraction reaction.

Except the denial/distraction reaction is a lousy alternative. Studies by Matt Killingsworth reveal denial and distraction are of limited benefit. Forty-three percent of the time, we are mind-wandering – not focused on the present moment. So even when we are doing something, we are off somewhere else as far as our brains are concerned!  We mind-wander during pleasant (even sex!) and unpleasant activities. And our wandering does not even make our unpleasant moments any less unpleasant.  We just (mentally) leave the unpleasant task and instead go ruminate about ourselves and feel...

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Tags: meditation, mind, rumination


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Renegotiate your relationship with stress

January 3, 2024

What is your current relationship with stress? Do you hide from it, or try to run away? Or do you make a deal that if you work hard enough, it should go away.  If your current relationship is not working, how about renegotiation? 

First, let’s understand what stress is. From the original definition by Dr. Hans Selye, stress is “The non-specific response of an organism to any pressure or demand.”  Notice how stress is not judged as good or bad, but simply a generalized response. Our first clue to this new relationship: non-judgment.

And what is this generalized response? When we perceive a threat, hormones are released into our body. In response, these hormones trigger an elevation in heart rate, increase rate of breathing, blood shifts from the central core out to muscles of arms and legs and senses become more acute. The second clue to our new relationship: stress is about our body preparing. 

And what are we preparing for?  The stress reaction allows us to take action.  The “Fight or Flight” reaction mobilizes our resources toward this end.  Now to the third clue towards our new relationship. After we take action, our body naturally returns...

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Tags: new years, stress


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Balance - responding to Life's ups and downs

December 7, 2023

Walking along a beautiful wooded path when suddenly your foot slips – how does your body respond? With a small tilt, we stiffen head-to-toe. Simply by becoming rigid, we stay upright and continue on our way. A larger stumble demands more flair – we flex and sway to bring our wayward body back under center.  For a big tumble of the “OMG!” variety, we step into the spill. If all goes well, we stay upright, breathe a sigh of relief and continue unscathed.

 

With our body’s example of a multi-dimensional response to keep us on our feet, why do so many of us settle for just one option to maintain our emotional balance: the denial/distraction reaction?  Denial and distraction are the emotional equivalent of our body’s stiffening reaction. We experience a short-term respite.  During greater distress, this emotional rigidity quickly results in diminishing returns.  Being limited to just one trick, we slip into “If I only try harder, it will work this time.” And down we go!

 

How can we expand our repertoire of responses to life’s emotional ups and downs? Mindfulness broadens our range of options through two steps. First, we begin to...

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Tags: balance


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Coming home to body

November 1, 2023

When the air turns crisp and white frost blankets the ground, we are drawn to return home, to reconnect, to remember. This Thanksgiving, consider a homecoming of another sort: coming home to our bodies.

 

What drives us from our bodies? We become lost in doing mode: I have to get somewhere and do something. Our mental world becomes a trap of lists to do, problems to solve, decisions to make. Over time, this doing mode becomes our standard operating procedure, creating a separation between the realms of mind and body. We become James Joyce’s Mr. Duffy, who “...lived a short distance from his body.” Taking time to be is relegated to “I will get to that later,” but later never arrives.  What is the outcome of this all do and no be? Anxiety, exhaustion, dullness. 

 

For some, due to trauma or pain, body may no longer be a welcoming experience. Being in body may seem like a strange and foreign land to venture into. Unknown dangers seem to dwell there, so instead we seek solace in distraction and denial. But distraction and denial never offer a lasting haven, but just a momentary respite. ...

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Tags: body, homecoming


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The Prison of Pain

October 1, 2023

(While this article addresses physical pain, much of the same brain processes are also active when experiencing emotional pain.)

 

During a walk in the bush, Lorimer Moseley experienced a sensation of something touching his ankle. He dismissed the sensory experience as just a stick and continued on. After returning to consciousness, he found himself in the hospital being treated for an Eastern Brown snake (the world’s second most venomous) bite!  Six months later and fully recovered, walking in the bush, he again experienced the sensation of something touching his leg. This time he experienced “white hot poker pain screaming up my leg.”  Upon the ground, writhing in pain, his mate pointed out the source of the sensation: a small scratch from a twig. What is going on here?  The answer to this question reveals how mindfulness helps us to manage chronic pain.

 

Moseley just so happens to be a neuroscientist who studies pain. In his lab, they have demonstrated how some simple visual cues can radically alter our perception of pain. Viewing a red light will make a cold probe feel more painful on the skin than a blue light. Viewing a number on a...

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Tags: pain


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Back to School Mind

September 1, 2023

Remember the excitement of back to school?  All the potential within empty notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils.  A new teacher and new classmates.  Something about the novelty that awakens our minds to fresh ideas.  

 

Then we have the final graduation and get a job. September looks a lot like August. Same drive to work.  Same desk with old worn pencils. Same coworkers across from the lunch table.

 

As adults, can we reclaim this season of new learning?  Yes!  We can access Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,”  Shunryu Suzuki shares in the classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  Expert Mind may have knowledge, but lacks openness.  Trafton Drew illustrated the limitation of Expert Mind in action in a study of radiologists.  He asked the radiologists to review a scan of a patient’s lungs for nodes indicative of cancer. Pasted into this scan was a photo of a man in a gorilla suit. While these radiologists were extremely skilled at identifying the cancerous nodes, 83% missed the gorilla.  Eye scans revealed they had looked directly where the gorilla was present in the photo.  What was going on...

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Tags: gorilla, selective attention


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A cool day in August

August 1, 2023

After weeks of the 80s and 90s, today dropped down into the 70s - ahhhhh.  In late summer, we spend our days between a blast furnace outside or inside frigid offices and stores.  Then, mother nature offers us a respite. One day we throw open the windows and feel a cool breeze. 

 

As I enjoyed this day, I am reminded of how I feel following a session of meditation.  Depending upon the day, when I arrive upon the cushion, I may initially find myself carrying in all the clutter and chaos of the preceding hours.  Mind may jump from reactions to what has already unfolded to a waiting To Do list; regret over something said or not said to fear of consequences of something done or not done; questioning choices made to the uncertainty of decisions yet to be made.  For those who do not meditate, this litany may make them question the merits of putting myself amid the day’s events.  Most of us become quite skillful at a whole host of methods to avoid such exposure: our favorite social media, a game on our phone, or binge-streaming.  

 

Why in heaven’s name would anyone want to make direct...

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Tags: meditation, respite, summer


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"Good or bad," you be the judge...

July 1, 2023

In the Taoist tale “A Farmer’s Horse Ran Off,” we encounter a wise farmer and his neighbor. Each day, an event unfolds for the farmer: his prized horse runs off; the horse returns with a beautiful mare; the farmer’s son breaks his leg when thrown by the new mare. On and on, the neighbor witnessing these events insists that the farmer judge them to be good or bad. In response, the farmer replies, “I do not know if it is good…or if it is bad.” What is this farmer’s deal?! Seems clear, or is it?

 

Each day, each moment, events unfold in our lives.  We typically label these events as either good or bad. As the day unfolds, we accumulate events until one category prevails and the day is labeled “good or bad.” The labeling continues to accumulate into weeks, months and years.  The natural outcome of all this labeling: my life is either “good or bad.”  While the “good” label may seem inviting, the ensuing attachment and craving for more good can create as much suffering as the label “bad.”

 

But labeling does not stop with events. Labeling spills over into our evaluation...

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Tags: judgement


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The Gift of Awe

June 1, 2023

For me, it has included holding our newborn son, gazing through a telescope upon the rings of Saturn, and any opportunity to witness a starlit sky absent city lights. How about you?  When have you experienced awe? We all can recall moments when time suspends and space opens.  What is the effect of these moments? In a study of awe at Stanford, researchers found that “…these jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, and more willing to volunteer time to help others.  Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying…

 

More time, more patience, less materialism, more giving, more satisfaction. Who would not want these on their wish list?  Are these moments happenstance?  How do we tend the garden to increase the likelihood of awe in our lives?  From the description of awe above, we find striking similarities to the sages’ descriptions of Samadhi, Beginners Mind, and I-Thou.  Such moments have been known by many names over the eons.  As the researchers noted, awe is a...

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Tags: awe


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Our memories: Cone Zone Ahead!

May 1, 2023

 

Everywhere I drive these days, heavy machinery is tearing up and reconstructing my route.  The next time you are caught in one of these stop-and-go moments, watch how these machines are tearing up your way and laying down a new path, and realize how we recall a past event is quite similar.  When we seek to recall a past event, imagine first seeing the big orange diamond sign of “Construction Zone Ahead.”

 

A study by NYU neuroscientist Joe LeDoux reveals that memories are not an unchanging snapshot, but a fresh new reconstruction in the moment.  Each time we recall the event, we not only recombine the various bits of detail but also add shades of emotions, echoes of thoughts, and shifts of sensations from the present.  Memories are as much colored by our present as our past.  

 

How often are we limited in the present by a memory of past failure? When I consider tackling a particular task, my heart begins to race, sweat beads on my brow, and I am frozen in fear of failing again. Better to just give up and avoid than feel the pain of failure again. I become safe...

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Tags: compassion, memory


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