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Monday, December 14, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion and Nonviolence - Series 10

 Why is it important to learn about physiology when our interest is in learning meditation?

It is because of two basic facts: 1. many studies have shown that meditation, mindfulness meditation in particular,  is helpful in learning skills to deal with stresses in everyday life. 2. Whereas our sympathetic nervous system is set on alert when stressed, we also have a parasympathetic nervous system which has effects opposite to that of the sympathetic nervous system. Activation of this leads to slowing down of breathing, slowing down of the heart rate, and lowering of blood pressure. Just the act of breathing slow and deep has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the scientific basis of  the focus on breathing in all kinds of meditation. Our ancestors did not know physiology as we do now. But they knew that during meditation both breathing rate and heart rate can be slowed.

What are some avenues to reduce stress?

Each one of us have developed our own method for reducing stress. For example, meditation and music are my favorite methods. You may like walking in the woods or hiking or fishing. Enjoying activities with family and friends is a stress-buster. Behavioral scientists recommend good sleep, moderate physical activity, healthy diet, social interactions and positive outlook on life for mental health and stress-reduction. In studies on physicians who work in high-intensity specialties such as emergency room and neurosurgery, meditation and journal writing (diary) were found to reduce stress and burn-out. I have written about this in my blog on Dealing with Stress.

Here is where mindfulness meditation comes in. In addition to its beneficial effects on the body with stress reduction and muscle relaxation, it helps also with the mind and mental relaxation. Our mind operates (thinks) most of the time in one of two modes: goal seeking and therefore anxious and  avoiding dangers and therefore stressed. Our thoughts are often highjacked by distraction, emotions, imagination and addictions. Some of us tend to ruminate about the past or stay anxious about the future.

Mindfulness training offers an alternative, a healthy alternative. It teaches us to be alert and aware, focus on the present moment, and without an impulse to act on the thoughts reflexively. It teaches us to give time to reflect on the thoughts non-judgmentally, without suppressing them or running away from them.

By giving this time to slow down and reflect, mindfulness training helps us to avoid habitual, reflexive responses. Instead, it helps us to learn to observe the sensations we experience under stress and separate them from the narrative our mind creates, based on memories from the past or anxieties about the future.

For example, when we have pain in the chest, the pain is physical and real, and it causes suffering by itself. It is often made worse by the fear that it may be a heart attack. It may well be a heart attack. But our imagination and anxiety make it worse. The anxiety that we may have to cancel a scheduled conference next week adds to the suffering due to the pain itself. Instead, the mindfulness method teaches us to acknowledge the pain and take care of it without allowing the secondary concerns to make it worse. By looking at the pain mindfully we recognize and take care of the real pain experienced at the present moment by getting the needed medical help. By slowing down and reflecting, we realize that the concerns about next week may not come true and are the creations of the mind. This is change of attitude to the pain. This is behavior modification.

Mindfulness training teaches us also about positive psychology.

Buddhist teaching says that all of us have wholesome tendencies, qualities and thoughts and also unwholesome, negative qualities. Thich Naht Hanh uses an analogy of  "basement and first floor" of a house with basement having several  flowering pots. There are pots, one for each “seed” of positive quality and one each for negative quality. This basement is what he calls the “seed mind”. The plants (qualities) grow depending on which seeds we water most. Whichever one we feed will show up at the first floor. It may be a beautiful flower or a weed, depending on what we feed, how often we feed it and how intensely. The first floor is a metaphor for outward behavior.

The point is that we all have the potential to be good or bad. We are not all angels, or devils. We are a mixture. It depends on which seeds we water that determines whether a flower or a weed will show up.

Put differently, whenever our weakness shows up and overwhelms us, it is best to stop watering the seed for a weed and replace it with the seed for a strength, a good quality. This is positive psychology. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to do this. Unlike Freudian psychology which works on the weakness (disease) of the people first, the Buddhist psychology says that one should work first on one’s strength. This will make the defeat of the weakness that much easier.

In summary, mindful meditation methods teach us how to be in control of the situation and of our emotions, instead of the situations and emotions controlling our thoughts and actions.

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