Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ways in which our brain influences our awareness

"Ouch, that hurt!"

Let's take a moment to look at this simple expression.

As journalist Oliver Burkeman said in this lovely article in the Guardian recently, (slightly paraphrased) "when you stub your toe on the dining table, your nerve fibres shoot a message to your spinal cord, in turn sending neurotransmitters to the thalamus, which activates (among other things) your stress response. Ok, but what about the agonising flash of pain? And what is pain, anyway?" To that I would add the question "what about the times we stub our toe and don't even realise...?" What's happening?

Let's first look at the neuroscience. 

As Burkeman says, when we stub our toe these pain signals (like any other sensation like heat or pressure) travel from the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and up into the brain. Modern neuroscience tells us the spinal cord contains special nerve fibre bundles that serve as "gateways" to the brain, controlling whether or not a signal gets passed on or not. These gateways have the ability to mute or amplify sensations depending on the relative mix of physiological and, importantly, psychological stimulus input. So what does this mean?

Opening and closing the gates

There's a nice example given here in the book "Relaxation, Meditation, & Mindfulness: A Mental Health Practitioner's Guide" by Jonathan Smith. Let's first imagine you're at home playing with your young niece and she suddenly grabs your hand tightly, squeezing your fingers and your knuckles together. Ouch! You feel a sharp sensation of pain. These are your peripheral nerves sending the signals to your brain.

Now imagine as she grabs your fingers and squeezes, she giggles and plants a wonderful smiling kiss on your cheek! This time you barely notice her squeezing your fingers – this is because the pleasant distraction (initially) closes the nerve gateways as you attention is redirected. The feedback from subsequent thoughts and feelings, such as "she's such a wonderful kid!”, continue to hold the gates closed.

Then she lets go of your hand and you see that your fingers have gone white! But by now your brain has realised that the squeeze was completely innocent and you're not injured. What might otherwise be experienced as pain may instead be experienced as a strong tingling sensation.

Now imagine you're sitting on your sofa with your arm are dangling over the side out of sight. Suddenly you feel something tighten around your fingers and knuckles. Not knowing what it is you feel a stab of pain. Then come the associated thoughts: "it's the dog!", and the pain grows stronger. You feel a shot of fear over possible damage to the skin or infection, and it gets even stronger. This time the pain sensations, and the feedback from subsequent thoughts and feelings, blow open the pain gates and you're all too consciously aware of it all. Perceived threats are very powerful activators of the brain's systems.

Thankfully the example given in the book gives a positive ending to this scenario: you turn to look for the offending dog and discover it is just your niece again. The gates start to close, the pain goes away, hastened by a burst of laughter triggering a release of endorphins and a further closure of the gates!

So there's an interplay between the different types and levels of stimulus inputs, including from our nerves and sense organs, emotions, endorphins, and thoughts, and it's all affected by how our attention is directed. This interplay controls the state of the gateways, and therefore our experience of pain. This is known as "gate-control theory" after Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall who came up with it in the 1960s (Melzack & Wall, 1965, 1982).

The reticular activating system

In the journey up to the brain, the next area the our sensations have to pass through is the brain stem. This area is responsible for (1) regulating most of the body's automatic functions (breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc), and (2) relaying information to and from the brain to the rest of the body. It plays an important role in consciousness, awareness and movement (and it is only when brain stem function is permanently lost that a person is confirmed as dead.)
An important area in the brain stem for us in the mindfulness business is the reticular activating system (RAS) since it can have a strong influence on what we actually become aware of. 
Sorry, the reticular what...?!

The reticular activating system, or RAS (but not RAS) is also thought to play a role in many important autonomic functions, including regulating sleep and wake, arousal and breathing. However, perhaps its most important function is its ability to focus our attention on something. It is the portal through which nearly all sensory information enters the brain, and it acts as an initial filter to all this incoming information to stop us getting overloaded. It dampens down repeated or excessive stimuli, and flags up any crucial information that threatens survival or is just new and different. It's part of our internal editor.

Imagine walking down a busy shopping street with a blister on your foot. You've been walking all day, and with your attention on navigating the crowds and getting to the next shop you filter out the soreness on your foot – thanks to your RAS. Then someone in the crowd treads on your foot and boom, suddenly you notice! That again is your RAS working for you.

The sense gates in the spinal cord and the RAS in the brain stem are therefore similar in function. The RAS operates at a slightly higher level though, filtering and editing higher level sensations and thoughts.

So what is pain?

I think the above examples illustrate a few different aspects of pain. There are the nerve impulses that are relayed up the spinal cord to the pain gateways. Depending on our physical and emotional state, these gates open letting the pain sensation through, or don't, blocking or modifying the signal. Then there's our reticular activating system which acts at a higher level to dampen down repeated or excessive stimuli, or flag up any life-threatening (or just new and exciting) information.

Assuming that the pain signals pass through all the way to our awareness, then we perceive pain. Then come all the layers of associated thoughts and emotions: "I'm so stupid, why did I burn myself again?", "Why won't this pain go away?", "I hate this pain!", "I must have done something bad to deserve this", etc.

Someone wise once said "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional". A considerable proportion of what we perceive as pain arises through our anxious desire to suppress it, and that's where our mindfulness practice can really work in our favour. The Buddha said, “When we’re touched with a feeling of pain, we feel sorrow, grief, and, beating our breast, become distraught. We feel two pains, physical & mental. Just as if we were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one”. The physical pain may be unavoidable, adding the mental pain is our choice.

Influenced awareness

So our unconscious systems can modify our sensory inputs before we're even conscious of them. A recent article I read (p26) paraphrased this as "the eyes only see and the ears only hear what the brain tells them" – in short we all pick opinions then find data to support these beliefs and this becomes our reality. Since our mindfulness practice is all about increasing awareness and knowledge of ourselves and how we interpret reality, it's important to know about all these unconscious influences so we can recognise them when we feel their effects.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Perceptions on your pain gateways? Reflections on the reticular activation system? Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

An aligned, relaxed body leads to the mind of awakening

Life takes place in this body, right here and now.

We experience the world around us through our body and its senses, so obviously how we use, move, understand and perceive our body has an enormous effect on how we live our lives. If we perceive our body as out of proportion, ugly, or incapable, this necessarily affects how we live compared to someone who is comfortable in their body.

Posture and alignment

Feeling pain, particularly chronic on-going pain, can very easily lead to negative feelings towards the body. One of the biggest causes of pain is bad posture, and the body area that suffers the most is often the back. According to the NHS, back pain is the leading cause of long-term sickness in the UK, and was responsible for a whopping 15 million lost work days in 2013. Sitting for long periods in front of a computer is bad enough, but couple that with bad posture and you've got a recipe for pain.

In meditation we also sit for long periods, so it's no wonder that meditation teachers have a lot to say about sitting posture. The famous 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote that to practice meditation one should "Sit ... with your [clothes] tied loosely and arranged neatly. ... Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel." Simple enough!

When we start our meditation practice and bring awareness to the body, one of the first things we may notice are areas of stiffness or tension. These can arise for many reasons as I wrote about here.

One of the keys to releasing tension and encouraging relaxation is bringing the body into correct alignment (the subject of a wonderful little book by Will Johnson). But what are we aligning our body to? The answer is our innate sense of “up” and “down”, and this comes from gravity. If we can align our body around a predominantly vertical axis (whether sitting or standing), then the force of gravity will support us instead of weigh us down. Right now try leaning to one side. It takes a some work! So aligning of the physical body with the vertical allows us to relax and shed unnecessary tension. This is why sitting up straight is so important, and that's why doing something like yoga practice is also so important.

Upright meditation position
Firstly, yoga practice shows us where our tensions and imbalances lie. For example, almost all of us have natural imbalances in the hips which cause a slight scoliosis (sideways curve) in the spine, which in turn causes our shoulders to sit skewey and our neck and head to be slightly off-centre. Through correct practice we can learn to release and unblock these tensions and asymmetries so that both our physical and energetic bodies can come into balanced alignment.

However, it's important that the uprightness we cultivate isn't rigid. The strength to hold ourselves upright (especially in this day and age where we tend to slouch at every opportunity) takes time to develop, and it must come together with a sense of softness. This is particularly important in the chest and belly so that our breathing can be as unrestricted and natural as possible.

An aligned, relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind

A relaxed body, in turn, encourages a relaxed mind – one that is less distracted by pain and discomfort, and more able to feel and sense what’s happening in this present moment. Zen master Dogen said, "if one's body is straight, one's mind is easily straightened too. If one sits keeping one's body upright, one's mind does not become dull... One must be aware when one's mind runs around in distraction, or when one's body leans or sways, and allow body and mind to return to sitting upright."
In this quote, Dogen is making an analogy between present moment awareness and our vertical axis. As soon as the mind loses alignment to this axis (i.e. the present moment), we can say our mind loses balance and we start to wander off into memories or fantasies.

One of Dogen’s students once asked him “Do we find the way in the mind or the body?” Dogen answered "In the body." And in his famous book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" the 20th century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said "The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is itself enlightenment."

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

What's your experience of sitting up straight in meditation? How do you combine uprightness with soft relaxation? Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The applications of mindfulness in modern society

As I discussed last week modern-day secular mindfulness grew out from its Buddhist origins in the latter part of the 20th Century as people started to realise it's benefit for helping people deal with chronic illness. People like Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts came up with the, now very popular, 8-week course format for teaching the fundamentals of mindfulness and getting a formal practice embedded in people's daily routine. The results from the early studies were remarkable, paving the way for mindfulness to enter into mainstream society.

Evolving from a clinical to non-clinical setting

Nowadays the two most popular 8-week courses are the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the US, and the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course put together by Segal, Williams & Teasdale here in the UK. Both of these courses, however, originated in a clinical setting as an intervention to treat people with long-term, chronic illnesses (stress and pain in the case of the MBSR, and depression for MBCT).

Part of the popular success of these programmes has been the way they've extracted a practice originally devised for religious purposes within the Buddhist tradition, and applied it in a completely secular way. "Mindfulness" itself is a commonly understandable term with no religious connotations, and the courses themselves are couched in language that is entirely secular and backed up by scientific research.

However, that same scientific research has also shown that daily meditation has the potential of boosting peoples' general health and longevity, increasing creativity, reducing general levels of stress, and a whole host of other benefits. This has long been known in Buddhism! The Zen tradition has a word for this kind of meditation – "Bompu Zen", literally meaning ordinary Zen or ordinary meditation. This is practice with the view or the intention of problem solving.

Mindfulness for wellbeing (and productivity, performance & sex)

An increasing number of people are realising that mindfulness and meditation can have a dramatic effect on their sense of wellbeing, productivity, effectiveness, and happiness – even without a chronic illness to deal with. If you like, the chronic illness has become the stresses and strains of daily life here in our frantic, go-go-go culture!

For example, I teach an 8-week course in Camberwell (South London) that was put together by Zen master Daizan Skinner (Zenways) that is specifically designed to help everyday people deal with their everyday issues. All of us experience stress and pain at some points in our life, so having the tools to help us deal with them as and when they arise can be enormously life-changing. Furthermore we could all do with a way of improving our concentration and focus skills, and that's precisely what mindfulness teaches you. With a few weeks of regular practice I've witnessed just how much of a boost in vitality, energy, and liveliness it gives people!

It's not just individuals who are looking to reap the benefits of mindfulness. As I mentioned last week it's now being very successfully taught in schools (via the Mindfulness in Schools Project) to teenagers and younger ones. Big companies such as Google, Microsoft, BAE Systems and Deutsche Bank are also aware of the benefits of meditation and encouraging its practice at work. In sports, athletes are waking up to the benefits of mindfulness practice on their ability to focus and cope with performance stress first alluded to in the famous book "Zen and the Art of Archery". Etienne Stott (London 2012 Olympic gold medallist in canoeing) said
The famous book from the 1930s
"using mindfulness helped me to win gold. It helped me achieve a level of mental clarity that is vital in intense situations. I would highly recommend mindfulness to any individual or organization who wants to get an edge." 
Multi-time beach volleyball Olympic gold medallists Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor swear by it. Basketball coach Phil Jackson famously used it for many years with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Tennis star Novak Djokovic also practices mindfulness. I've also been teaching mindfulness to the GB long-range rifle team over the last year.

Meditation and sex might not be the two things you’d most naturally associate, but as this lovely article from Headspace explains, mindful awareness can help you develop and maintain intimacy and set alight that spark of passion.

Moving beyond mindfulness

Mindfulness practice involves both formal and informal meditation practices, and non-meditation-based exercises. Formal meditation is done in stillness (standing or sitting) with the attention on the body, breath or sensations, or just whatever arises in each moment. There are also formal mindfulness exercises like mindful walking or mindful eating. Informal mindfulness is the application of mindful attention in everyday life – being mindful in all moments.

It's this every-moment awareness is really the end goal. In Zen they have a lovely term for this: Mu-Nen. Nen is the Japanese for mindfulness, and mu is a negative (like "un" in English) - so it translates as no-mindfulness or perhaps effortless mindfulness. It's when non-judgemental awareness is no longer a skill you have to apply, it's just part of your way of being.

When you combine this open-minded awareness with a gentle sense of enquiry, it doesn't take long before certain ideas or insights into your self or the nature of being coming up. It's inevitable. Often this is something that clinical-based mindfulness teachers don't talk about. But it's incredibly important, and can lead to a new way of seeing – a whole perspective shift. That's why I also teach a separate 8-week course based around developing insight and self-understanding.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

What's your experience of mindfulness in modern society? Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The origins of modern-day secular mindfulness

Origins of mindfulness

Mindfulness as a word first entered the English lexicon as "myndfulness" in 1530 (John Palsgrave translating the French pensée), as "mindfulnesse" in 1561, and finally as "mindfulness" in 1817. The first use of the word from a Buddhist perspective was in 1921 when Thomas Rhys Davids (then Prof of Comparative Religion at Manchester University) used the word to translate the ancient Indian-Pali word "sati". Before this "sati" was translated as meaning recollection, recall, or remembrance.

Sati is an essential element of Buddhism. It appears in the Buddha's noble eightfold path as the seventh element ("correct" or "right" mindfulness), and is part of the practices of ānāpānasati, satipaṭṭhāna and vipassana. Anāpānasati means mindfulness of breathing ("ānāpāna" is a Sanskrit word relating to inhalation and exhalation). (See here for a simple Zen mindfulness of breath meditation spoken in most of the world's main languages). Satipaṭṭhāna is the practice of applying mindfulness in everyday life, maintaining as much as possible a calm awareness of our body, feelings, mind state. This practice is emphasised in Buddhist practice in order to cultivate an understanding of the constantly changing nature of all things. The word vipassanā means insight into the true nature of reality, but Vipassana as a style of meditation (emphasising the practice of ānāpānasati) was popularised in the West in the 20th Century by Burmese meditation masters Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka.

Zen Buddhism also began to find its way into the West in the 20th Century through the writings of D.T. Suzuki and his teacher Soyen Shaku (who spoke at the now infamous 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago). Zen practice contains a strong thread of mindfulness, famously emphasised by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Anāpānasati (or susokukan in Japanese) is also one of the first meditation practices you will be given when you start out in Zen.
"In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality."
–  Thich Nhat Hanh in "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
Sitting by lake Walden
As a reaction to the "predominantly reductionist and materialistic" culture that began to dominate the West in the 19th Century, Henry Thoreau wrote his famous book Walden – a reflection on simple living in the natural surroundings of the American north-east near Boston. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that, in many ways, the ideas discussed by Thoreau could really be seen as a predecessor to the current interest in mindfulness.

Mindfulness moves into the clinical setting

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts, heralding the first move of mindfulness into the clinical setting.

Jon Kabat-Zinn got his PhD in molecular biology in 1971 from MIT, and was first introduced to meditation by Zen teacher Philip Kapleau Roshi (author of the "Three Pillars of Zen"). He went on to study at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, founded in 1975 by Vipassana teachers Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.

His genius was to realise that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness could be adapted and applied in the secular world to help chronically ill patients cope with stress and pain. His initial programme sparked the now enormously successful application of mindfulness ideas and practices all across the clinical (and non-clinical) world for the treatment of a variety of conditions in both healthy and unhealthy people.

His MBSR programme was inspired mainly by teachings from Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn's body scan, for example, was derived from a meditation practice called "sweeping" taught by the Burmese master U Ba Khin and his student S. N. Goenka. Incidentally, the body scan practice can also be traced back into the Zen tradition (in turn probably influenced by Taoism), where it was taught by Zen master Hakuin in the 1700s as the soft-ointment meditation (Nanso No Ho in Japanese).

Kabat-Zinn's 8-week MBSR began to get increasing notice with the publication of his first book "Full Catastrophe Living" in 1991, and his second book "Wherever You Go, There You Are" in 1994. By 2000 many MBSR clinics had opened across the US, and interest started spreading abroad.

Mindfulness in the UK

Based on the pioneering work of Philip Barnard and John Teasdale at Oxford University in the early 1990s (who were rooted in the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) tradition), Zindel Segal (University of Toronto), Mark Williams (Oxford University) and John Teasdale created the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programme in 2002. Inspired by the structure and content of the MBSR course, the MBCT course is an 8-week therapeutic intervention designed specifically to prevent relapse in depression.

Barnard and Teasdale’s (1991) theory associates an individual’s vulnerability to depression with the degree to which he/she relies on only one of the modes of mind. According to the theory, the two main modes of mind are the “doing” mode and “being” mode, and a healthy mind is one that is able to move easily between the two as circumstances change. The being mode is not focused on achieving specific goals, but is more concerned with accepting and allowing what is happening in the moment without any feeling of wanting to change it. The idea is that by emphasising the "being mode" MBCT brings about lasting positive emotional change, and is therefore ideally suited for the treatment of depression.

The MBCT course has been highly successful and in 2004 it was recommended by the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) as "an effective treatment for people who suffer from recurrent episodes of depression". As a result it is now available on the NHS. However, the uptake of MBCT in the UK health service has been quite variable.

Despite its original purpose, MBCT has now been scientifically proven to help people not only with depression, but also with a whole range of mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and insomnia.

And it has spurned a whole host of exciting related programmes – like the Mindfulness in Schools Project, which offers a 9-week course in mindfulness for secondary-school children.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

I'd love to hear from you

Leave a comment below, join the discussion.

Pass it on

Enjoyed this post? Then please tweet it, share it on Facebook or send it to friends via e-mail using the buttons below.