Monday, June 28, 2010

Meditation and the Brain

My meditation practice has become a bit sporadic the past month or so, due to a variety of other activities clamoring for my time. Believing it is the quality of awareness in all the moments of our lives that's most important, I’d amped up my efforts to maintain a meditative focus throughout my days.

Although I was somewhat successful, after a few weeks I began to notice a subtle shift in the quality of my overall experience. Nothing extreme occurred. I didn’t become depressed or cranky. However, I did find myself a bit less present to the here and now. My inner calm was more precarious, and my sense of wonder and joy a bit less palpable than before.

Coincidentally, the June issue of The Yoga Journal shed some light on this topic. In an article entitled Your Brain On Meditation, author and educator, Kelly McGonigal, explored the recent technological advances that are increasing our understanding of the effects of meditation on the brain.

It’s long been known that meditation can enhance one’s subjective experience of joy, equanimity, and interconnectedness. Researchers had also demonstrated meditation’s link to overall physical health, immune system functioning, and pain management.

But science has moved into new areas recently. Using MRIs, EEGs and fMRIs, researchers have begun to track actual changes in the structure and function of the brains of folks who meditate.
Recent findings include:
  • Increased gray matter in regions of the brain important for attention, emotional regulation and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter is thought to make an area of the brain more responsive and efficient.
  • Decreased density in the amygdala, a brain region activated by stress. It had already been established that the amygdala could grow larger and more reactive through the experience of chronic stress and trauma, but research has now begun to show that changes can go the other way, as well.
  • Greater activity in portions of the brain critical for the particular method of meditation employed. This responsiveness continues beyond the meditation session, as the brain becomes better able to do what it's asked to do.
It seems that our brains are not fixed in adulthood after all, but open to change. As Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at UCLA School of Medicine puts it, “everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”

Folks who meditate using concentrative techniques fire up the brain centers involved in attention, thereby developing a greater ability to focus. Likewise, an emphasis on compassion, joy, or tranquility encourages activity and responsiveness in the portions of the brain that govern these functions, with a corresponding increase in proficiency.

The really exciting news is that such changes can occur relatively quickly. Many of these studies focused on beginning meditators, who had engaged in as little as a 7 or 8 week course. Benefits increased with experience.

“It’s a simple matter of training,” writes McGonigal. “Like anything that requires practice, meditation is a training program for the brain.”

I am in training. Those experiences and attitudes I reinforce grow stronger, more resilient. Though I continue to feel that what happens outside specific meditation periods is most important, I’ve learned once again that, for me, structured meditation time is invaluable.

I’ve now resumed my regular meditation practice. I set aside time specifically to open to joy, to wonder, and to the Divine. What’s not to love about that?!!

Here's to us all finding ways to sculpt a brain that helps us live the life we want to live, open to Spirit and joy.

Loanne Marie

P.S. There are many misconceptions about meditation. Folks often give it a try, only to abandon the process due to the busyness of their minds. They conclude, “I just can’t meditate”. Untrue. While there are some approaches that fit an individual’s temperament better than others, everyone can meditate.

I’ll be offering a free, one-time class to help beginning meditators get started. If this idea appeals to you, please send me an email.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bearing Solemn Witness

I’ve been avoiding it for weeks. I walk out of the room during the news, don’t read the paper, keep the radio off while driving. Most telling of all, I distance myself when my husband tries to share his reactions.

I avert my eyes, and my spirit, from the harsh reality. I tell myself I don’t need to see it. I’m well aware of the damage to fragile ecosystems that will come from an oil spill of this magnitude. I know, too, given the interconnectedness of life, that this devastation will extend far beyond a limited set of contours.

But who am I kidding? It is not that I don’t need to see it. It is that I don’t want to see it.

I’m in the throes once more of a misguided belief that I can protect myself from pain. Defending against sorrow cannot happen, though, unless I close down, harden my heart, resist life. If I do that, I merely add another layer to this catastrophe. The oil spill~~though hemorrhage seems the more appropriate term~~would then claim another victim, and this casualty would come with my full participation.

Despite my efforts, grief remains, just beyond my vision. Slowly, undiminished, it moves closer. It’s as though this visceral sense of destruction is the oil slick and I, a coastal marshland full of tender life I wish to protect, but know I cannot.

Finally, I turn to face it. Images rush toward me...

An oil-drenched brown pelican struggling to stretch its soiled wings...
A baby sea turtle coated in black slime...
Dark pools of oiled water...
A young egret stuck in thick sludge under a mangrove, white feathers blackened...
Tar balls washed up on stained sand...
A dragonfly perched atop oil-slick marsh grass, inky bits clinging to delicate wings.

Devastation washes over me. Tears run down my cheeks as my heart, finally, breaks open.

In a recent letter, my friend, Claire, reminded me that the word vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnerare, meaning “to wound”. To be alive, fully alive in a world in which terrible things happen, requires our hearts to remain open in the face of pain. We must be vulnerable. Woundable.

There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” An appropriate modification would be, “If you’re not filled with anguish, you’re not paying attention.”

Not everything is pain, of course. Life is a grand mix of all elements. It is equally true that the joys of this world enthrall us when we allow ourselves to deeply experience them. In the face of suffering, however, what is called for is compassion—again, from the Latin, meaning “to feel with”.

Author, religious scholar and mystic, Andrew Harvey, writes that a heart “is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever more wonders.”

There is, indeed, something about a heart’s breaking that brings the possibility for growth. Like a snake shedding skin that has grown too tight, when the boundaries of a heart are shattered, an opportunity is created for that heart to grow beyond its previous borders. To accomplish this, though, we must have the courage to feel.

Val, another friend, shares that the spewing of oil feels to her like a wounded earth bleeding. The metaphor fits. Our precious earth, teeming with life and infused with the divine, bleeds. Bearing solemn witness to this reality is our task.

To do otherwise seems uncaring. Disrespectful. Sacrilegious.

May all of our hearts break and enlarge and break and enlarge, again and again and again. Perhaps then our collective heart will grow large enough that we'll treat our Earth and all its inhabitants more lovingly.

Loanne Marie

PS. Of course, we need to do more than simply grieve. We need to act.

For an encouraging story about one community's success in breaking their oil addiction~~yes, it is possible~~click on this story that ran recently on PBS's Need to Know.

And for another form of action, a meditative one, I pass on this link, so you can decide if this approach fits for you.