Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Loving-Kindness Meditation May Protect Your Genes and Slow Aging

Practicing loving-kindness may protect your genes, and slow down the aging process a new study finds.

Chronic stress and aging take their toll on the mind and body, including our genes. A number of studies show that for some, meditation decreases stress, and slows down the rate at which cells age. Now, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that practicing loving-kindness may be the key.

Cellular aging is often determined by telomere length. Telomeres, which are located at the end of chromosomes, are like the plastic tips of shoelaces that protect genes from deteriorating too rapidly over time. Age and chronic stress cause telomeres to wear down. Short telomeres have been linked to numerous illnesses including cancer and heart disease. But there is good news. Meditation may help to slow down this process of telomere decline.

Looking at the Health Effects of Different Forms of Meditation

In the study, researchers wanted to know which forms of meditation were most effective for protecting telomeres. They assigned 176 adults between the ages of 35 and 64 years with no prior meditation experience to either a mindfulness meditation group, a loving-kindness meditation group, or a waitlist control group.

People in the mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation groups attended 6, hour-long group meditation classes once per week. They were also given 20-minute audio-recorded practices to use each day at home.

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How to Be Mindful With Your Cravings

When it comes to the universally-not-so-fun experience of craving, it goes something like this: my old job gave me an iPhone to keep me in the loop, which soon led to the intense pleasure of flicking through the app store and downloading my first version of the game “Angry Birds,” which then sparked more cravings of app-related things.

My phone and I became fast friends—though I was a jealous, needy friend, and kept my iPhone clamped tight to my hip in a pouch, not unlike an old West gunslinger with his colt revolver. Ask my wife about my compulsive phone-checking at the dinner table and you’ll know a bit about what became my addictive cycle of non-work-related phone-fun (and suffering). Whether it be the mindless nudge toward your phone screen, a thick slice of cake, a cigarette, or various substances, craving is familiar to us all.

How the Brain Forms a Habit

Researchers like Judson Brewer at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts have studied the cycle of desire. Brewer and his colleagues have shown how addictions operate through a process of conditioning the brain:

First, we sense objects of desire around us (e.g. TV, food, phones—selfies!, sex, etc.).Second, our brains link these up as either pleasant or unpleasant. We then end up craving the pleasant—even if it’s something like alcohol that, by itself doesn’t at first taste pleasant, we end up craving how it leads to both a pleasurable experience as well as taking away unpleasant things (like sadness or worry).Finally, the initial experience of satisfying a craving creates a new memory in the brain. We continue to seek out actions to satisfy the desire and thus an addictive pattern is born.

As Brewer points out in his new book, The Craving Mind, we are never in direct contact with the objects of our desires—only with mental representations of them in our minds. And it’s this fact that holds the promise of freedom from the destructive cycle of craving (particularly at the level of life-bleeding addiction). We can’t change the objects that trigger our desire—those cues will continue unabated and unbidden. But we can change how we relate to our mental experiences of them—the word thoughts, mental images, and bodily sensations of desire. “Craving is the link that is targeted here in cutting through the cycle of dependent origination” writes Brewer and colleagues.

Mindfulness could be the key to cutting the link between conditioned cues of desired objects and the craving that leads to addictive behavior.

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Do This in the Morning for a Better Workday

Work life and home life have become blurred. Even after the workday ends, many of us feel a compulsion to continue checking emails and ruminating about work-related problems, worrying about how we will get everything done.
 
In response, we’re advised to detach from work—to turn off our work brain at 5 o’clock, and take time to be present with our friends and family or engage in hobbies. But as beneficial as this can be, completely detaching can make it more challenging to motivate ourselves and focus when we return to work. After a relaxing evening or jam-packed, adventurous weekend, how do we get back into work mode the next morning?

A new study suggests that people who have mentally prepared for and thought about the upcoming workday—or “reattached” to work—have a better work experience, because they start the day off more in touch with their work goals.

People who have mentally prepared for and thought about the upcoming workday—or “reattached” to work—have a better work experience, because they start the day off more in touch with their work goals.

Researchers recruited 151 people from a diverse range of careers and emailed surveys to them each morning for one work week. People were considered to be more reattached to work when they agreed with statements like, “This morning, I gave some thought to the upcoming workday,” or “This morning, I thought about what I wanted to achieve at work today.” People also indicated how much energy they felt to pursue work goals, how excited or inspired they felt, and how much they anticipated being able to focus at work.

In the afternoon, researchers sent out a second wave of surveys to capture how much support participants felt they received from their colleagues, how self-determined they felt around making decisions that work day, and how engaged they felt at work.

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Meditation is Mental Fitness — If You Do It This Way

Athletes get into “the zone.” Creatives tap into “flow state.” We may obtain a heightened sense of awareness in these moments, but they are exactly that: temporary. Once the rock climber comes down from the mountain, she snaps back into her “everyday sense of the world,” says psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, discussing his recent book Altered Traits written with neuroscientist Richie Davidson.

In this video for BigThink, Goleman explores how we can bring the beneficial effects of those “altered states” into the everyday.

When we are able to concentrate wholly on something, we enter a heightened state of temporary awareness—what Goleman refers to as altered states. Through meditation, however, we can create what he calls altered traits—a permanent change in the way our minds work.

“Altered traits […] are lasting changes or transformations of being, and they come classically through having cultivated an altered state through meditation, which then has a consequence for how you are day-to-day—and that’s different than how you were before you tried the meditation.”

The mind is a gym and meditation is a basic workout.

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How Your Breath Controls Your Mood and Attention

Slow down, take a deep breath. It’s not merely common-sense advice to calm a racing heart or panicked thoughts. It also reflects what meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing therapies teach: that focusing on the timing and pace of our breath has powerful positive effects on our body and our sense of well-being. A new study in the Journal of Neurophysiology supports this, revealing that many different regions of the human brain respond to paced breathing. 

Paced breathing involves consciously inhaling and exhaling according to a set rhythm. For example, you might inhale for 4 counts, exhale for 6, and repeat. Prior research shows that paced breathing exercises can both focus attention and regulate the nervous system. To date, however, we have known little about how this affects brain function in humans.

These findings represent a breakthrough because, for years, we’ve considered the brain stem to be responsible for the process of breathing. This study found that paced breathing also uses neural networks beyond the brain stem: networks responsible for emotion, attention, and body awareness. If we can tap these networks by using the breath, we unlock a powerful tool for regulating our body’s responses to whatever’s happening in our lives, rain or shine.

Your Brain on Paced Breathing

In this study, researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research wanted to better understand how the brain responds to different breathing exercises. They recruited six adults  who were already undergoing intracranial EEG monitoring for epilepsy. (EEG monitoring involves placing electrodes directly onto the brain to record electrical activity and see where seizures originate.) These adults were asked to take part in three breathing exercises while their brains were being monitored.

The first exercise looked at rapid breathing. Participants rested with their eyes open for about eight minutes while breathing normally. They then sped up their breath, to a rapid rate, for just over two minutes, while breathing through the nose, and finally slowed back down to regular breathing. They repeated this cycle four times.

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