Exercise combats low mood

Mindfulness Stress Reduction encourages a mind-body approach to health. It is part of a growing field of integrative medical care that combines the best scientific medicine with evidence-based  therapies from complementary traditions. Recent research – which we have written about on this blog – has found that it has beneficial effects on stress as well  as changing the function and maybe even the structure of the brain,.

It would seem that physical exercise and aerobic workouts have a similar effect. Indeed, molecular scientists and neurologists have suggested that physical exercise may alter brain chemistry by working on the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. In fact, exercise seems to work in much the same way that antidepressant drugs do. One researcher working in this area is Professor Philip Holmes at the University of Georgia, who has focused on the neurobiological effects of exercise. He has found that, over the course of several weeks, exercise affects certain genes that increase the brain’s level of galanin, a neurotransmitter that appears to tone down the body’s stress response by regulating another brain chemical, norepinephrine. His current work focuses on the link between stress and different addictions, and how exercise can reduce stress which leads to addictive behaviours: “Stress turns on norepinephrine,” says Holmes, “which turns on dopamine, which induces craving. Galanin decreases norepinephrine, so someone with high levels of galanin should experience reduced cravings.”

Researchers at Duke University support these findings. In a randomized controlled trial they found that depressed adults who participated in an aerobic-exercise plan improved as much as those treated with sertraline, the drug which,  marketed as Zoloft,  is one of the most prescribed anti-depressants.

You can find more on this subject in TIME Magazine: : http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1998021,00.html#ixzz0rgWOWgm0

Working with Negative Thoughts, part 3

In the last post in this series, we imagined the mind as a clear sky with all thoughts –  negative, positive and neutral –  as clouds moving across that sky. When we have worked on our ability to do this – to create a non-judgmental space around all thoughts- we can move on to the next step, that of naming the thoughts. We do this by simply putting  a label onto the thoughts we are having – such as “there is worrying” or “there is planning” – without going into the content of the thinking at all. As one teacher said, we simply touch the thought lightly with the words and let it go. For the moment this is all we will do. Do not get carried away into the content of any of the thoughts, do not hook into any of them. Simply touch them lightly and let them go, and return to your awareness of the mind as a vast spacious blue sky or of the breath entering and leaving the body. Notice the attitude you bring to the labelling, avoiding any harshness or disappointement. There is nothing wrong with thinking. We simply, gently, and with a friendly approach, label the thought and let it go.

Thus, if we put the first three steps together, we practice becoming aware of our breath coming in and going out. We keep our attention there. As thoughts arise we simple return to the breath. We can imagine the mind as a clear blue sky, with thoughts simply as clouds passing through. If certain thoughts repeat, we gently label them, and continue to let them pass through, keeping our focus on the breath. We gently practice this for a short dedicated period each day, say for ten minutes.

What is real

Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.

Thomas Merton,  No Man Is An Island


In a sense,  sitting practice is waste of time because it is a dedicated period of non-doing. On an outward level it appears to achieve nothing. To make things even worse, nothing really seems to change from day to day: you sit, you get distracted, you return to the breath, you get distracted…. It may seem pointless. It feels hard to presevere because the results are not immediately tangible while the actual practice can be difficult.

However, the “point” to meditation,  is precisely by doing “nothing” and slowing down, gaps are created between activities and we develop our capacity to be aware of what is going on. And it seems that when one is aware, things have a greater tendency to fall as they should, in harmony with our deepest self.

There is increasing scientific backing showing that this “pointless” activity is, in fact, achieving something simply while we are sitting. It has been found that people who meditate activate the part of their brain that is associated with less anxiety and a better outlook on life. By not activating the anxious parts of the brain  for certain periods of each day, our bodies are less likely to be tense, and our minds less likely to trigger well-conditioned patterns when faced with difficulties.

Tara Bennett-Goleman  suggests that meditation works because it changes the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of the brain that decides, among other things, if we should get angry or anxious. The pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things. However, the amygdala can be over-cautious and makes mistakes, such as seeing problems or exaggerating anxiety where there is none. It can make us anxious even when there is no real danger present.  Because there is a time gap between the time an event occurs and the reaction of the amygdala, the slowing down we practice in meditation may allow the pre-frontal contex intervene before an automatic reaction takes over. We can redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings. In other words, meditation develops emotional brain fitness and therefore this pointless activity may not be pointless after all.

In the case of meditaton, your goal is to transform yourself over the course of months and years. The progress you make is usually hardly noticeable from day to day
like the hands of a clock you hardly see moving.

Haste and meditation do not go together ; Any profound transformation is bound to take time.

Matthieu Ricard,  The Art of Meditation

Sunday Quote: On Friendship

If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.

John O’Donoghue


I thought about the quote from Rilke in yesterday’s post in different ways during the day. It is not easy to “love the difficult”. But it seems true to me that in the difficult moments we get a glimpse of things that are really important, and that inspires our dreams, our understanding of happiness. Things feel more real, and the superficiality of a lot of our other contact is revealed.

Without doubt,  it is in the difficult that certain things become clearer. People’s real character, for example.  There are some things that can only be tested over time. A person’s depth is revealed in times of difficulty.  As is the quality of their friendship. The Old Testament expressed this by saying that a true friend was born and brought about for times of adversity.
And we can reflect:   In your most difficult moment, who is the one that you think about to be at your side?