Prof Richard Davidson on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation.

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Here is the link to an OnBeing podcast interview with neuroscientist Prof Richard Davidson. He has worked on the plasticity of the brain and the positive effects of meditation. Davidson talks here with Krista Tippett about how mind, body and emotions are more closely integrated than we conventionally understand them. He also refers to research showing a human predisposition towards kindness.

My Buddhist colleagues and I have been talking about these issues in relation to our various meditation programmes – Mindfulness, Buddhist and Christian meditation – that we offer each week.

There is more discussion of research studies in the  long unedited version of the interview, which is not the one with the transcript.

Full link

 

 

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Mindfulness/Bodyfulness

cropped-p1000688.jpgAfter many years of running weekly mindfulness sessions I keep being struck by how little the mind features in ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is mostly a ‘return to the body’. The mind is notoriously elusive concept in philosophical and scientific language.

In the Chaplaincy we start each Mindfulness session with some simple stretching exercises to help people physically settle after a morning’s work. Today my colleague asked the group if there were any particular exercises that they wanted to do. One person asked for something for neck ache. This elicited the disclosure of neck and back ache throughout the room. Not a surprise I guess from a group of people in academia sitting at pc’s all day every day.

The comments reminded me of Bessel van der Kolk’s argument that most of us can do more to befriend our bodies. Here are some quotes from Bessel’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma’.

“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.”

“Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.”

“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”

“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

I used to be a human being too.

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“An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

By

Here is a very long read by Andrew Sullivan.  He starts by describing how he detoxed from constant digital activity and distraction. Things had got serious (the full url for the article  is “technology nearly killed me”).

Sullivan describes learning to meditate and use mindfulness. He gives a good description of the process of slowing down and moving away from his frenetic online life. I think this will resonate with many of us. It is something we have conversations about in chaplaincy work with students and staff.

What surprised me, coming after this description of Mindfulness, was  his complaint about the lack of silence in contemporary Christian worship. Fair point. If you are interested in Christian mediation and contemplation keep going to the end!

This is a good long reflection on what silence, presence and connection could mean in the digital age.

The article first appeared in the New Yorker Magazine on 18th September 2016.

Not one but two Buddhist colleagues?

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Here is an article I have written for  ‘Kalyana Mitra – Caring for others through Spiritual Friendship’,  the newsletter of The Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group.

The Church of England Chaplain at Imperial College, Andrew Willson, talks about Higher Education Chaplaincy and working with two Buddhist colleagues.
In the Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre at Imperial we have four key areas to our work. The first is the multi-faith approach – using the Centre as a place where students of different faiths can practice their religion.
The second area is pastoral care. Sometimes this relates to a person’s religious life, but often it does not. The third area is interfaith – promoting better understanding and co-operation between people from different religious groups. The fourth area is offering opportunities to reflect on meanings and values arising from studies or work. For example, supporting medical ethics teaching, facilitating staff and students to share together their motivations and inspiration as civil engineers, or reflecting with animal care technicians about the stresses of their work in bio-medical research. In reality these four key areas all overlap!
For me, working with chaplains from religions different to my own has been the best way to do chaplaincy in education. Collaborative work between Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh, Christian and Muslim colleagues demonstrates our commitment to interfaith co-operation and dialogue in our own lives.
For the last 6 years at Imperial we have used our budget to employ part-time chaplains who have a generic role serving anyone who comes to the Chaplaincy, as well as those from their own faith tradition. We have had Hindu and Lutheran chaplains, who have supported Chaplaincy in the four key areas. A year ago we invited Karuna Priya, our volunteer Buddhist Chaplain, take on a paid role as a generic chaplain in this way, as well as continuing to support the Buddhist communities at Imperial.
Sixteen months ago Hogetsu Baerndal came from ‘Kalyana Mitra’ for a voluntary placement to learn about HE Chaplaincy. My Lutheran colleague, Rikke Juul, and I were already running a non-religious mindfulness group. When she returned to Denmark we were able to employ Hogetsu for one day a week to lead our mindfulness work. As a trained Zen Mindfulness teacher, Hogetsu strengthened our mindfulness programme. Given the great interest in mindfulness in Higher Education we are in a good position. Together we offer a mindfulness programme that includes introductory sessions, workshops, and a weekly group. We also offer Buddhist and Christian meditation. I sense that staff and students like seeing people from different religions working together. It demonstrates that both sides respect each other, and that creates a safe, respectful space for others to enter.
Working closely with my Buddhist colleagues has energised my own Christian meditation practice. It has sent me back to the sources of my own contemplative tradition, especially to read those Christians who have a deep understanding of Buddhism, like Thomas Merton, Anthony De Mello, and James Finlay. Buddhism has helped me see the integration of mind, body and spirit that is deep in the tradition of Christian prayer and meditation. And that only deepens my understanding of Jesus and his teaching.

Knowing the ways of silence

A conversation at the European Chaplains’ Conference sent me back to reading RS Thomas the Welsh poet and Anglican priest. Here is one of his poems that caught my eye during this month of seeking silence in daily life.

(The blog program wont let me use tabs and spacings to give the original line layout – which has some unusual gaps – hints at silence maybe?)

The Presence by RS Thomas

I pray and incur
silence.Some take that silence
for refusal.
I feel the power
that,invisible,catches me
by the sleeve,nudging
towards the long shelf
that has the book on it I will take down
and read and find the antidote
to an ailment.

I know its ways with me ;
how it enters my life,
is present rather
before I perceive it, sunlight quivering
on a bare wall.
Is it consciousness trying
to get through ?
Am I under
regard ?
It takes me seconds
to focus, by which time
it has shifted its gaze,
looking a little to one
side, as though I were not here.

It has the universe
to be abroad in.
There is nothing I can do
but fill myself with my own
silence, hoping it will approach
like a wild creature to drink
there, or perhaps like Narcissus
to linger a moment over its transparent face.

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Seeking Silence – round up after 10 days

Some observations after the ten days of intentionally seeking silence – in no particular order.

I’ve not found any pure outer silence – there are always noises. Not a surprise. Waking in the night at a weekend is the most silent the city can be  – but with the occasional passing cabs and the clickety click of suitcase wheels of the night time travelers.

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With no outer silence there can be inner silence doing everyday tasks, like washing up.

Yet inner silence in during daily activities does need some structured times of meditation or prayer.

Saying the short formal daily prayers of the church has become a way into silence – pleased that reading, and speaking out loud can create an inner silence.

I am shocked to find how frantically busy  I can become without noticing. I catch myself thinking ‘I ll do this, and then I can do that,and that, and after that I will clean this,email them and return that call.’

So, why am I hurrying? Will shaving 100th of a second off washing this plate really make a difference to the time it takes to clear the kitchen?!’

Inner silence is always there – to be returned to.

It is sometimes easier to have a cup of tea and sit doing nothing as a way into a structured time of meditation – by the time the tea has cooled I might just have got used to the idea that of being still and silent.

I was very glad that during a mindfulness day conference in Oxford there were short one minute silences between the different topics in our small group discussions. A chance to ‘check in’ and notice sensations, feelings and thoughts after one discussion and before the next – it seemed to help with moving between listening and sharing.

That’s all for now. Thanks for your comments and personal reflections, interesting things to hear about.

Christian Spirituality and Mindfullness

For a  year I shared the the weekly silence at the Royal College of Art with Aloka my Buddhist colleague. This was back in 2010-11. Since then I have been struck by the connections and differences between mindfulness and Christian meditation.

From the moment I first encountered mindfulness meditation practice I had a strong sense that  ‘this is familiar, I know this!’

Something similar to Mindfulness to be found in the ‘Centering Prayer’ of  John Main and the ‘World Community for Christian Meditation’Copy of DSCN4275 of Laurence Freeman. Both of these teachers were building on their monastic patterns of prayer. And there is also something in mindfulness of what Christians have called the ‘practice of the presence of God’ or sometimes ‘the practice of the present moment’.

Another connection is around ‘self-acceptance’. In Mindfulness we know that our minds will wander. The leader of the meditation often says that when we realise that our mind has wandered we could ‘simply and gently without any self -judgement return our attention back to observing our  breathing’. This learning of self-acceptance is also part of the Christian tradition of Ignatius and his daily review.

So, there is a long tradition in Christian meditative prayer that knowing oneself is a place of encounter with God – God meets us where we actually are. Clearly the belief frameworks that go with Mindfulness or Christian meditation are different. Yet, some of the actually experiences are very similar.

The other connection I can see is with Anthony De Mello’s  ‘Awareness’  – a book that came out in 1990. De Mello was a  Christian and a Jesuit priest from India who was very familiar with Hinduism and Buddhism. He was also a psychotherapist.

And now  my Buddhist and Hindu colleagues – Karuna and Sachi- tell me that Mindfulness and Awareness are both acceptable translations of the Sanskrit word ‘smriti’.

Which leads me to the Christian tradition of the ‘Prayer of the heart’ – which is certainly an invitation to move attention or ‘awareness’ from the mind into the body. But more on this, and Henri Nouwen’s writing about it, another time.

Mindfulness – the Chaplaincy story

Here is a much longer post than usual. It is an article that I have just written for ‘Felix’ the Imperial College Union’s weekly newspaper. It is both the story of how Chaplaincy started offering Mindfulness Meditation and a short – and simplistic!- explanation of the science behind  Mindfulness. The image is from last summer’s trip to MIT.

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 “I’m an atheist and I’m interested in meditation.” Last year I had a number of conversations with people who all began with this comment. It is too small a sample from which to interpret the changing nature of atheism or if there is an increasing interest in meditation. (And anyway all of these comments may have arisen from the realisation ‘OMG, it’s the vicar, quick what can I talk about?’)

But these conversations did get me thinking. Meditation is part of my religious experience. But I know that Buddhists and some Quakers practice meditation but describe themselves as atheists. I had learnt about Buddhist meditation from sharing a weekly time of silence at the Royal College of Art with a Buddhist monk. From him I had learnt of ‘mindfulness’. He used it to describe the practice of paying conscious attention to sensory, cognitive and emotional experience. The technique was to become aware, or ‘mindful’, of sensations or feelings but without getting caught up in them.

With all this ‘in mind’ I came across the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, Profesor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn had noticed positive results in clinical trials using mindfulness meditation with patients suffering from depression. Professor Mark Williams, a psychiatrist at Oxford University, used this research to develop a mindfulness meditation for stress reduction and to improve mental well-being.

This seemed to be the kind of meditation that has an evidence base and does not require a religious belief. It also promoted emotional health. Recent research in psychology has demonstrated the two-way links between our emotions and our bodies. For example, if we feel sad our bodies will reflect that sadness in the way we walk and sit. Conversely, if we are not feeling sad but adopt a sad, slumped, posture we will then very quickly start to feel sad.

Kabat-Zinn and others also used MRI scans to show that upsetting emotions can be seen clearly in the right pre-frontal cortex. Positive emotions on the other hand show up more clearly in the left pre-frontal cortex. The ratio of electrical activity between one side of the pre-frontal cortex gives a picture of a person’s emotional state. Kabat-Zinn explored this in relation to mindfulness meditation. He taught a group of bio-tech workers the meditation practice. After eight weeks of meditation practice the participants became more energised and less prone to low mood. It was also found that this state was maintained even when participants were reminded of memories and music that were linked to sad personal memories. It appeared that with meditation training people were able to accept the negative personal memories but without being overwhelmed by them. The other outcome was that the participants also developed measurably stronger immune systems.

This evidence based approach to meditation seemed like a good response to those who wanted to learn meditation but who did not want a religious practice. Using Mark Williams’ book as a basis the Chaplaincy started offering mindfulness meditation in October. Over two terms we have found that this is something that people find helpful in the realities of daily life. This includes those with philosophical world view (atheism, humanism, materialism) and those with a traditional or personal religious world view.

The simplest way to describe mindfulness is through a simple exercise. Raise one arm above your head. Close your eyes. Slowly lower your arm. As your arm descends track the different sensations that occur. You might be able to notice what you are thinking, or the emotions you are feeling. So a short 3-5 minute mediation lets us notice the range of our personal sensory, cognitive and emotional data. So you might notice ‘eyes feeling tired from a day in front a screen, niggling anxiety about unfinished tasks, trying to remember if there is anything in the fridge for dinner, and an anticipation about…’). It is important not to judge the data – it is just what is being thought, sense and felt at this moment. There is a positive element of self-acceptance that comes with practice. And there is the sense of calm.

This is the season in the university for increased stress and anxiety. Small amounts of meditation practice can make a difference – and by this I mean 5-10 minutes daily. It is described as a practice – for good reason. But it does not take long to start showing benefits.

 Whatever your worldview ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ takes place in the Chaplaincy Centre in Beit Quad every Tuesday 1-1:45pm.  For those wanting a particular religious framework for meditation we have Buddhist and Christian meditation each week, and we can link you up with someone to talk about Hindu meditation.

On Thursday 9th May join us for ‘How to be Mindful in a Digital Age’ a talk by the Venerable Narayan Prasad Rijal, a Buddhist teacher who is also a lecturer in Physics at Tribhuvan University, Nepal. This event is being hosted by students from the Buddhist meditation group and by the Chaplaincy from 7-8pm in the Pippard Lecture Theatre, followed by discussion and refreshments. More details of all events www.imperial.ac.uk/chaplaincy