Maintaining the “Beginner’s Mind” in Mindfulness Meditation Practice

“IN THE BEGINNER’S MIND THERE ARE MANY POSSIBILITIES, IN THE EXPERT’S MIND THERE ARE FEW.”

~ Shunryu Suzuki 

As you advance your meditation practice, there is an important concept in Zen Buddhism called the “beginner’s mind” that must be continuously applied. The beginner’s mind is an attitude that is open, non-striving, and free of expectations. For example, let’s say you’ve completed 1000 hours of mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness meditation, you are consciously building awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations with full acceptance of the current experience. After many years of practice, you soon get to know your thought patterns and emotional responses very well. You eventually come to intimately understanding of how your body reacts to different circumstances. You also find that even though the instructions for practicing mindfulness meditation involve an attitude of not attempting to change your emotional experience, that it usually does anyways, in a positive direction.

Maintaining a beginner’s mind means that even if you are doing your 1001th mindfulness meditation practice, you resist saying “these thoughts and emotions are going to occur, because that’s what has happened the last 1000 practices.” You must welcome the idea that ANYTHING can pop up in your mind sphere. You must acknowledge that your thought patterns and emotional responses can change over time, since our brains are plastic (and not so ironically, meditation changes the brain too). You also must remember to not expect a certain effect (e.g. distress reduction), even it provided you with this the last 1000 times, because mindfulness meditation is inherently about accepting what is.

Without application of this attitude, advanced practitioners may find hindrance in their practice by: (1) intentionally thinking and feeling certain things only because it is expected, rather than to investigate what is actually occurring, and (2) feeling disappointed when a mindfulness practice doesn’t provide emotional relief. Thus, the beginners mind must be maintained to truly advance and deepen your meditation practice.

Eating Disorders, Mind-Body Interventions, and Body Positivity: On Healing the Self and Society

EATING DISORDER OVERVIEW

Eating disorders are on the rise in the majority of industrialized nations, having among the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses. There are three main types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. These disorders share a common characteristics: an extreme fear of weight gain, intense disturbance with body self-perceptions, and negative relationships with food. The distinguishing factor between each disorder lies in how one copes with these neuroses; in anorexia nervosa, one engages in intense food restriction. Meanwhile, bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory purging (i.e. self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, fasting, and/ or excessive exercise). Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of binging without compensatory behaviors. Binge episodes are typically used to alleviate feelings of emotional distress.

While statistics report that eating disorders affect approximately 1-3% of the population, this represents an underestimation as these studies do not account for those undiagnosed and untreated. Moreover, a large proportion of the population (the majority being women and trans folk), still suffer from eating disorder symptoms at a subclinical threshold, even if they do not fully express clinical behaviors. Full recovery rates of documented cases are dismal at approximately 50% with many patients experiencing relapse. Thus, there is certainly a pressing need for more research and rapid clinical application to better assist existing patients and subclinical persons at risk, through their recovery.

MIND-BODY INTERVENTIONS

Mind-body interventions such as Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation have been of increasing interest to mental health professionals. Both of these interventions share a common thread of their ability to aid in distress tolerance and emotion-regulation while improving body awareness– features that are impaired in those with eating disorders. For instance, recent neuroimaging studies have found that patients with eating disorders tend to have dysfunction in a brain area called the insula, which allows one to feel internal body signals such as pain, temperature, itch, tickle, muscle tension, hunger, stomach pH, and intestinal tension. Furthermore, many eating disorder patients face co-morbid affect disorders and emotion-regulation deficits such as maladaptive anxiety, depression, and intense shame.

With promise, mind-body interventions may work to combat these neural dysfunctions. Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation have been shown to improve insula functioning, through practice of listening to internal body signals and thus re-establishing clear communication between the body and mind. Furthermore, Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can help tolerate and alleviate negative emotional states which can contribute to binging episodes. While studies on Hatha yoga are in their infancy, a recent array of mindfulness studies have shown promising effects for decreasing eating disorder symptoms. Mindfulness interventions that involve mindful eating components have been revealed to be the most beneficial for healing relationships with food by method of de-conditioning negative emotional responses to food consumption. Taken together, mindfulness meditation is recognized as an efficacious conjunctive treatment to eating disorders. Please see the meditation tab for a mindful body scan and mindful eating guide.

CULTIVATING A BODY POSITIVE SOCIETY 

Healing our relationships with food and our bodes is an important step in fighting eating disorders. However, this fight must not be disconnected from the sociocultural systems which strategically create this suffering for monetary profit. The fashion, diet, weight loss, and some exercise industries all cooperate in creating intense fears of weight gain and toxic ideologies of how we relate to food and our bodies, just so they can sell us “cures,” that quite frankly, do not work. It’s time to take a stand against these systems of oppression. Join in the body-positivity movement, where we work to create societies free of body shame and objectification. How? Start with your own social sphere: be mindful of your speech to avoid triggering someone with an eating disorder and/ or negative past histories. Here’s a quick guide how:

  1. RESPECT EVERYONE’S GENDER. Use appropriate names and pronouns. Respect style and dress.
  2. DO NOT COMMENT ON BODIES. There is a lot more to a person beyond the body they live in. Never criticize or shame a person’s body. Do not attach positive or negative connotations to certain body features. Be aware of weight biases (the false belief that fat individuals are undisciplined and lazy). Reserve compliments to style choices rather than body features.
  3. AVOID DIET AND WEIGHT TALK. Do not add to the obsessive diet and weight culture. Seek other ways to bond!
  4. KEEP YOUR HEALTH CONCERNS TO YOURSELF. Contrary to popular belief, studies show that self- and other health concern shaming is not helpful for changing health behaviors. If you want to help someone, focus on supporting them emotionally. Lastly, acknowledge that content of food consumed primarily depends on social class and accessibility; check yourself before making any potentially classist comments.
  5. YOUR BODY. YOUR RULES. Respect people’s sexual orientation, relationship orientation, diet, gender, style, and dress.

Let’s work together to heal ourselves and at the same time, create a more body-positive social environment.

References:

American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition Text Revision. Washington, DC: APA Press.

American Psychiatric Association (2006). Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Eating Disorders Third Edition. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Carei, T. R., Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Breuner, C. C., & Brown, M. A. (2010). Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 346-351.

Forbes, B. (2011). Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Help Relieve Anxiety and Depression. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Kaye, W. (2008). Neurobiology of anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Physiology & Behavior, 94(1), 121-135.

Kaye, W. H., Fudge, J. L., & Paulus, M. (2009). New insights into symptoms and neurocircuit function of anorexia nervosa. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(8), 573-584.

Kim, K. R., Ku, J., Lee, J. H., Lee, H., & Jung, Y. C. (2012). Functional and effective connectivity of anterior insula in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Neuroscience Letters, 521(2), 152-157.

Kristeller, J. L., Baer, R. A., & Quillian-Wolever, R. (2006). Mindfulness-based approaches to eating disorders. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications, 75-91.

O’Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt‐Metz, D., & Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness‐based interventions for obesity‐related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15(6), 453-461.

…And THANK YOU to all the amazing community members who participated in a series of focus groups by which I was able to create a guideline for mindful, body positive speech.

Silent Meditation Retreats are NOT Relaxing, but They’re Something Better

GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF

Recently I underwent a 7-day silent meditation retreat in my own home. I carefully planned the week to involve one yoga session, four mindfulness meditation sits, three mindful meals, and two mindful walks per day. I refrained myself from all communication and technology.

In the context of silence, time, and space, you get the chance to observe a 360 view of all your brain processes. You get to dive deep into a conglomerate of unconscious brain networks by which you work upon everyday, without even knowing it. You get to see all of your thought patterns, corresponding emotional responses, and all of the memories (even ones from early childhood!) that created them. By this, I could now see how silly the notion was of “finding yourself through travel (i.e. a constant barrage of novel and distracting stimuli,” when in reality all you have to do is close your eyes. The combined concoction of restricting stimulation and engaging in mindful meditation for a prolonged period is the key to understanding who you are. And in the process, you get to see aspects of yourself have been helping you, and the ones that have been holding you back.

THE DE-CONDITIONING OF CHRONIC MICROTRAUMAS

Negative emotional experiences left unprocessed overtime eventually take a toll on your mental health. I view it like a repetitive strain injury; just like how continuous small traumas to connective tissue can lead to chronic pain and muskoloskeletal injuries, unprocessed emotions from repeated negative events can lead to mental illness. Here lies the gap in trauma psychotherapy. While many psychotherapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing work to de-condition the emotional response to one highly traumatic, adversive event, little therapeutic modalities are offered which work to de-conditon emotional responses to many, smaller scale microtraumas.

This is where silent mindfulness meditation retreats come in to play. Silent mindfulness meditation retreats have a way of unearthing a multitude of negative memories and emotional responses to them. When you practice, you allow your body to meet and greet the past traumas/ microtraumas and de-condition their adversive emotional power through the power of mindful breath and body awareness. Memories of the similar content usually present themselves one after another; in this way, you get to address all of them at once.

For myself, a person living with chronic mental illness, this process was extremely intense. Reliving all of the crappy parts of your life in one week is not a fun undertaking. However, through this process I was able to work through many difficult and destructive thought and emotion patterns of which I once felt that I could never overcome. I had a renewed sense of energy that could run free after all of the negative mental fog was lessened. While I still live with mental illness, the power it has over me has decreased.

*Here I’d like to caution that if you have a severe psychiatric illness, it is generally not recommended that you do a prolonged meditation retreat without professional supervision, as they can be overwhelming and counterproductive. As with my case,  I have had professional training in meditation prior to the retreat. Current research is still parsing out how to safely tailor meditation programs to those with severe psychiatric illnesses.

THE CAKE IS A LIE, BUT YOU EVENTUALLY REALIZE YOU DON’T NEED CAKE

A lot of people have this notion that the meaning of meditation retreats are to guide you to an enlightened, thoughtless state of ultimate bliss and happiness. I did NOT get here. But… *drum roll* I don’t CARE. From this retreat, I did not attain unwaivering inner peace. Not even close. Rather, I attained the realization that emotions are okay. I learned how to ride and embrace intense waves of emotion. And I learned that while anger, fear, shame, and sadness are crappy, they eventually dissolve and collapse. Similarly, I learned that while happiness is nice, it is just as fleeting. I learned that clinging to any emotion is a recipe for disappointment. I also learned to not take any thought too seriously, and to even laugh at the presentation of negative ones. I learned the meaning of equanimity in an experiential way.

These were the lessons I truly needed. And I would prefer them over relaxation, inner peace, or popular perceptions of enlightenment any day.

[retreat 1 blog]

Meditation Alters Brain Wave Activity

The brain is an extremely complex organ which communicates via electrical impulses between neurons. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a device which measures the frequency and amplitude of these electrical impulses (i.e. “brain waves”). Studies have shown that meditation practices can induce different EEG states in practitioners.

For instance, one review found that relaxation-based meditations induces a larger proportion of alpha wave (8-12 hz) and theta wave (4-8 hz) activity in the brain, which are characterized by rest.

In addition, yoga nidra practitioners have been shown to induce slow wave delta wave activity (0.5-4 hz) — that is, EEG activity exhibited during deep sleep stages, while paradoxically remaining conscious. Delta waves contain a “down state,” where neurons in the neocortex are silent and able to rest.

Finally, studies have shown that some advanced Buddhist meditators are able to self-induce high frequency gamma waves (25-42 hz) during practice. Gamma wave activity has been associated with heightened perceptual clarity and superior cognitive control of thought and emotional expression.

Why is this important?

As workaholic North Americans, our brains spend a lot of the day producing beta waves, that is characterized by states of heavy information processing. Too much beta wave activity is associated with anxiety, insomnia, anger, and paranoia– it is not surprising that many of us suffer from illnesses related with these states of mind. Thus, meditation breaks can be highly beneficial for controlling differing levels of brain wave frequencies protective of mental illness.

References:

Buchsbaum, M. S., Hazlett, E., Sicotte, N., Stein, M., Wu, J., & Zetin, M. (1985). Topographic EEG changes with benzodiazepine administration in generalized anxiety disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 20(8), 832-842.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 180.

Kjaer, T. W., Bertelsen, C., Piccini, P., Brooks, D., Alving, J., & Lou, H. C. (2002). Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Cognitive Brain Research, 13(2), 255-259.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369-16373.

Moore, N. C. (2000). A review of EEG biofeedback treatment of anxiety disorders. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 31(1), 1-6.

Tang, Y., Li, Y., Wang, J., Tong, S., Li, H., & Yan, J. (2011, August). Induced gamma activity in EEG represents cognitive control during detecting emotional expressions. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, EMBC, 2011 Annual International Conference of the IEEE (pp. 1717-1720).

Anger as a Flame and Not a Forest Fire

Anger is a human emotion that involves physiological responses which can be adaptive for resolving conflict. However, when mishandled, this otherwise normal, healthy response can spiral out of control, causing pathological illness and enormous interpersonal relationship problems. A few ways that anger is mishandled are as follows: (1) Catharsis– research shows that contrary to popular belief, excessive expression of anger, e.g., venting, pillow punching, and being hostile and aggressive, is actually extremely destructive to the health of the individual and those involved. More importantly, this emotion tends to escalate rather than “release,” following cathartic methods. (2) Suppression– letting anger bottle up inside is also a recipe for illness. It can also lead to passive aggressive and antisocial behavior. Both unhealthy and expression and suppression of anger seems to promote hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and mood disorders. So what is to be done?

Research has shown that cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and relaxation techniques are much more adaptive strategies for channeling and coping with angry feelings. Cognitive restructuring involves thinking about the situation differently. This involves using logic, empathy, and wise reasoning to see all sides of the situation. This strategy tends to lead to more problem solving, rather than destructive, aggressive behaviors. Functional and healthy expression of anger comes in the form of self-respect and asserting boundaries in a clear, well-thought out, and confident manner. Lastly, relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and imagery meditation can be used to assist this process by cooling arousal and allowing the individual to act from a more rational and progressive vantage point. So let anger be the candle flame to spark your motivation and drive for social repair; not a forest fire that both suffocates you and destroys the environment around you.

References:

Beck, R., & Fernandez, E. (1998). Cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of anger: A meta-analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 22(1), 63-74.

Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

DiGiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R. C. (2003). Anger Treatment for Adults: A Meta‐Analytic Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(1), 70-84.

Holt, R. R. (1970). On the interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of expressing or not expressing anger.

Lewis, W. A., & Bucher, A. M. (1992). Anger, catharsis, the reformulated frustration-aggression hypothesis, and health consequences. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 29(3), 385.

Warren, R., & Kurlychek, R. T. (1981). Treatment of maladaptive anger and aggression: Catharsis vs behavior therapy. Corrective & Social Psychiatry & Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods & Therapy.

Dismantling the Default to Deal with a Wandering Mind

Research has shown that mind wandering, that is, ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, makes people unhappy. On the other hand, mindfulness, which is attuning to internal and external present moment stimuli with full acceptance and equanimity, is associated with greater subjective well-being and overall quality of life. The “default mode network,” which is comprised of several midline structures of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus), is highly active during mind wandering, and studies suggest that its hyper-functionality may be implicated in psychiatric disorders associated with maladaptive anxiety, major depression, attention deficits, and mild cognitive impairment. However, studies show that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network while strengthening connections of various attention circuits. These findings suggest that mindfulness may improve attentional abilities and help individuals disengage from irrelevant distractions in their daily life, and that this may have downstream implications for preventing and treating psychiatric disorders affiliated with mind wandering.

References:

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 38.

Froeliger, B., Garland, E. L., Kozink, R. V., Modlin, L. A., Chen, N. K., McClernon, F. J., … & Sobin, P. (2012). Meditation-state functional connectivity (msFC): strengthening of the dorsal attention network and beyond. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

The Brains of Meditators

There appears to be distinct differences between the brain structures of expert meditators vs. non-meditators. A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies found that when compared to with meditation naive individuals,  meditators showed greater grey matter volumes in areas associated with meta-cognition (Brodmann areas 9/10 of the frontopolar cortex), executive control (dorsolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex), body awareness (sensory cortices and the insula), memory consolidation (hippocampus), and emotion-regulation and empathy (ventromedial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex). These findings are interesting in providing a possibility of meditation effects on altering brain structures. However, it should be noted that most studies were cross-sectional and thus cannot infer causality; it may be possible that those with greater integrity in these brain areas were drawn to meditation practices in the first place. Nevertheless, hopefully more experimental studies will give us a greater idea of the directionality of these fascinating findings.

References:

Fox, K. C., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L., Floman, J. L., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S. P., … & Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 48-73.