Actually, I’d put this a little more broadly: my work – and that of many other scholars and clinicians – is grounded in the general fact of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure.
For example, researchers studied cab drivers who must memorize London’s spaghetti snarl of streets, and at the end of their training their hippocampus – a part of the brain that makes visual-spatial memories – had become thicker: much like exercise, they worked a particular “muscle” in their brain, which built new connections among its neurons. Similarly, another study found that long-term mindfulness meditators had thicker cortex in parts of the brain that control attention and are able to tune into one’s body.
In the saying from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.
A traditional saying is that the mind takes the shape it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon – for better or worse. The brain is continually changing its structure. The only questions are: Who is doing the changing: oneself or other forces? And are these changes for the better?
In this larger context, my focus is on how to apply these new scientific findings: how to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – for psychological healing, personal growth, and (if it’s of interest) deepening spiritual practice. I’m especially interested in:
In sum, this brain stuff can sound exotic or esoteric, but in essence the approach is simple: find the neural processes that underlie negative mental factors, and reduce them; meanwhile, find the neural processes that underlie positive mental factors, and increase them. Less bad and more good – based on neuroscience and Western psychology, and informed by contemplative wisdom.
Of course, much is not yet known about the brain, so this approach is necessarily an exploration. But if we remain modest about what we don’t know, there are still many plausible connections between the mind and the brain, and many opportunities for skillful intervention for ourselves, for our children and others we care for, and for humankind as a whole.
In the Foundations of Well-Being the Learning Pillar has several practices that cover the steps of HEAL. Here are the links of the audio for those:
Also, I have extended guided practices in the audio version of my book, Hardwiring Happiness, that you might like (chapter 10 is pretty much three chapters worth of guided practices).
If I am introducing mindfulness to a general audience, I am very matter-of-fact about it, unapologetic and undefensive, and use concrete, scientifically-tinged language. I speak of experience-dependent neuroplasticity, and therefore the critically important role of regulating attention as the first step in shaping the brain for better rather than for worse (given its negativity bias). This part takes me 2 minutes or so. Really. Simpler and faster is better.
Next I introduce the idea of sustained present moment awareness – the definition of mindfulness – as both an excellent training in attention regulation and an excellent practice in its own right.
Then we begin the practice, first seeing if they can sustain attention to the sensations of breathing – around the nose, or in the chest or belly, or in the body in general – for say 10 breaths in a row. (I always also state that other objects of attention are fine, such as a word like “peace.”) I could make a few comments about steadiness of mind, and remaining attentive to their own attention: meta-cognitive awareness of awareness. I might also gently suggest finding a posture that is comfortable and alert.
On the basis of the steadiness of mind established in this way, at some point – a few minutes in – I suggest that they remain aware of their object of attention while also staying present in this moment, and this one. Not resisting the thoughts and feelings and sounds etc. that come and go, just disengaging from them. Simply be-ing, gently relaxing, opening, softening . . . without strain or stress, opening into a growing well-being and peace . . . a kind of space or underlying quality of being that contains any pain or upset.
Usually we stay pretty quiet, though sometimes with a comment here or there by me to help draw people back into the practice.
And then we finish up. Gradually drawing people back into the room, opening their eyes if they’ve closed. Registering what the experience is like, and letting it sink in.
Three nice things about HEAL:
So I find that using HEAL becomes pretty natural for people, like any good habit. If you’re a mental health professional you can do things with clients to encourage them to focus on key resource experiences between sessions, or simply put little reminders around them like doing HEAL at specific times such as at meals or just before bed or just after exercising or meditating.
As to regular mindfulness practice, you can use HEAL to internalize the experience of mindfulness so it comes more easily and you get better at it – just like internalizing the experience of any other inner strength, to grow it inside yourself. Similarly, you can use HEAL to internalize the benefits of mindfulness – or related practices such as meditation – so you get more motivated to practice as you experience its rewards.
Also, try making a commitment to meditate – which could include for a person the theistic version of contemplative practice, which is prayer – at least one minute a day.
This is a really important question. I have written briefly about this, but most of my content can be found as part of various talks and presentations. You might like a talk I gave – What We Practice – that you can find here.
I think there are two key parts to practice:
I have been served by various Tibetan sayings:
I also try to operationalize “working.” Is the heart becoming more open, are we increasingly able to “cling to nothing in this or any world,” are we becoming more accessible to unconditionality, are we becoming more contented, loving and peaceful?
Gratitude supports spiritual practices – or related secular ones, such as everyday mindfulness – in a variety of ways. It draws our awareness to a sense of fullness, of having enough, and this reduces the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm towards oneself and others. It is a doorway to awe and wonder at the stunning fact that the universe exists at all. It helps you appreciate the extraordinary gift of being alive and of having a human life, so you want to make the most of it and don’t want to waste it. And for some, gratitude draws them toward an appreciation for God – however they experience or conceive of that.
Of course, each of these benefits also gently and gradually shapes one’s own brain in an increasingly positive direction.
I suggest starting by making sure you are in super health and ruling out any physiological factors. I’m not a physician, but have heard that things like estrogen imbalances, yeast overgrowths, etc. can affect memory.
Doing mental activities that work the memory “muscles” could help. Like playing bridge and having to remember key cards, learning a new language, or taking a class that calls for considerable memorization.
And if you’re not doing meditation routinely, I suggest it, too. Among its benefits are strengthening executive oversight of mental processes, which aids memory plus provides more influence over one’s thinking.
You are very wisely raising a key question that is actually quite controversial.
When taken by itself, there is considerable research evidence for the benefits of MBSR in particular and of related secular trainings in mindfulness (defined as sustained present moment awareness, typically combined with qualities of self-acceptance and curiosity). This research is credible and a sound basis for applications in the settings you work in. So, from a secular perspective, things seem clear. MBSR is not Buddhist any more than self-awareness, attention training, self-acceptance, or meta-cognition are Buddhist. If someone says, “We can’t teach mindfulness since that is Buddhist,” I politely tell them that this is mistaken: the Buddha in particular and Buddhism in general has no monopoly on mindfulness, compassion, taking personal responsibility, insight, or kindness even though these are central elements of Buddhism.
But, from a Buddhist perspective, some people (such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and other respected teachers) think it is fine to extract elements of Buddhist practice (e.g., mindfulness) and then apply them outside of that Buddhist context, while other respected teachers think that this is wrong to do. Myself, I side with Jon on this question.
It is widely recognized in mainstream medicine that roughly half of all medical procedures (including “off-label prescriptions”) performed routinely in in-patient and out-patient settings lack a single study substantiating them. This does not mean they are bad medicine; they are considered part of the reasonable standard of care. In the well-known saying in science: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
The evidence for most healthcare interventions, including routine medical practices, is nonexistent, limited, shows mild benefits at most, or could be questioned methodologically. In this context, check out these two links:
As you can see in these links, the evidence for mindfulness and related practices (e.g., meditation) for promoting mental and physical health is quite robust. If Pfizer or Merck could patent meditation, based on the research findings already, we’d regularly be seeing ads for it on primetime TV.
There is a kind of pocket industry of debunkers who make their bones trying to taking down interventions that have any kind of holistic, new age, or spiritual air about them. It is so easy to debunk things. You can debunk nearly anything. You can always find fault with academic papers. You can always call for more evidence. So let’s call for more evidence in domains with big risks instead of tiny ones.
Meditation is free or inexpensive, has rare (but occasional, as Willoughby Britton’s research has found for some vulnerable people going into intensive meditation retreats) negative side effects, and can be done in many kinds of settings by many kinds of people in many kinds of ways. Its benefits, and the evidence for its benefits, should be netted against its very low risks; the higher the risks, the higher the need for evidence for an intervention, but the lower the risks, the lower the need for evidence for an intervention. About 200,000 people die each year in America due to medical error. If you participate in medicine, there are significant risks, I don’t say this to criticize medicine – I value it highly and am grateful to my doctors – but to put this issue in context. How many people die each year due to participating in meditation? The risks are tiny.
Sure, we should be careful about over-claiming about the evidence for anything. But I rarely see that. Mostly I see people saying essentially that meditation could help you become more self-aware, lower your stress, and grow calm and other resources inside yourself, and these psychological developments couldn’t hurt your health and might even help it through the stress reduction pathway. You know, this statement is accurate when applied to the majority of people who take up meditation.
Many people have difficulty using the sensations of breathing as an anchor for their attention during meditation, or even generally. Sometimes it is because body sensations in general or breathing in particular have gotten associated with painful, even traumatic, experiences. Other times there’s no trauma history but something about the breath just doesn’t work for a person.
No worries, actually: in meditation, the point is not the object/anchor of attention, the point is the quality of sustained presence of mind moment after moment – along with related helpful factors such as self-compassion, acceptance, and learning along the way from one’s experiences. So you could shift to any number of other, often common, objects of attention, such as a word or phrase (e.g., “peace,” “may we be happy,” “om”), an image (e.g., a candle, a picture of a saint, a memory of a beautiful meadow), or sensations in other parts of the body. And you could also do meditation while walking slowly.
If you still want to explore breathing, what I do is have a general awareness of my torso and whole body while breathing rather than focusing on any particular spot, and without trying to regulate breathing in any way. Move out to the body as a whole, and let the sensations of breathing come to you as it were, receiving them without effort.
Meanwhile, there is a natural relaxation, letting go, warm-heartedness, and growing sense of well-being, contentment, and peace.
In all the studies (and reviews of studies) I’ve seen on meditation, I’ve never seen anything scientific about best time of day to meditate. Maybe it exists, but I’ve never heard of it.
From the standpoint of a long-time meditator, plus someone who teaches meditation, my practical answer is this: the best time to meditate . . . is whatever time you will actually do it. It’s a variation on the old line that the best exercise in the world for you is whatever you will actually do.
This said, there is science that the mind is quieter for most people when we first awaken in the morning, plus we are less likely to fall back asleep, so that is an easier time to meditate. Additionally, meditating in the morning lays a good foundation for your outlook and mood for the whole day. (And as a practical matter, if you meditate before the kids get up, if you have any, the house is still quiet.)
Science also shows that just before sleep, the mind and brain are very receptive. In this hypnagogic state, the influence of meditation is going to be high, with results that could ripple through the night. The tradeoff is that we are less alert since we are sleepy.
So perhaps the perfect combination is have your main meditation in the morning (however long it is, even just a few minutes), with a minute or more just before sleep.
But remember, no matter what the scientists say, the best time to meditate is the time that works best for you.
When we try to open to, encourage, evoke, kindle, call forth, etc. a positive mental factor during meditation – e.g., relaxing the body, feeling more protected and thus safer, finding some well-being even happiness in awareness, feeling a sense of spaciousness in experience – you’re right there is a focusing of attention on that factor. In the background of awareness there may also from time to time be a sense of body sensations, perhaps those of breathing, but there is no attempt to be simultaneously and equally aware of both the breath and the positive mental factor: that is a difficult if not impossible balancing act and stressful to attempt as you have experienced.
Then, after the mental factor has been activated, we can either make it the object of focused attention or shift to the breath (or something else, such as a saying like “may beings be at peace”). If you are working on steadying the mind, a good focus especially in the beginning and intermediate stages of meditating, then you would probably give yourself over to the sensations of breathing, abiding as a body breathing, with from time to time a passing but beautiful sense of relaxing, the mind quieting, peace growing, opening, being here, being now. Pretty sweet!
It’s important to build up inner resources for meditating. Buddha’s Brain focuses on inner resources, especially the fourth chapter on taking in the good.
A quick suggestion would be to find something that is reliably comfortable and peaceful in your experience – such as the breath, or an object of beauty, or a saying – and use that as your meditation anchor. Maybe while standing or walking, to reduce the dissociation. And keep disengaging from painful thoughts; don’t fight them, ignore them. And from time to time look at them categorically; in other words, see their nature, the nature of all experience, all phenomenology: transient, made of parts, arising and passing away due to causes, insubstantial, an unreliable basis for lasting happiness; seeing them in this way, they have less weight.
Well, with all the respect in the world for your mother – and as someone who works with children and routinely says that a mother’s intuition is gold – I’ve got to come down on your side here.
Sure, the “circle” of mental activities – and thus the neural processes and gradually building of neural structure – of meditation overlaps the “circle” of these while playing solitaire on the computer (or playing other games in other ways), but there is a lot about each circle that is distinct from the other one.
Game playing will strengthen intellectual and other cognitive capacities (e.g., visual processing, perceptual analysis) that meditation will not.
On the other hand, meditation will building other capacities, such as strengthening attention (because of the relatively non-stimulating nature of breath sensations or other common targets of contemplative attention), the capacity to disengage from mental processes to observe them peacefully rather than getting swept away in chasing mental carrots or dodging mental sticks, and insight into both personal psychological material (e.g., the hurt lingering underneath resentments) and the general nature of mental phenomena as transient and usually not worth getting one’s knickers in a twist about. Plus meditation confers many other benefits, including stress reduction, managing anxiety, and reducing the distress and sometimes symptom intensity of many medical conditions. (Check out this slide set from a workshop I gave to psychiatrists for more on this.)
While intellectually stimulating activities such as game playing have been shown to help protect against cognitive decline with aging, preliminary studies have also shown that religious and spiritual activities (which include prayer and meditation – though a person can meditate outside a religious frame and still get most if not all of its mental and thus neural benefits) also offer protections against cognitive decline, here too through overlapping “circles” of factors.
Bottom-line: I say do both! Have fun with solitaire, and find some contemplative practice that suits you. If you like, commit to meditating at least one minute a day, even if it’s the last minute before you fall asleep. And like many things, there is a dosing effect: the more meditation you do, the better for your brain.
For negative thoughts during meditation, the two classic strategies are:
The batting away strategy is a detail for the focused attention approach. Sometimes when the mind is quiet we can see distracting thoughts starting to arise and congeal, and we can gently bat them away before they fully “invade the mind and remain” (as said by the Buddha).
It is also possible in meditation, in an open awareness frame, to use the meditative state to investigate negative thoughts to sense down into deeper, warmer, more emotional layers, as you say. The art in doing this is to avoid therapizing oneself and getting all caught up in self-analysis, but also try to get to the bottom of things. Check out the RAIN Method that Tara Brach, James Baraz, and others talk about.
If negative thoughts are overwhelming if you let them in, perhaps best in meditation to focus on concentration methods, and outside meditation engage practices like RAIN.
During exhaling there is an uptick in parasympathetic activation due to increased vagal inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system, which lets the heart slow down. So increasing the duration of the exhale would naturally increase relative parasympathetic tone.
As to whether the increase of awareness of exhalation distinct from that awareness tending to slow the breath is an open question. I’ve never seen a study on this, but there is a lot that is not yet studied that is still true or useful! It is plausible to me, though without any evidence I know, that increasing attention to exhaling in and of itself would tend to increase parasympathetic tone since neural networks tend to increase their activation when we pay attention to them, including sensory networks, and those increases in activation also tend to ripple through related networks, such as the PNS.
While there are parts of the brain that enable important social functions (e.g., the insula is involved in empathy for the emotions of others), those parts also do many other important things (e.g., insula handles interoception). Saying meditation utilizes the social circuitry of the brain is like saying that meditation utilizes the executive circuitry of the brain, or the sensorimotor circuitry of the brain, or the gestalt processing functions of the brain – which it does. The brain uses hundreds of little capacities, little modules, arrayed in an architecture of complexity and evolutionary recency to perform just about any complex function, from riding a bike or talking with a friend to playing chess or meditating. It’s the function that is the organizing principle, not the underlying neural substrates.
There are indeed a few cautions about meditation for a few people. If someone is already really vulnerable and unstable, an intensive meditation retreat is probably not a good idea. This is why the meditation centers I am most familiar with (Spirit Rock in California and IMS in Massachusetts) try to screen out people like this. If someone is prone to manic episodes, don’t aim for intensely blissful experiences. If a person is already depressed, just sitting with themselves for many hours of silence each day is probably unwise.
As far as I know, these are the basic cautions. They apply to a tiny fraction of the people who meditate, and a tiny fraction of the settings in which they meditate. If someone is in that tiny fraction of people, be very cautious about prolonged and intensive retreats – and be careful about meditating on your own at home.
As best I can tell, the rest is media drama – essentially saying, by analogy, people with vulnerable legs shouldn’t run marathons. Wow, breaking news.
Just observe your own experience. If your way of meditating is working for you, great. If not, modify it or stop it. Use common sense.
In terms of things that might help, I’m assuming you have done sensible standard things like therapy. In terms of some options that might be helpful, you could look into:
And of course, keep knowing and feeling your own obvious goodness.
First thought: bows to you for the work you are doing and service you are offering. Regarding the woman, I suspect from what you have said that she has said, she was given vague and even misleading information about her head injury. As a way to think about all this, with some general suggestions:
In general, research finds “dosing” effects for quantity of meditation over the lifetime, and for number of meditations over shorter periods such as 8 week MBSR. And there is research on the effects of different types of meditation (such as lovingkindness compared to MBSR style open awareness). But I have not seen research on the duration of individual meditation sessions, though maybe there is a study somewhere. Theravadan tradition practices tend toward longer sits (e.g., 45 minutes) with Tibetan practices often being briefer (e.g., 20 minutes).
My own experience is that in a longer sit there is often sort of a trajectory of value (as I define value, such as steadying and quieting of the mind, opening into deep peacefulness, insight) that goes like this (estimated times are very loose):
So if I did not keep sitting, I would not experience that last powerful phase.
On the other hand, I can see the value – per your analogy to learning theory – of several brief sits a day. But then there might be practical issues. If a person thinks, OK, I’ll meditate for a total of 30 minutes a day . . . how is the person more likely to get that 30 minutes? In one long sit, or in (say) three sits of 10 minutes each? Will the person actually do those three separate sits each day??
Bottom line, whatever is most helpful and motivating, that’s what one should do. The most important meditation is the one that you will actually do!
I’ve drawn on several studies to inform my own work and understanding on the neuropsychological aspects of meditation. These include:
My own experience with tinnitus, plus the advice of several physicians, has been to disengage from and generally ignore the tinnitus as much as possible. So, in open awareness, while the sound is there, so much else is there in consciousness as well, including the sense of spaciousness itself.
In particular, it might be beneficial to focus on the sense of the whole body, the body as a whole, abiding as a whole body breathing.
You might also check out my article, Blocks to Inner Practice, which offers some ideas for how to work with any blocks that might come up in meditation, yoga, gratitude and mindfulness practices.
The old-fashioned saying that “practice makes perfect” is as true for one’s well-being or relationships, so pick just one thing to think about or do in your mind each day. Keep it simple. But stick with it. For example, drawing on a few practices in my book, Just One Thing:
Whatever your practice is, take a moment to recognize its value for you. Keep bringing it to mind, at least once or twice a day. If you take care of your practice, it will take care of you.
This is a deep, vital question. My own take is that mindfulness itself does not, will not, solve social problems like poverty and racial injustice. We need to do other things as well (and I’ve sure got my own opinions about that, including voting).
People can also use related practices such as meditation as way to avoid dealing with real issues of all kinds.
This said, mindfulness practices can help people develop the inner stability that fosters greater resilience for dealing with whatever they’re facing. And as one’s personal well-being improves at least a little, sometimes their view can widen and see more clearly the problems around them, and feel more resourced inside to be helpful to others.
Guided Meditation Practices An array of guided meditation practices from Dr. Rick Hanson
Neurodharma by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Types of Meditation talk
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
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