Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Meditation in a huge variety of forms has become incredibly popular in recent years. “Mindfulness” seems to be marketed as the solution to almost everything, perhaps because it has contextualised the original Eastern teachings for a Western, twenty-first century audience, and removed the references to spirituality and belief.

However, I think there’s an equally ancient “classical” practice stretching right back to Greek philosophers. It’s the combination of slowing down and observing.

“Sitting and looking” is one of my favourite “activities”. Since I retired and moved from Scotland to South West France, I have spent many, many more hours outside than at any previous time in my life. Sometimes I’m outside to tend to the garden. I’ve discovered the delights of growing, harvesting and enjoying a wide range of fruits and vegetables, and I get a huge amount of joy from seeing the beauty of different trees, shrubs and flowers. But oftentimes I like to just sit on a chair in the garden and look.

I look up at the blue sky and watch a few buzzards soaring effortlessly on warm air currents swirling so high above me that the birds are just little specks, and their high pitched cries sound far away and near at one and the same time. I look up and see kestrels hovering on a single point in the air, their wings beating so fast I can’t see them, then watching them drop like a stone to the earth when they spot some prey far below them.

On cloudy days I get lost in the ever-changing tableau of characters which I can see in the clouds.

Throughout the year I see the seasonal changes in the long parallel lines of vines stretching from here to the horizon.

Sitting down makes me slow down. It allows me to pause, to take a few deep breaths (without even thinking about my breathing), and to become more present. It allows my awareness to open up and come alive, so that I notice what would otherwise pass me by.

It’s a great, life-enhancing, combination.

Sitting and looking.

I recommend it. (Health warning: too much sitting is bad for you health. Use it in moderation. Movement, walking and other forms of exercise are also necessary!)

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Here’s another study showing how pain can be reduced without using drugs.

In this particular study, the researchers had the subjects do one 20 minute focused attention meditation session daily for 4 days. The subjects rated the painful stimulus applied as “57 percent less unpleasant and 40 percent less intense”.

This is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s another study showing the potential benefit of simple meditation techniques which anyone can learn and integrate into their daily lives. Secondly, as the article points out, it shows how quickly a benefit might be obtained.

If you do suffer from some painful condition, do you practice daily meditation? If not, why not? What’s to lose?


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My answer to this question would be you’d only think all forms of meditation were the same if you think differences are irrelevant. My entire working life is based on understanding difference. I think it’s true of all holistic and integrative practices that understanding the uniqueness of a personal story, told by an individual within their distinct context, is the core focus. But I’ve wondered, just what is different between TM and Mindfulness practice? They seem very different to me. They involve different methods. So it wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out they had different effects on the brain, and hence on the body too. Well, here’s some fascinating research which is beginning to clarify just what the differences are. It starts with a description of three “types” of meditation practice – Controlled focus; Open monitoring; Automatic self-transcending, then goes on to explore different brain wave patterns associated with each, different mind-body changes and the published research on the effects of different practices. The summary is as follows –

  • Controlled focus: Classic examples of concentration or controlled focus are found in the revered traditions of Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, Qiqong, Yoga and Vedanta, though many methods involve attempts to control or direct the mind. Attention is focused on an object of meditation–such as one’s breath, an idea or image, or an emotion. Brain waves recorded during these practices are typically in the gamma frequency (20-50 Hz), seen whenever you concentrate or during “active” cognitive processing.2
  • Open monitoring: These mindfulness type practices, common in Vipassana and Zazen, involve watching or actively paying attention to experiences–without judging, reacting or holding on. Open monitoring gives rise to frontal theta (4-8 Hz), an EEG pattern commonly seen during memory tasks or reflection on mental concepts.3
  • Automatic self-transcending: This category describes practices designed to go beyond their own mental activity–enabling the mind to spontaneously transcend the process of meditation itself. Whereas concentration and open monitoring require degrees of effort or directed focus to sustain the activity of meditation, this approach is effortless because there is no attempt to direct attention–no controlled cognitive processing. An example is the Transcendental Meditation technique. The EEG pattern of this category is frontal alpha coherence, associated with a distinct state of relaxed inner wakefulness.4


My personal experience is greatest with the third category. I practice TM for 20 minutes twice every day. I’ve explored some Mindfulness meditation with colleagues at work over recent months (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is one of the services we offer at the Centre for Integrative Care in Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital) But I’ve no experience of the first type – controlled focus. My first take on this research is that I’m encouraged to know that it’s good to engage in more than one kind of meditation practice. If loving kindness and compassion meditation increases the amount of love, kindness and compassion in the world I’m all for it. If Mindfulness also reduces negative rumination as it suggests in this research, then that strikes me as also a very good thing. And if TM can lower blood pressure, reduce chronic anxiety and lower stress hormones like cortisol, then that’s good too.

I do enjoy a scientific exploration of how something might work, but I also think that we are all different and it’s likely that we will all experience different meditation practices differently. It is a subjective human experience as well after all! I know Dan Siegel, of Interpersonal Neurobiology fame, claims that there is plenty of evidence to show that Mindfulness meditation increases the size and function of the integrative fibres of the mid prefrontal cortex. He also says that just 10 minutes a day of breath awareness will produce measurable change in integrative neurons.

Are you convinced yet? If you haven’t done it yet, maybe a month from now as you think ahead to 2011, making meditation part of your daily life should be part of the changes you might want to make. (you know what I’m talking about – resolutions!)


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Ah, yes, meditation might be thought of as a way of “stilling the mind”, or “calming the crazy mind”, but there’s something totally absorbing, focused and calming in the activity of photographing butterflies. You need patience. Lots of it. And you need to be able to let go of the need to control and predict. You have absolutely no way to know how long a particular butterfly will rest on a particular flower, if or when it will open its wings, and which direction it’s going to fly off in next.

Here’s some I spent a LONG time capturing!




Try it for yourself sometime. It’s very therapeutic. Slows you right down…..

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sun's rays

Attention is like the sun’s rays. Whatever we shine it on looks clearer and brighter. Whatever it lands on increases.

Attention is a kind of focus. It’s a way of allocating energy and resources. Whatever we pay attention to receives more of our energy, and as a result, it grows.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what it is you pay most attention to? A lot of people pay attention to the future. Their minds are full of what ifs and if onlys. They experience anxiety and fear of the unknown. If you’ve got a good imagination it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about what hasn’t happened yet (and what might never happen!). Other people pay a lot of attention to the past. Their minds are full of memories of the past…..the bad times, the hurts, the wounds…..or the good times (which are now gone). The interesting thing is that you only live in the present. The past is in memory, and the future is in imagination, the present is reality.

If you focus your attention on past bad times, they loom larger in your life. If you focus on future fears, they also loom larger in your life. If you focus on the present, you experience more of the here and now. And whatever you choose to pay attention to in the present is what you’ll experience most strongly.

Meditation practices are ways of training your attention, so that it doesn’t get pulled this way and that by habits or the demands of others.

Morning pages are another interesting way to explore where your attention is hanging out! (that’s a habit I need to re-establish!)

Becoming aware of what we’re focusing on gives us choices – the choices to decide whether or not to focus on that as much as we are doing, or to focus on something else instead.

Whatever it is we pay attention to increases, colours our whole life, becomes our whole world.

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The ocean of the mind



The wheel of awareness

big wheel

rose window

I’ve recorded a guided mindfulness meditation practice here.

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Is meditation about stopping the mind?

Is it about emptying the mind?

I used to think it was one of those, and I couldn’t for the life of me manage to ever stop my mind. In fact, I couldn’t even figure out how I’d know if my mind had stopped! The same applied to emptying. My mind might often be full of trivia or nonsense, but that’s not the same as it being empty. Seemed too difficult to me.

Then I learned that it wasn’t about emptying the mind at all. It was about noticing what was going on, and letting it pass right on. I learned it wasn’t about stopping the mind at all. It was about enabling it to flow.

As Dan Siegel says, a healthy mind is an integrated mind. Like a river, it flows. He uses the metaphor of a river with two banks, one of which is rigidity, and the other is chaos. We veer towards one or other bank as we travel through life. When we’re well, we are neither stuck in a narrow, trapped place, nor are we falling to pieces, into disintegration. Rather, we’re flowing.

How do we do that? Well, one useful technique is to meditate regularly. I meditate twice a day, for 20 minutes each time, but there’s no strict rule about that. If you can, take a few minutes, at least once every single day, and quietly try a meditation exercise. There are many ways to practice mindfulness meditation. Essentially, it’s a method which allows you to become aware of the content of your mind. Dan Siegel in his “The Mindful Brain” (ISBN 978-0393704709) includes a script he uses with his patients to introduce them to a couple of ways to begin meditation. I’ve recorded his script here.

Just click on the link to hear it.

The basic technique is to become aware of breathing in, and breathing out, and to return the focus of your attention to your breathing every time you become aware that your mind has drifted off to consider something else.

Dan includes two great metaphors. The metaphor of the sea of the mind, where below the surface your awareness lies, calm and peaceful, and from where you can observe all the activities of the mind up there on the surface, coming and going and like the waves. The other is a “wheel of awareness”, with your awareness as the hub of a wheel, the spokes of the wheel being the direction of attention you send towards the rim, and the rim being made up of the five senses which bring the outside world into your mind, the sixth sense, which is the inner state of your body and its component parts, the seventh sense, which is the content of your mind, and even the eighth sense, which is your attunement to others.

I hope you find some of this helpful.

If you’d like to know more about Dan Siegel, and his understanding of the mind, I’d recommend you read “Mindsight”, or download it as an audiobook. (ISBN 978-0553804706)

You’ll never see things the same old way again.

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How often do you find yourself going over something upsetting? Something someone said or did which you found hurtful? Hurts have an impact. They make their marks on us. The bigger the hurt, the deeper, more long-lasting the mark.

Is there anything we can do reduce the impact? Or do we have to just stand and accept whatever comes our way, feeling the impacts deeply, and for the rest of our lives?

Whatever builds up our resilience, both reduces the strength of any impact, and increases our ability to bounce back, to stand back up, to find a way to go forward.

One aspect of resilience is equanimity. Balance. Stability. A kind of strength. Over centuries in many traditions and cultures people have practiced meditation to gain this kind of strength. One of the goals of meditation is increased equanimity, or greater resilience. You can’t stop events from happening, but you can have an influence on how you experience those events. My meditation teacher used the following analogy (the photos are mine!)

A mark in rock lasts a long time


A mark in sand disappears more quickly

footprint in the sand

Imagine what it’s like to make the mark on water

where the boat went

Now imagine what it’s like to make the mark in the air

flying by


Regular meditation practice builds resilience. Things still happen, but more and more, what people say, what people do, has less of an impact. You begin to experience less marks in the stone, less in the sand, more in the water, or, ultimately, in the air.

I like that analogy.

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