One of the benefits of undertaking a mindfulness practice is we get the opportunity to notice how we give ourselves a hard time. This can take the form of aversion, self hate, negative self judgment that are often revealed in the thoughts that we have about ourselves and the emotions that accompany them. This kind of mental activity may be flying under your radar depending on how well you know the inner topography of your being.
This kind of mental traffic and commentary is often habitual and may have been hatched in our minds a long time ago. In my case, I can recall many beliefs and opinions that were formed as a teenager that are no longer relevant for today and yet, they often can surface and create havoc with my wellbeing. It can be quite valuable to take some time to listen and get to know this inner dialogue and to make a choice to stop beating yourself up. Through this effort, you can develop some compassion for yourself.
Rather than trying to get rid of the thinking, it might be interesting to try to pay attention to something else in our experience. In a formal mindfulness practice, we often use our breath to anchor us in the moment and to work on seeing ourselves as much larger than our thoughts.
If this doesn’t work for you, try changing your perception of aversion for the self. Consider that there may be some truth in what we perceive as “less” if the standards we are holding ourselves up to are ideal. No one is perfect and part of the challenge is to give up striving for an ideal that is impossible for anyone to achieve. Regardless of who we are, we all have our strengths and our “blemishes” and It is not a reason to give up or to stop pursuing what is meaningful for you.
You may have heard of the link between stress and various health challenges such as cardiovascular disease and immunity. However, there has been little research to show how stress actually gets “under the skin” and the mechanisms by which it influences aging.
Two researchers from the University of California, Elissa Epel, and Elizabeth Blackburn, have conducted research that shows that high levels of stress, both real and perceived, seems to influence the rate at which we age biologically at a cellular level. The study suggests that stress impacts cell structure in a way that promotes cellular aging. If you are interested in how this happens, read on….
Let’s talk about cellular structure first. We know that the human body is made up of trillions of cells. The nucleus of the cell contains our chromosomes which hold the DNA genetic information needed for cells to divide and remain healthy. If you think of a chromosome as being in the shape of a shoelace, there is a special structure of DNA at the end of the lace that is called telomeric DNA and, as we age, it deteriorates and shortens, not unlike the deterioration of a shoelace at its ends. In order for the cell to remain healthy, this telomeric DNA needs to stay intact. The research suggests that stress increases the rate of telomeric DNA shortening which compromises the ability of a cell to divide and remain healthy. Eventually the cell will no longer divide after there is sufficient shortening of the telomeric DNA.
One other interesting biological note. Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the researchers mentioned above, won a Nobel Prize a few years ago for discovering an enzyme that that circulates in our blood that helps to add back this DNA to the end of the chromosome. In other words, it repairs DNA structure. The enzyme was named telomerase. Interesting enough, the research showed that there was less of this enzyme present in individuals who were under high stress.
The implications of this research are potentially significant. We may want to pay more attention to the stress in our lives and find ways to relate to it with greater intelligence and understanding.
If you are interested in reading the research paper, here is the link http://www.pnas.org/content/101/49/17312.full.pdfSimilarYou
In a recent book published, “Just One Thing” by Rick Hanson, he has a number of mindful suggestions that I found worthwhile.
Here is one…..Be on your side!
Be on your side is a call to be your own best friend. Recall a time where you were a friend for another where you offered support, concern, warmth among other qualities. Consider that you could direct these energies towards you – be on your side. What would that feel like?
Be on your side does not mean to be against others. Rather, it is a call to remember to consider yourself along with others. As you go about your day, does it feel like you are always considering others’ needs including those of children, friends, colleagues and loved ones. Perhaps you are forgetting to consider yourself and what is needed for your wellbeing. Be on your side calls for us to find some balance between your needs and others.
Be on your side means feeling safe to articulate your needs without undue anxiety. It assumes reciprocality in relationships as well as interdependence and mutual respect.
An important question now — how to be on your side?
Here are some suggestions….
At any time during your day, ask yourself “Am I on my side now?” or “Am I looking out for what is important to me?”
You could also ask yourself: “Being on my side, what would be the best thing to do now?”
Try imagining the experience of support in your body. If you are sitting right now, pay attention to the points of contact between you and the chair and feeling the support from the chair.
Imagine your best friend and a recent incidence where you were a friend for that person. Perhaps you offered support, concern or warmth, or maybe all three. Now imagine that you can give that same energy to yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to experience it in your body. You can even think of your feet, legs, pelvis, abdomen, arms and face and simply rest in the felt sense.
Overall, to be on your side, is to care about yourself, your experience, and to value being treated with kindness, compassion and respect.
Over the last several years, there is an increasing amount of research that points to brain neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the changes in the brain, both in structure and function, as a result of experience.
In 2009, a study that looked at the practice of mindfulness and the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for reacting to and appraising perceived threats. In class, I like to use the analogy of a fire alarm to explain how the amygdala functions. If stress is perceived, the amygdala sounds the alarm so that our bodies release hormones to help us cope with the threat.
The researchers found that, after training in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, the amygdala had become thinner and the degree of thinning was related to the changes in perceived stress. These findings point to, as I like to say, “less pulling of the fire alarm”.
I wanted to report on some research that I was alerted to in the most recent revised copy of Full Catastrophe Living.
The first paragraph of the article from the prestigious science magazine SCIENCE, captures the curiosity of the authors of the research.
Here is how it reads:
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now”. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?
It is with this question in mind that the authors of the study developed a web application for the iPhone which made it possible to collect data from a large number of people on real time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions as people went about their lives.
It turned out that data was collected randomly from 2,250 adults in the USA. The application contacted participants randomly during waking hours and asked three questions including:
- How are you feeling right now?
- What are you doing right now?
- Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?
Here are some of the interesting findings.
Mind wandering was reported in 46.9 percent of the sample responses.
A regression analysis revealed that people were less happy when there minds were wandering than when they were not.
What people were thinking was a better predictor of happiness rather than what they were doing.
I found these results to be extremely interesting. In my teaching of meditation and yoga, I am always encouraging the participants to recognize their wandering minds and to return their attention to the object of practice, whether it is breathing and/or body sensations. This is the essence of a mindfulness practice.
What is your experience?