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White matter fiber architecture of the brain. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org

Have you already given up on a new year’s resolution? Do you think you could handle an 8-week plan to rebuild your brain?

Mediation and mindfulness training has been proven again and again to not only make people feel better but more recently shown to make actual changes in your brain.

An eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

A study conducted by a Harvard affiliated team out of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) shows some tangible effects of meditation on human brain structure.

Using MRI scans, they found “massive changes” in brain gray matter. The participants didn’t just “feel better” but  showed changes in brain structure that create the associated sustained boosts in positive and relaxed feelings. On of those changes is a thickening of the cerebral cortex. That is the area responsible for attention and emotional integration.

How long did they meditate? It’s not the 5 or 10 minute break you sometimes read about, but it’s also not hours or a weekend of meditation. An average of 27 minutes of a daily practice of mindfulness exercises stimulated a significant boost in gray matter density.

That density is focused on the hippocampus which is associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. There was also decreased gray matter density in the amygdala. That might sound like a bad thing, unless you know that the amygdala is the area of the brain known to be instrumental in regulating anxiety and stress responses.

The control group of non-meditators did not have any changes occur in either region of the brain, so the simple passage of time was not a factor.

The one story that gets repeated over and over in the past 50 years is that there is far more brain plasticity – the changeable (or “plastic”) ability of the brain to change -into adulthood than was previously believed. You can teach old dogs new tricks.

 

“In Wildness is the preservation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau

path1

It felt a little odd to download Thoreau’s essay, Walking, to my tablet to read. I’m not sure how Henry David would feel about digital books. But I know he would still recognize walking all these years later.

It appeared in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He must have liked it because between 1851 and 1860 Thoreau read the piece aloud ten times, more than any other of his lectures. “I regard this as a sort of introduction to all that I may write hereafter.”

On the essay’s first page, he writes:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a sainte-terrer”, a saunterer — a holy-lander. They who never go to the holy land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds, but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau mixed this essay in his lectures with another on wildness (not to be confused with wilderness) and says that private property is killing our capacity for wildness.

I love to walk. I try to walk outdoors every day. I try to walk, when I can, in whatever pieces of wilderness are nearby.

Like others, I find walking is a creative stimulant. I prefer a natural area but even walking in a city or around my suburban neighborhood can change the way you perceive the world.

sidewalk

A modern-day look at this is Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit which looks at  walking for pleasure as well as for political, aesthetic, and social meaning. Th book discusses some famous walkers  that I admire (Wordsworth, Gary Snyder) and argues for preserving the time and space in which to walk in our world that lacks both wildness and wilderness.

Solnit cherishes walking’s “relaxed gait, one that allows us to take in sights, sounds, and smells that we might otherwise pass by” and its opportunity for private thought.

I am also not alone in thinking of walking in a health-minded way and as a low-impact way of shedding a few pounds and stretching a few muscles.

Thoreau and Solnit both use walking to lead them to other subjects. Walking and philosophizing make good partners.

Fossil evidence shows that the ability to move upright on two legs is the characteristic that separated humans from the other beasts and has allowed us to dominate them. I would say that walking connects us to those early walkers, but as I recently wrote about the stars, that is probably not scientifically accurate.

“Further falling away of my childhood star knowledge came when I learned that our Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole in the sky, was not the star those ancients would have used to navigate. Kochab and Pherkad at the end of the Little Dipper were closer to the north celestial pole in 600 B.C. Learning how our sky view of the heavens has changed over the centuries isn’t at all disappointing to me, but rather a reminder that everything is changing.”

I suspect that those early walkers were walking with a lot more survival in mind than my sauntering. “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. We make some tradeoffs in deciding between presence and productivity.

Being present in a walk can help you to see. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” says Marguerite Duras. Try On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyeswhich records walks around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Yes, walk like a dog walks, like a child walks, be as mindful as Sherlock Holmes, be as tuned in as Thoreau.

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that I have in my non-academic life. I have written here about several of my attempts at a daily practice. The most successful one may be the poetry practice I was able to do 365 times in 2014.

But, if you say “daily practice” I think many people think of something religious or spiritual. Hopefully, they don’t think of daily habits – such as getting a coffee at the local shop on the way to work.

When I was more serious about my meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When i stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about.  EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. ”

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

Of course, many people apply Buddhist teachings as a way to release tensions of the body, reduce stress and pain. Moving that into the lives of others makes the practice more powerful. Students in a monastic community profit from the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration and being surrounded by a harmonious community who wish to apply mindfulness into their daily lives. But can that community be made even wider.

I tried yoga twice, but it didn’t work for me. It does work for many others as a practice.

In a post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn, she talks about a concept of “body prayer” where she applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (Here’s a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

Meditation and yoga classes are offered in corporate centers, churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It may seem new and hip but it is a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice even if it is being blended with technology,  modern medical science and with other religious and philosophical perspectives.

I did send my daily poems out into the world. The idea that there was some audience for them was important motivation for continuing. I had responses to the poems via comments, emails and some live conversations with friends and a few people I met through the poems. That was small compared to the way some practices change lives. Something for all of us to consider.

lucid-dreaming-inception-totem

I had a lucid dream recently. As a longtime insomniac, chronicler of my dreams and seeker, I came across lucid dreaming back in my college days. This is the idea that some people, sometimes, will become conscious during a dream that they are dreaming and then be able to have some control of the dream.

You can find lots of examples of these experiences and people put themselves in place they want to go, do things they have always wanted to do (flying seems to be quite popular) and generally experience a feeling of euphoria and well-being.

It has happened to me a few times over the years, but always unbidden.

I have read a few books on lucid dreaming and the last one I picked up was Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, but there are also some websites that could get you started.

Let me note here that some people confuse or connect lucid dreaming with  an “out-of-body experience” or “OBE.”  This is when you are lying in bed, apparently awake, and feel a kind of heaviness and paralysis. Then you feel that you are leaving your physical body and traveling in what must feel like a second body, floating above the bed. This is also the experience described by people who have a “near-death experience” (NDE) which sounds interesting but is not something I want to try to induce.

I wouldn’t mind being an oneironauts but not all lucid dreamers do that kind of traveling.

Almost any source will tell you for do several things to prepare yourself for lucid dreaming.

Keeping a dream journal is usually step one. Like keeping a calorie journal when you are trying to lose weight, the important thing here is being mindful of what occurs.  The act of writing it down makes it a stronger memory. For me, the best thing about having multiple dream journals that go back a few decades is seeing patterns, themes and motifs. The only real “dream interpretation” comes from developing your own dictionary of your dream symbols, settings and characters (not general ones found in most books).

I keep a bound journal bedside and try to write dreams down as soon as I awaken from them. This happens only one or two times a week for me. On many mornings, a dream that is clear disappears in the seconds or minutes  it takes me to get to the book.

The “training” for lucid dreaming starts with trying to establish a habit of questioning whether you are awake or dreaming. Did you see the film Inception? There is a lot of this kind of training in that film.

One exercise that seems a bit foolish is to question whether or not you are awake now. Of course you are. Are you sure? Where’s the proof?

This reality check exercise might be best done in situations that are a bit less like reality – that walk in the woods, standing outside in total darkness, swimming under water, standing eyes closed outside during a storm or lying in bed before you fall asleep.

How can you confirm you are awake? The classic is to pinch yourself, but other suggestions include doing things that don’t seem to occur in dreams – turning a light on and off, looking at some text or numbers, then looking away and then looking back (according to researchers, in a dream, those letters or numbers would rearrange themselves).

In Inception, the protagonist uses a totem as his reality check. You choose an object that you know so well that if it is slighter different or it doesn’t obey the usual laws of physics, then you must be dreaming. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top that never stops. If it does, he must be in reality. [Footnote: I think that his totem might actually be his wedding ring which he never wears in reality, but always wears in the dreams because there he is still married. Final scene: no ring] You can try the methods used in the film. I’m sure that Christopher Nolan did his research, even though the film crosses over to the idea that we can share dreams and enter others’ dreams.

In my undergrad day, there were no wikis on lucid dreaming with instructions. You can find out how to use your hand as a totem. Do you see the five fingers there that you normally see?

Recording those dreams in the journal should turn up recurring circumstances or settings that you can then tune into more closely in your waking life, especially those that are real places that end up in  your dreams. That might be a specific place – your office or backyard – or a generalized place, like an elevator. When you are in these dream locations, do one of those aforementioned reality checks to confirm that you are not dreaming.

Another part of your prep is harder to adopt. It has to do with trying to determine the best time for you to have a lucid dream. You need to track your personal sleep schedule and then try to arrange your sleep pattern to help induce dreams and hopefully opportunities for lucid dreaming. I got a Fitbit as a  gift at Christmas and it tracks when I fall asleep, when I awaken and when I am restless. I can see the blocks of solid sleep and that seems to also relate to times when I wake up and recall a dream.

All dreams, including lucid ones, are strongly associated with REM sleep and REM sleep is more abundant just before your final awakening. Generally, you remember dreams when you just finished having them and wake up.  Unfortunately, when that occurs at 3 am, I am not very motivated to sit up and write a dream in the journal.

One site suggests that taking a nap a few hours after waking in the morning is a good time to have a lucid dream. Not very practical for most of us. That book I read recently says that the most reliable method for inducing a lucid dream is to “redistribute” your sleep.  This is also impractical. You would set your alarm to wake two hours earlier than normal. When you are awake, do some waking business. (I don’t think a shower is a good idea.) Then, after two hours, go back to sleep for at least two more hours. This delayed last stretch of sleep is supposed to be full of REM activity.

I will say that late-morning dreams are my longest and most intense. Or maybe they are the only ones I ever remember.

I tried this last summer for a few weekends, but no lucid dreams.

Then last week I had a dream and in it I realized that I was dreaming and that I was traveling back in time.  I knew it was the past and that I had traveled there by dreaming. It was a city. It seemed like London, or at least the London I know only from films. It was storybook and sepia toned. (Colors are important to note in your dream journal as they occur rather rarely.)  I wanted to walk up the steps to one of the flats on the street. I knew which one was the right one. I knocked at the door, but no one answered. I wanted them to answer, but I couldn’t control that in the dream.  I decided that I would come back here another time and try again. I woke up.

I plan to go back to that place. I’m not sure how that will happen or when it will happen, but that’s my plan. Next time, someone will answer the door. I am very curious who it will be.

 

 

The headline was sensationalized, as most headlines, tweets and Facebook posts are these days, and reads “Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks.”

An 8 week rebuild sounds great. As does “lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks” and “earn $1000 a week at home by surfing the Internet.” So, I’m skeptical. But it has that Harvard piece of credibility, so I read on.

Test subjects taking part in an 8-week program of mindfulness meditation showed results that astonished even the most experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University.  The study was led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s gray matter.

Not really even hardcore meditation but 27 minutes a day of mindfulness exercises was “all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

And the participants self-reported a reduction in stress that “correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

Sine I already do some meditation and mindfulness activities almost every day, I suppose I’ve already reaped the benefits as much as possible. Still, the past few weeks have been very stressful and the next month or so looks to be even more so. I guess that being more mindful of my mindfulness and having a daily practice for more than a half hour might be even better.  And a hourlong walk in the woods seems to do a lot of good.

focus

I’m working on this post, but I am also watching Mad Men on TV and looking at Facebook and reading email and drinking a cup of tea and eating some grapes.

I am distracted.

You’re distracted. Less than half of the people who are reading this sentence will finish the entire post. And this isn’t a very long or complex article.

I wrote earlier about how I was told by the abbot at a Zen monastery where I studied for a short time that I have “monkey mind.” My thoughts jump about like a monkey in a tree.

My reading habits are also distracted. I start a lot of books and articles all at once. I finish about two-thirds of them. I skim. I skip.

I was reading The Distraction Addiction. (It’s full title, like too many books these days, has a long subtitle – “Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul”).

We have all read or heard news stories about how many of us spend too much time on out mobile devices and the Internet and also about people trying to have a “Digital Sabbath” away from the tech.

Scientists have been studying “switch-tasking” which is described as trying to do two similar but unconnected things at once.  There are lots of examples: me typing this and watching TV; texting and driving. That is not the same thing as multitasking.  In switch-tasking you are more likely to make mistakes. You are more likely to overlook things. Multitasking is doing several tasks that are related simultaneously – watching a video and  taking notes as you watch. Or doing two tasks that do not detract from each other – listening to music while running.

In The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is pushing less for putting the tech aside and more for us to convert switch-tasking to ­productive multitasking. He calls this “contemplative computing” – an effort to use information technologies in ways that help you focus and be more creative, not fractured and distracted.

Mindfulness is something I pursue despite all distractions that pull my attention. It’s not a riddle to be mindful to the lack of mindfulness in our lives.

 

 

 

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