As we move through the busy routines of our week we can sometimes find ourselves pulled off task, de-centered and distracted. We humans are unique creatures in that we will problem-solve throughout the day and continue to take on new problems and attempt to perform new tasks simultaneously. This tendency has the potential to put our brain on overload. If we don’t learn the skills to modulate these processes and mind-states and regulate the accompanying emotions our brains will work overtime throughout the night-the time when our brains are most active sorting out the previous day. Without a regulating skil: we may begin to experience sleep disturbances, anxiety and other mental health symptoms. Like a multiprocessor in a computer our brain is capable of multiple processes which if we don’t learn to shut down, may culminate into hangups or even a temporary system failure. Pushing ourselves over our limit may have devastating consequences to our long-term health. This over-processing also may exact a toll on our overall health and may also jeopardize our mental wellness. Neurosciences are now showing us that saying a prayer or meditating before bedtime may assist us in our neurological development and may serve a function to build up the brain's neuronal resiliency by allowing us to control the traffic load on our neural circuitry thereby giving us an ability to create a quiet and calm mind.
Zen Buddhists have practiced meditation for hundreds of years along with Hindu ascetics who have practiced meditative yoga in Northern India. As we progress through the beginning of the 21st century we are just beginning to understand how ancient practice of meditation is used to quiet and empty the mind, to give it rest. One such practice is seated meditation. By sitting in a quiet relaxing space one can learn to observe the different thought processes and their effects on the body, thereby gaining the ability to regulate stress and promote mindfulness of self and the environment. This is critical in maintaining one’s mental health.
It is easy to become disquieted in our modern times. Several things compete for our consciousness which include personal and professional relationships, conflicts in the workplace, and priorities on the work agenda, homework, creating time and space for your own wellness. Focusing on the past can brings up feelings of depression, thoughts that things could have been done differently. Similarly, thoughts of the future may bring up feelings of anxiety, fear or hopelessness. Such ruminations can force us to become reactive to others in our lives and to situations. This activity can activate our limbic system or the emotional parts of our brains and shut down the parts that help us use memory and critical thinking in our decisions.
By taking time to meditate and learning how to maintain breathing you can learn to and calm your mind. By slowing your breathing you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system. By doing so you can move yourself out of the emotional-mind that can wreak havoc in your life and function with a wise mind where your behaviours are balanced with consideration of others. Similarly some spend time in their overly-rational and cerebral thinking mind. This may lead to behaviours that are disconnected and don’t take into account the needs of others. When we are calm and mindful we may operate from our true selves. We may then respond to our own needs and then share the good feelings and insights that we experience from this state of mind. This is also how one may begin to address their emotional regulation as part of the addiction cycle, gain understanding of their triggers and be mindful about their choices to regulate the emotions: from cigarettes to sex addiction... mindfulness practices work to help people be more conscious of what's contributing to addiction and how to break this cycle.
Zen Buddhism has contributed much to our understanding of health in psychology. Formerly fringe therapies our now taking center stage in assisting therapist to help clients regain cognitive and emotional functioning. New exciting scientific data and the use of Single-photon Emission Commuted Tomography have demonstrated regained function in brain scans with the use of these therapies both with victims of trauma and those who have created severe pockets of “dark areas” where the brain does not function. It is important to note that religious practices and their effects are embedded in many healing cultures and are now just being explored more closely. These exercises range from guided imagery, to progressive relaxation and guided imagery. Similarly, sweats, smudging, and sharing circles may too soon find themselves in the same category scientifically. Till now there has been huge anecdotal evidence that these practices are in fact are efficacious.
As we, meditate and fire new connections in our brains through mindful activity such as breathing and progressive relaxation we may begin this journey within and bring new dimensions of health into our lives! One easy exercise is to create a quiet relaxing space, close our eyes and count to four as you slowly inhale. At the top of your breath hold it for a second or two before pushing the breath out. Do this exhale to the count of eight, and begin the cycle of a 4 count inhale, and then repeat. As you do this the science tells us your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, your cingulate is calm and your amygdala begins to fulfill its mediating function more readily. Paradoxically, the mind in this state, by quieting the mind and emptying it of non-essential processes, we may find that our mind then generates it’s aha moments. It is by relaxing and letting go of different streams of thought which burden us that the mind begins to be freed up to use its more evolved responses. This permits you to be mindful about your own process, how your environment is affecting you and empowering one to act more effectively in whatever they are doing. In this state you may begin to explore many things that are affecting your body. You become “self and body aware. “ This state is the opposite of a panicked fight or flight state. Some people who practice their cultural rituals such as Native American smudging or even prayer report a similar experience. It is notable that many First Nations health programs incorporate crafts, art or activities like bead-work, moccasin-making and other cultural activities in their healing or treatment programs.
My Zen moments came to me at different points throughout my life where I was able to experience many things at once. One of the first times was in my youth about eight years old where I had almost lost my life in a swollen spring river in Terrace BC. I and another youth went into the river against camp staff's orders. We fell under a log jam in Lakelse Creek at full spring swell. At the moment I was completely under I remember letting go of the fight. I remember the stillness, and the emptying of my mind. It was that exact moment I was able to see everything around me and pull myself from beneath the water to safety. Another time it was fishing for salmon in the Coast Mountains of BC as a teenager at 5 in the morning with bald eagles. It was heaven indeed and the wait rewarded me with a 60lb Chinook Salmon. Another time, later in life when I was going through a rough patch, I was working in Toronto at the time. I was attracted to this Old beat up base in at the Saturday morning Goodwill auction. So I purchased it for fifty bucks as a project. This old base had a broken neck and was covered in sheet metal and screws from the head to the base. Someone had made an art project of this old base to show modernity and industrialization's effect on the the preceding era. I worked on this base for upwards of 40 hours, sanding, and gluing doweling into the screw holes, re-staining and varnishing it piece by piece. By the end I had restored it to an appraised value of 1500.00. I was revitalized by working with my hands on that old bass. In many ways the repairs I was making were to my own psyche and emotional stature. In completing that base I did not realize I was in fact making repairs to my neural networks, building up my amygdala, and even changing the way my brain works!
When I meditate I often add visual imagery and imagine safe and beautiful places or places I have visited. I look and think about details in those environments--things I may feel, hear, touch, taste and see. In these states of consciousness the mind begins to break down binary opposites, bicameral thinking. One begins to viscerally experience the connections of their own consciousness to the minds own thoughts feelings and physical experiences. In this space the mind is able to reconcile conflicts through recognizing new connections. We then begin to experience how interconnected we are as a single human being to other people, our environment and its health, as also to the globe. With this inner connection we may then discover new values and longings for meaningful connection with others and our vulnerable planet.
The benefits are measurable. These include increased performance, more focus and concentration. Many who use meditation say that it gives them an almost superhuman ability to speed up their physical healing and often report that they have an increased tolerance and ability to manage pain. The benefits can be measured in all aspects of our health: physical, mental, emotionally and spiritually. One especially noticeable benefit is how it will also empower you to recognize things in your environment that cause stress, enabling you to take action to move yourself into calmer spaces. This of course enhances your interpersonal skills and relationships with others as calmer and more conscious self is a happier self.
When we are mindful of our stress responses we can take action and break the freeze, fight or flight cycle and the resulting hyper-arousal state that is triggered by stimuli in our environment. We can then take control of the amount of cortisol and adrenaline that is released into our system, which wreaks havoc on our metabolism and brain, and plays a role in the addiction cycle. This results in a calmer disposition, better decision-making as a result of a calmer limbic system and an activated neocortex. The result is a better lifestyle as a net result.
Research into the effects of meditation on the brain has shown that trauma survivors can build up their amygdala the minds emotional regulator through the practice of these therapeutic exercises. The practice of mindfulness can help one to regain their function by assisting them to define emotional boundaries and assist in regulating our emotions. When we become conscious of relationships that affect us in a negative manner we may then move ourselves away from them or then respond to them in a way that promotes wellness. I find that in my own interactions, with the practice of these exercises, a calm and relaxed state has become reflexive. I am able to enter in to this state is situations where previously I had experienced a mild stress response.
Performers, high-level athletes and those in high stress occupations can attest to their use of such exercises to enhance performance. Find some time to practice mindfulness this week. There are many good resources on the internet for guided imagery and progressive relaxation. Find out one that works for you and begin your journey towards a more well you today! As you become more practiced in the art of mindfulness you will also find that there are many activities which will enhance your mindful awareness and also many activities which you can add to your lifestyle. Some of these include: fishing, reading, playing a musical instrument, walking in nature, doing puzzles, cooking, and having tea with someone special. Other more adventurous ways of incorporating a little more Zen in your day include, going on a spontaneous hike to an unknown destination, camping, or evening riding your motorcycle. Even lighting a campfire in the backyard (city bylaws permitting) can help you increase your Zen moments. The possibilities are endless! I look forward to meeting the more mindful you in the future and hearing about how discovering your Zen is working for you!