Wednesday, February 02, 2011

NEW Harvard Research Shows that Mindfulness Meditation Produces Positive PHYSICAL Changes in the Brain!!

The word is out. Just about every day, a new article appears celebrating the positive effects of mindfulness and meditation.

Last week, The New York Times featured an article by a woman writing about her husband's discovery of mindfulness meditation.

Technically the class he took was called "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction," or MBSR. MBSR was developed at the UMass Medical Center some 30 years ago by then Professsor of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, who used the mindfulness training to treat patients with chronic pain, stress and depression. In the last three decades, thousands of people have been helped by the program and training that Kabat-Zinn developed.

MBSR meditation features prominently in the Happiness class that I am teaching for the first time this semester at SUNY Albany. Students are taking MBSR with nurse trainer Lenore Flynn in a mandatory Wednesday afternoon lab (that's in addition to the three class meeting times.)

Flynn worked with three of my students in an independent study in the Fall of 2010 (a test run for the new class!) The results were quite remarkable. One student, psychology major Allyson Pashko, had been suffering from such intense stress a year ago that she was physically ill (and hospitalized.) Doctors could not figure out what exactly was wrong with her. Allyson is a new person today. She emailed me last week out of the blue to report that she is still seeing the positive effects of the mindfulness work she did last fall. This is an excerpt from her email:
"Now for the great news, I actually ended up recieving a job offer a couple of weeks ago with a Long Island company that offers learning processes... I just started training this week and I believe I will go through about 2 weeks of full-time training and then observations to make sure I really understand the program. It is such a great place and I can't be more excited!

Now for the best part, when I went in for the interview, the last thing the director said to me was, "well you seem like a very positive person, I'm sure you will be a great fit!" I thought to myself WOW! I can't believe that someone had actually said that to me. I thought back to all of the work we had done last semester and it really helped me so much!

I just wanted to share with you my wonderful experience and say that I'm not sure this all would have been possible without all of your continued help. I hope you can share my story with your students and it will encourage them to really work to their fullest and understand that this class really makes wonders happen."

In the Times article, the writer said that her husband had gone on a ten-day MSBR retreat. "Not my idea of fun," she said, "But he came back rejuvenated and energetic." Indeed, he was so transformed by the experience he decided to start meditating an hour in the morning and an hour every evening. The writer added:

"I’ll admit I’m a skeptic."

Meanwhile, though, she pointed to a new study, not the first, which suggests that 8 weeks of meditation can produce important physical improvements in the brain that lead to more well-being in life!

The Harvard research suggests that individuals who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in the gray matter of the hippocampus (associated with increased learning and memory) and importantly, a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, that chunk of the brain associated with anxiety and stress! The control group showed no such changes.

The study appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

The fact that only eight weeks of meditation produced brain changes that could be detected by MRI imaging is remarkable. What does this suggest for individuals who, like the husband of the The New York Times writer, are committed to trying to make mindfulness meditation part of their regular practice? Quite ironically, as I am writing this post, I hear my own husband upstairs. He just started chanting the "om" that signals the start of his own meditation. He's been meditating for almost four years now. He started during a time of great stress; he came home one day and I had set up a small meditation space for him in the bedroom, a quilt on the floor, a small table and a candle. (Later he got rid of the table, and we bought him a fancy round pillow.)

Try it? Take a class!

To all those people who are contemplating trying meditation, I say, go for it. Don't start by trying for half an hour though. To start, set a timer for say, five or eight minutes max.

Perhaps the best way to start is to take a class; it helps to have regular instruction and the support of a trained teacher and a group of people around you.

Meditation has changed my life profoundly. It has helped me to live without anti-depressant medication, and that is something I never ever thought would be possible. It's also given me enormous energy. (People keep asking me how I write so much; I tell them I have a lot of energy and I credit meditation.) It's not just that you feel more relaxed sitting on the mat, focusing on breathing in and out. IT'S OFF THE MAT THAT YOU SEE GREAT CHANGES TOO!

All through the day when life throws its wrenches my way, I stop and take in a long slow breath and say, OK, just let it go. Just stay focused. Just realize that "this too shall pass" (one of my Mom's favorite quotes!) The meditation practice I started in 1996 has helped me see life in a different way. It has showed me how to find joy even in the weirdest small moments when you wouldn't otherwise expect to find joy!

This winter for example, I am like most folks, not loving all the snowstorms and the fierce cold. But I'm watching (being mindful) of my reactions to the incessant snowfall. All I can say is, I am not going totally crazy.

I tell myself, "it is what it is. It will be what it will be." I get nervous looking at that block of ice, now approaching two feet in thickness on the porch roof. I start to worry that it might bust up the roof. I breathe. I say. Whatever it will be (I also take the roof rake to it!)

But if the worst happens and the ice wrecks the roof, and it starts leaking, well, so be it. We will deal. We will get the roof repaired.

Yesterday I was trying to cross the backyard to bring the compost outdoors. I wasn't even trying for the spot we've got set aside back behind the garage. Much too far, and way too much snow. No, I had decided to go just to the edge of the yard beyond the old apple tree.

It was so exhausting, sinking deep into drifts with each step. Finally, half-way to my goal, I collapsed, and just sat there, me and the compost container, sunk in the snow. I started to laugh. I found this bizarre situation comical. Instead of being annoyed and angry about being trapped by snow, I said to myself, hey, might as well accept it. It's just...snow. It will eventually go away and spring will come and all those hundreds of tulip and daffodil bulbs will come poking up out of the lawn.

I struggled up out of the snow and trudged the rest of the way across the backyard.

Mindfulness has taught me to let go and stop resisting whatever it is that I am fighting. I'm also learning to stop complaining and whining about this and that. I've learned to try to find the smallest moments of joy in whatever it is I am doing. In our first mindfulness class last week, Lenore Flynn led us through the "raisin-eating" experience (famous in MBSR-training.) You take a couple of raisins in your hand and you pretend that you've just arrived from another planet and you've never seen raisins before.

You spend long minutes just staring at those raisins. You look at the shape and the color and the texture and the minute wrinkles.

Then, just when you think you can't stand another minute of raisin-contemplation, you start to feel them with your fingers. And then you slip them in your mouth. But no eating -- you feel how the raisins feel in your mouth, on your tongue.

In other words, you become mindful of what it feels like to eat a raisin.

All week since that class I have been much more mindful of what I've eaten. Interestingly, some practitioners are using mindfulness with diets and food disorders. Making people more mindful about what they eat helps people to slow way down and to appreciate every morsel of food that they put into their mouths. This kind of food-related mindfulness training tends to get people to eat less and enjoy food more.

There are also specific mindfulness classes designed to help depression.

Well, so, mindfulness, like life, isn't perfect. It doesn't always work. I still curse and get frustrated and angry. But I can pull myself back from the brink. I can think myself out of dark corners. I can live with what happens.

To the skeptical New York Times writer (her name is Sindya N. Bhanoo), I have two things to say: thank you SO much for writing this article. And very humbly and respectfully I would add: try joining your husband. Try meditating!

P.S. I also want to thank my husband for forwarding The New York Times link about Bhanoo's article to me; in forwarding it, he told me that this article was one of the most frequently viewed on the Times site! Now that is quite remarkable. And is it any wonder! We have the capability of changing our brains for the better! What a great message!

1 comment:

Sunyata said...

Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”