Time that nurtures

It’s important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive, but these qualities don’t necessarily nurture the soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.

Thomas Moore

Meditation exercises the brain and strengthens development

Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Eileen Luders, UCLA

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence where  people say that meditation helps them feel more relaxed, peaceful, and focused. However, it is good to find clinical research which backs up some of this evidence with studies on physical changes to the brain. I posted recently on the ongoing work of Sara Lazar and her lab at Harvard who have documented changes in the brain’s gray matter after just the 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation in the MBSR Course. Now a new study has been published in UCLA which suggests that people who meditate  have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy.

Two years ago, the research team, led by Eileen Luders,  visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging,  found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. This suggested that meditation may indeed be good for all of us since brains shrink naturally with age.  Now,  in a follow-up study, published in the current edition of the journal NeuroImage, they have found that meditation strengthen brain connections , which influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain.  And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

Luders used a new type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, ( DTI),  that allows insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. They found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem. They looked at 27 active meditation practitioners, men and women,  (average age 52), who were matched by age and sex with 27 non-meditators.   The meditators had been practicing  for a number of years, anywhere between 5 to 46.

The results led Luders to state: Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain.  We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners. [Therefore]…. It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.

It is, of course possible, that the brains of meditators were already different to begin with, even before they started practice. However, the fact that 100% of the trial group showed the same characteristics suggests that it is statistically unlikely that this condition was an antecedent fact. Indeed,  Luders work suggests that meditation acts as a type of mental fitness, causing alterations to the structure as well as the functioning of the brain, and slowing down the aging decay that occurs there.

Accepting life and letting it happen

Happiness is not to be found through great effort and willpower.

It is already present in open relaxation and letting go.

Don’t strain.

There’s nothing to do or to undo. Whatever momentarily arises in body–mind has no real import at all, has very little reality whatsoever.

Why identify with it and become attached to it, passing judgment on it and on yourself and others?

Far better simply to let the entire play just happen on its own,

Springing up and falling back again like waves

Without ‘rectifying’ things or manipulating things.

Just noticing how everything vanishes and then magically reappears, again and again and again. Time without end.

It’s only our searching for happiness that prevents us from seeing it.

Lama Gendun Rinpoche, Free and Easy

The meaning of the journey

The real goal of a depth therapy is not a “cure”, for the human condition is not a disease. Yes, real, resistant problems of daily life can and must be addressed and the resources of consciousness brought fully to bear on their resolution. But the real gift of a depth therapy, or of any truly considered life, is that one achieves a deepened conversation around the meaning of one’s journey – a conversation without which one lives a received life, not one’s own, a superficial life, or a life in service to complexes or ideologies.

James Hollis, What Matter most: Living a more considered Life

How to develop calm in the heart

A beautiful quote from the Buddha on how to develop our heart and move it towards happiness. We let go of the past’s hurts and our worries about the future by staying in the present. Then we hold whatever is happening within us,  in awareness, without getting hooked by it or identifying with it. Mindfulness is really re-mindfulness, remembering to come back, non-judgmentally, to the here-and-now. It allows us work with the inner fabric of what is happening in our heart and mind at this very moment.

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see, right there,
right there.
Not taken in; unshaken.
That’s how you develop the heart.

Bhaddekaratta Sutta

Recommended Summer Reading 4

A book that is not directly about Meditation or Mindfulness, but which does impact upon stress reduction, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of A Different Order of Time, is a beautiful work which discusses our use of time by reflecting on the millenia-old practice of the Sabbath rest. The author, Julie Shulevitz,  a successful journalist at the New York Times, found herself increasingly uneasy with  the speeded-up and frantic pace of modern life. She decided to return to look at the meaning and value of  the practice which had been honoured in her Jewish childhood – and which she rebelled against –   the setting aside of a special time which was the Sabbath, and see if it made any sense in this modern age:

Americans, once the most Sabbatharian people on earth, are now the most ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand we miss the Sabbath. When we pine for escape from the rat race; when we check into spas, yoga centers, encounter weekends, spiritual retreats; when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumerism; when we complain about the commercialization of leisure, which turns fun into work, and requires military-scale budgeting and logistics and interactions with service personnel – whenever we worry about these things we are remembering the Sabbath, its power to protect us from the clamor of our own desires.

The book that unfolds from this starting point is partly a personal memoir, partly a reflection on the role of the spiritual in life, part history and cultural analysis, and is written in a lovely, engaging prose. I picked it up two weeks ago and read it easily over a few days as it deals with its big topic – and the philosophical and life reflections prompted by it –   quite lightly, without being superficial. Although it takes as its starting point a religious practice, it is really a long reflection on the anthropological roots beneath all religious acts, the need for balance and the difficulty we have today in finding it. What makes it appealing is that one can sense the author’s desire to find what is meant by home and meaningful ritual,  and her search for the  inner space to find rest in them. Her reflections can help us all consider the need to set aside some silence to reflect upon why we work in the first place  and to see the wonder and depth in life:

So why remember the Sabbath? Because the Sabbath comes to us out of the past – out of the bodies of our mothers and fathers, out of the churches on our streets, out of our own dreams – to train us to pay attention to it. And why do we need to be trained? Consider the mystery surrounding God’s first Sabbath. Why did God stop anyway? In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Elijah of Vilna…ventured this explanation: God stopped to show us that what we are creating becomes meaningful only once we stop creating and start remembering why it was worth creating in the first place.