Three years ago I found myself traveling to Madison, Wisconsin, to be a part of the brain research being conducted by Richard Davidson, the neuroscientist who heads up the Center for Investigating Healthy. I had been identified as a “long term meditator” and asked to participate in some of the extensive research projects being conducted there to better understand what happens to the brain when you meditate. Over the next year and a half I was examined on three separate occasions in a sleep lab and in a Functional MRI machine using neuroimaging techniques that show which brain areas are involved in a task, a process, or an emotion. I was asked to respond to a wide variety of pictures and scenarios while being “stressed” by conditions such as heat applied to my arm and giving a speech or undergoing an interview with very stern looking people.
I just listened to a fascinating interview where Richard Davidson talks about some of his findings in his new book co-authored by Sharon Begley called “The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live-and How You Can Change Them.” The book outlines six categories of Emotional Style:
1. Resilience: How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
2. Outlook: How long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
3. Social Intuition: How adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
4. Self-Awareness: How well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
5. Sensitivity to Context: How good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
6. Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.
If you’re interested in emotion, how different emotions map onto the brain, and how you can change your emotions by changing the way your brain functions, then this would be an interesting read (comes out December 24). While the “what do you do once you know this information” part of the book might be a bit slim, we do know from Dr. Davidson’s and other research that meditation can change our brain structures. Due to neuroplasticity of the brain, we can change. We just need to work at it.
The payoff for meditating? More resilience, better outlook, more social intuitive, greater self- awareness, better regulation of your emotional responses, and better attention. Those all sound pretty good to me.
Here’s a great Huffington Post blog piece by Michelle May, M.D. called A Recipe for Overeating that I thought was excellent. I hope you enjoy it. It is perfect for the holidays when it seems like we are surrounded by food.
After that, if you want to laugh along with me and Paul Pepper, watch the video of my recent KBIA interview. I talk about the healthy benefits of relaxing and breathing before you eat. While Paul managed to get me to agree with him when he said “if you’re relaxed you can eat more without gaining weight,” I’m not sure that’s true. However, I do know that if you eat when you’re relaxed, you will metabolize your food more easily and, if you’re stressed, you will store more fat. Breathe! Relax! Then eat!
Over the years of defining mindfulness for people just being introduced to the term and the practice of meditation, I have noticed a change in my explanations. As my own understanding of mindfulness has deepened and changed me, my instructions have taken a decidedly softer and kinder portrayal of this way of being and sensing the world. I always start with the most popular definition of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” From there, though, I find it helpful to expand on the “nonjudgmentally” part. If you aren’t judging what are you doing? My experience is that I’m allowing, I’m accepting, I’m open, and I’m loving. Continue reading
We are on the countdown to the beginning of the holiday season—Thanksgiving is upon us!!! We will soon be faced with tables of food—things like turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, potatoes and gravy, the obligatory green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cheesecake (my favorite!!) and many more. I’m salivating just thinking about it. Oh the joy of Thanksgiving!
Of course, then there is that sinking feeling about the holidays approaching. You know the ones. The thoughts of days packed with even more events and activities than normal, the family gatherings with family you’re not that crazy about, the demands to be at parties and participate in things we might not be so happy about, (or conversely) NOT having invitations to be at parties or have family to gather with, spending too much money, and eating and drinking too much because food is EVERYWHERE.
What’s a girl (or guy) to do? Continue reading
Food Day is a nationwide celebration and a movement toward more healthy, affordable, and sustainable food—sounds a lot like the Slow Food Movement to me. Events are taking place across the nation to promote “eating real” food. Go to the website to find out about events in your area and to take their “real food” quiz to find out how your food intake measures up in terms of your health, environment, and animal welfare. I fared pretty well on the quiz (I got an “A”), but I’m not sure I understood all of the reasoning behind their scoring system.
What I do like is their priorities:
What’s not to like about those ideas? With so much of our food supply being connected to the promotion of disease (e.g. obesity, heart disease, cancer), it’s no longer a good idea to be unconscious about what we’re eating and the impact it has on our own health as well as the health of the world around us.
Among other events hosted here at the University of Missouri in Columbia is a Campus Farmers Market and Fair Food Fair on Thursday, October 25, from 10 am to 2 pm. For more events go the Environmental Leadership Office website
How “real” can you make your food consumption? Spend a little more time thinking about where your food comes from before you eat. I even heard there is a month long challenge in October to eat only non-processed foods. Since we are almost to the end of the month, maybe try it for the next week and see how you do. Report back on what you discovered.
Every time I mention kale to my mother she groans and rolls her eyes saying “I don’t like kale.” Talk about a role reversal. I tell her (like a mother would), “I just don’t think you’ve given it a chance or had it prepared the right way.” Personally, I’ve just learned how to massage my kale and it has made kale easy, quick, and delicious.
Of course, every time I’ve told people I’ve been massaging my kale they look at me like I’m crazy, except my niece in Oregon who is the one who actually inspired me to do this. She credits me with inspiring her to explore the world of good food many years ago. Now she’s returning the favor and turning me on to her favorite ways of making things. She and her husband have the flair for the creative when it comes to cooking. You wouldn’t believe the number of vegetables they can put in a blender and get their kids to eat! Continue reading
It’s the second week of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program and some people are wondering why on earth I am asking them to do the body scan every day (a formal mindfulness exercise that asks people to systematically bring attention to their body from head to toe). All kinds of comments are made after we do it at the beginning of class. On one hand, people say things like “It’s kind of boring,” “My mind wanders all over the place,” “The more I do it the less attention I pay to it (and I don’t like the recording).” On the other hand, people indicate “It’s really relaxing,” “I’ve noticed how it’s changed the way I relate to other things in my life,” “I’m able to release the tension in my body,” and “I am more able to cope with my pain.”
Our lives are filled with things that we like and things that we don’t like. We feel pain (both emotional and physical) and we feel joy. Mindfulness teaches us to treat all our experiences with equal care and compassion and kindness. Meeting life head-on in each moment teaches us that we can be with whatever is present without reacting. And if reacting is happening, we notice that with curiosity and openness. Continue reading
Mindfulness is a great way of helping us contemplate our values. When we’re present we can really feel the contentment and ease of our lives when we’re living in a way consistent with what we belief in and how we would like to behave. And conversely, you can feel the discomfort of living and behaving in a way that is less than what we hope for ourselves.
Presenting a workshop recently on “Making Your Life The Best It Can Be.” I was struck by how much emphasis I was giving to the idea of knowing your values and living from them. Two suggestions that I give people to manage their “spiritual energy” are the following:
- Make a list of your values and evaluate your life with those in mind
- Set intentions for yourself based on your values
These sound so obvious, but I don’t think people (myself included) put much thought doing this very often. We’re too busy. Right?! But, what an important thing this is to do for our wellbeing.
Personally, “physical health” is one of the most important values I hold. Of course I am a Health Psychologist, but in all my years of talking to people, I have never heard anyone say they didn’t value their health. Without your health, the rest of your life can suffer tremendously. Yet we often don’t think about our health until we don’t have it.
What if you were to remember every day that you value your health? How would you behave differently? Would you move your body more? Would you pay more attention to what kind of food you fed your body?
I know we can find a thousand and three excuses for not exercising and for eating too much junk food, but what values are these excuses based on? Often times it is based on a value held by the little rebel inside who says “I don’t feel like it” or “I can do whatever I want to do.” (Imagine yourself as a six year old when you say that!)That little rebel is reacting to some past experience of not feeling in control or having someone else control you. However, letting the little rebel take care of your health is pretty problematic.
So harness your inner adult and ask yourself, what is one thing I could commit to on a regular basis that would honor my value of health? Set an intention that you can live with.
I’ll give you a few ideas that I use to honor my health. Share your ideas in the comment section below.
- Move your body 30 minutes or more a day outside your normal routine.
- Take a recovery break every 60 to 90 minutes during the workday to stretch or breathe.
- Eat fresh food that doesn’t come out of a package.
- Eat lots of greens every day
- Drink lots of water (48 – 64 oz. a day).
- Eat breakfast every day (it jumpstarts your metabolism).
- Get 6 to 8 hours of sleep.
- Do yoga on a regular basis.
- Breathe deeply.
May your health be strong and abundant!
But Maryam Fakhradeen from the University of Missouri-Kansas City won the book “Commit to Sit: Tools for Cultivating a Meditation Practice” by posting her comment about doing the three minute meditation. She said “Helped a LOT; I knew I was tense but didn’t realize I was THAT tense until I was doing the exercise. Love learning new mindfulness exercises & tips!”
It’s amazing what you notice when you simply bring your attention to your body, your feelings, and your thoughts. When you check in with yourself, you might find tension or sadness or anger or happiness or peace. Things could feel pleasant or unpleasant or there might not be much of a feeling at all. Mindfulness is the tool that helps us to pay attention with curiosity and kindness so that no matter what we find when we look, we can be with it without reactivity. Hey, then you can relax. No need to struggle with what’s happening. We are just looking in to see what’s there.
Take a few breaths and, voila! In a moment or two something else is happening and we can relax around that too. Mindfulness helps us to sit beside our experiences as well as be in the middle of our experiences at the same time. This ability to abide with our lives can come in real handy, because, as you know, life is filled with ups-and-downs coming at us constantly and mindfulness lets us ride the waves.
Listening to NPR this morning, the benefits of meditation practice are even being picked up on by business schools around the country—from Harvard to Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The bottom line is that “slowing down” (taking a three minute breathing break) helps them be more effective. Listen to the whole story here.
Meditation is like taking a good friend to a coffee shop and getting to know her better, only without the coffee and the good friend is you. Just sit down with yourself and bring your open, curious attention to what is going on with you. Notice what thoughts are passing through your mind, what feelings are present, and what your body feels like.
If you spent even a teeny portion of the time you spend getting to know others in getting to know yourself, it would be extraordinarily beneficial. Research indicates the benefits of meditation range from alleviation or decrease in a broad range of physical symptoms to a decrease in anxiety and depression. However, a lot of people go through their entire lives without doing it.
Getting to know yourself and living a life of presence doesn’t have to happen through meditation practice, but it is one of the best ways I’ve discovered.
You might have been reading this blog for some time now and never taken the time to “taste mindfulness” for yourself. So, I’m offering a challenge to help you get started.
Just sit, right where you are. Don’t move (except to settle the body into a relaxed, yet alert posture. Click here and practice a three minute meditation. If you will comment below on what you noticed by September 11, I’ll put your name in a drawing for a book called “Commit to Sit: Tools for Cultivating a Meditation Practice.”
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, when you sit down to meditate, don’t even think “I am meditating.” “Just be awake, with no trying, no agenda, no ideas even about what it should look like or feel like or where your attention should be.” Do this three minute meditation every day or try some of the longer meditations found on the Audio/Video link above. Find out, firsthand, the benefits of meditation.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us” – Ralph Waldo Emerson