Tag Archives: mindfulness

Chao Em, Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I’m grateful for revolutionary peace advocate and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.  His book on Love broadened and deepened my perspective more than any other writing on the subject.  I’m currently reading Peace is Every Step for my Mindfulness in Psychology class, and it’s an absolute joy – if you ever feel a bit overwhelmed, and need a book that will simplify what matters in life, this is a goodie.

Hanh has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to bring teachings of mindfulness, engaged Buddhism, and (as far as I’m concerned) the logic of living in peace everywhere he goes.  Chao em, to a true living guru.

Ram Dass interviews Thich Nhat Hanh

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Brownsville Collegiate Fifth Graders . . .

Thank you, darlings, for testing my mindfulness training (and patience) to a degree I forgot was possible!

Outdoor yoga session + blustery frenetic winds + mats flying everywhere + ten year old energies + I don’ t know any of their names + more kids than mats + no supervision + my voice not containing an internal bull horn = EPIC FAIL of an hour.

When I’ve worked with large groups of kids in a yoga class before, I’ve had time to build trust and respect, to develop behavior techniques, to whet their interest in yoga as a practice that serves their health and happiness.  But yesterday was all about gettin’ your cojones out, no time for any of that other stuff.  And, to be honest,  I have a hard time navigating teaching yoga with cojones swinging in the spring time gust (wonderful imagery, I know!).

So I observed that, didn’t judge it, let it go, learned a lesson, and visualized a more successful next time.  Which is tomorrow.  Dear Jah, help me!

Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology

. . . at the New School, baby!

It’s a two-hour psych class I have every Thursday night, involving a brief meditation or mindfulness exercise, didactic presentation, and some discussion.  With only 25 people, we have ample opportunity for lively exchange, though I still feel like I’m re-learning how to be involved in group academia.

The last few weeks we’ve had reading assignments that take me right back to my days as a debater.  Reading such dense field-specific language, it’s interesting to see how my first intellectual instinct is to break every argument apart, piece by piece, identifying holes – and contemplating how to fix them.  My analytical mind’s been hungry!

Of course, I have so little technical experience in psych academia, a lot of it’s just learning what the protocol for experimental research might be.  Once I do that, I may not feel so uneasy with control group definition or consistency in lifestyle variables for these correlative studies.  Not that I require “being sold” on mindfulness meditation.  I know it works (at least for me!) … but to see the process of how it’s become so scientifically accepted and finally a part of the mainstream is fascinating.

The class is really something special, a sweet combination of Buddhist techniques and psychology scholarship.  It took a lot of hoop jumping to get in (especially as a non-degree student), but I’m so grateful I did.

Having a great teacher is also a blessing.  Jonathan Kaplan keeps the material accessible and engaging, sometimes funny, sometimes profound – you can tell he’s passionate about the subject.  And that’s such an inspiration as a student.

If you’re interested in how to live mindfully in a city, check out his book, too.  It’s an absolute joy.

For more . . .

Mindfulness Mahalos

Things can get pretty hectic during this time of year.  Between travel, reconnecting with loved ones, overflowing shopping scenes, cooking, eating and drinking exorbitant amounts of all the special goodies on offer, and the general frenetic emotional landscape of thangs, having a mindfulness practice couldn’t be more crucial.

Mindfulness practice might sound a bit intimidating, or new agey, if you’re not familiar with it, but the practice can be seen as a kind of brain game, or mental gymnastics.  Mindfulness is really the practice of awareness, being conscious in thought, word and action – as a concrete example, practicing mindfulness during the holidays might mean not mindlessly eating until you feel sick (no fun, I know!  ;o)), or it might mean noticing how happy you are as you share in a joke with Grandma.  According to Jon Kabat-Zinn , “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

If you have already explored mindfulness practice, and are looking to make your practice more regular habit, maybe even start practicing on your own, check out this article from Shades Magazine. 

dinnermeditation

Whatever your “level,” mindfulness practice offers a plethora of benefits that can only enhance your holiday experience – stress reduction, improved working memory, less emotional reactivity, greater relationship satisfaction, the list goes on and on (just ask the APA…)

From the American Psychological Association

What are the benefits of mindfulness

A wealth of new research has explored this age-old practice. Here’s a look at its benefits for both clients and psychologists.

By Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD

July 2012, Vol 43, No. 7

Print version: page 64

Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity in the past decade, both in the popular press and in the psychotherapy literature. The practice has moved from a largely obscure Buddhist concept founded about 2,600 years ago to a mainstream psychotherapy construct today.

Advocates of mindfulness would have us believe that virtually every client and therapist would benefit from being more mindful. Among its theorized benefits are self-control, objectivity, affect tolerance, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.

But is mindfulness as good as advertised? This article offers an overview of the research on mindfulness and discusses its implications for practice, research and training.

Mindfulness-MindMap

Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness

The term “mindfulness” has been used to refer to a psychological state of awareness, the practices that promote this awareness, a mode of processing information and a character trait. To be consistent with most of the research reviewed in this article, we define mindfulness as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait. While it might be promoted by certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not equivalent to or synonymous with them.

Several disciplines and practices can cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, but most of the literature has focused on mindfulness that is developed through mindfulness meditation — those self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

Researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.

More specifically, research on mindfulness has identified these benefits:

Reduced rumination. Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.

Stress reduction. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.

Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity as measured by fMRI after watching sad films (Farb et al., 2010). The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress compared with the control group. In addition, the fMRI data indicated that the mindfulness group had less neural reactivity when they were exposed to the films than the control group, and they displayed distinctly different neural responses while watching the films than they did before their mindfulness training. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).

Boosts to working memory. Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds. A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a nonmeditating military group and a group of nonmeditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the nonmeditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among nonmeditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect.

Focus. Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affected participants’ ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).

Less emotional reactivity. Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).

More cognitive flexibility. Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).

Relationship satisfaction. Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser el al., 2008) and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).

Other benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).

The effects of meditation on therapists and therapist trainees

While many studies have been conducted on the benefits of applying mindfulness approaches to psychotherapy clients (for reviews, see Didonna, 2009 and Baer, 2006), research on the effects of mindfulness on psychotherapists is just beginning to emerge. Specifically, research has identified these benefits for psychotherapists who practice mindfulness meditation:

Empathy. Several studies suggest that mindfulness promotes empathy. One study, for example, looked at premedical and medical students who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training. It found that the mindfulness group had significantly higher self-reported empathy than a control group (Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). In 2006, a qualitative study of therapists who were experienced meditators found that they believed that mindfulness meditation helped develop empathy toward clients (Aiken, 2006). Along similar lines, Wang (2007) found that therapists who were experienced mindfulness meditators scored higher on measures of self-reported empathy than therapists who did not meditate.

Compassion. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training has also been found to enhance self-compassion among health-care professionals (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005) and therapist trainees (Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007). In 2009, Kingsbury investigated the role of self-compassion in relation to mindfulness. Two components of mindfulness — nonjudging and nonreacting — were strongly correlated with self-compassion, as were two dimensions of empathy — taking on others’ perspectives (i.e., perspective taking) and reacting to others’ affective experiences with discomfort. Self-compassion fully mediated the relationship between perspective taking and mindfulness.

Counseling skills. Empirical literature demonstrates that including mindfulness interventions in psychotherapy training may help therapists develop skills that make them more effective. In a four-year qualitative study, for example, counseling students who took a 15-week course that included mindfulness meditation reported that mindfulness practice enabled them to be more attentive to the therapy process, more comfortable with silence, and more attuned with themselves and clients (Newsome, Christopher, Dahlen, & Christopher, 2006; Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2008). Counselors in training who have participated in similar mindfulness-based interventions have reported significant increases in self-awareness, insights about their professional identity (Birnbaum, 2008) and overall wellness (Rybak & Russell-Chapin, 1998).

Decreased stress and anxiety. Research found that premedical and medical students reported less anxiety and depressive symptoms after participating in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training compared with a waiting list control group (Shapiro et al., 1998). The control group evidenced similar gains after exposure to mindfulness-based stress reduction training. Similarly, following such training, therapist trainees have reported decreased stress, rumination and negative affect (Shapiro et al., 2007). In addition, when compared with a control group, mindfulness-based stress reduction training has been shown to decrease total mood disturbance, including stress, anxiety and fatigue in medical students (Rosenzweig, Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Hojat, 2003).

Better quality of life. Using qualitative and quantitative measures, nursing students reported better quality of life and a significant decrease in negative psychological symptoms following exposure to mindfulness-based stress reduction training (Bruce, Young, Turner, Vander Wal, & Linden, 2002). Evidence from a study of counselor trainees exposed to interpersonal mindfulness training suggests that such interventions can foster emotional intelligence and social connectedness, and reduce stress and anxiety (Cohen & Miller, 2009).

Similarly, in a study of Chinese college students, those students who were randomly assigned to participate in a mindfulness meditation intervention had lower depression and anxiety, as well as less fatigue, anger and stress-related cortisol compared to a control group (Tang et al., 2007). These same students had greater attention, self-regulation and immunoreactivity. Another study assessed changes in symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among New Orleans mental health workers following an eight-week meditation intervention that began 10 weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Although changes in depression symptoms were not found, PTSD and anxiety symptoms significantly decreased after the intervention (Waelde et al., 2008). The findings suggest that meditation may serve a buffering role for mental health workers in the wake of a disaster.

Other benefits for therapists. To date, only one study has investigated the relationship between mindfulness and counseling self-efficacy. Greason and Cashwell (2009) found that counseling self-efficacy was significantly predicted by self-reported mindfulness among masters-level interns and doctoral counseling students. In that study, attention mediated the relationship between mindfulness and self-efficacy, suggesting that mindfulness may contribute to the development of beneficial attentional processes that aid psychotherapists in training (Greason & Cashwell, 2009). Other potential benefits of mindfulness include increased patience, intentionality, gratitude and body awareness (Rothaupt & Morgan, 2007).

Outcomes of clients whose therapists meditate

While research points to the conclusion that mindfulness meditation offers numerous benefits to therapists and trainees, do these benefits translate to psychotherapy treatment outcomes?

So far, only one study suggests it does. In a study conducted in Germany, randomly assigned counselor trainees who practiced Zen meditation for nine weeks reported higher self-awareness compared with nonmeditating counselor trainees (Grepmair et al., 2007). But more important, after nine weeks of treatment, clients of trainees who meditated displayed greater reductions in overall symptoms, faster rates of change, scored higher on measures of well-being and perceived their treatment to be more effective than clients of nonmeditating trainees.

However, the results of three other studies were not as encouraging. Stanley et al. (2006) studied the relationship between trait mindfulness among 23 doctoral-level clinical psychology trainees in relation to treatment outcomes of 144 adult clients at a community clinic that used manualized, empirically supported treatments. Contrary to expectation, therapist mindfulness was inversely correlated with client outcome.

This is consistent with other findings that suggest an inverse relationship exists between therapists’ mindfulness and client outcomes (Bruce, 2006; Vinca & Hayes, 2007). Other research suggests that no relationship exists between therapist mindfulness and therapy outcome (Stratton, 2006).

What might be behind these results? It could be that “more mindful” people are likely to score lower on self-reports of mindfulness because they are more accurately able to describe their “mindlessness.” Conversely, people who are less mindful may not realize it and therefore may be inclined to rate themselves higher on such measures.

Overall, while the psychological and physical health benefits of mindfulness meditation are strongly supported by research, the ways in which therapists’ mindfulness meditation practice and therapists’ mindfulness translate to measureable outcomes in psychotherapy remain unclear. Future research is needed to examine the relations between therapists’ mindfulness, therapists’ regular mindfulness meditation practice and common factors known to contribute to successful treatment outcomes.

Important next steps in research

Future research holds tremendous potential for learning more about the neurophysiological processes of meditation and the benefits of long-term practice on the brain. Research on neuroplasticity may help explain the relationships among length and quality of meditation practice, developmental stages of meditators and psychotherapy outcomes. More research is needed to better understand how the benefits of meditation practice accumulate over time.

In addition, psychologists and others need to explore other ways to increase mindfulness in addition to meditation. Given that current research does not indicate that therapists’ self-reported mindfulness enhances client outcomes, better measures of mindfulness may need to be developed or different research designs that do not rely on self-report measures need to be used. Garland and Gaylord (2009) have proposed that the next generation of mindfulness research encompass four domains: 1. performance-based measures of mindfulness, as opposed to self-reports of mindfulness; 2. scientific evaluation of notions espoused by Buddhist traditions; 3. neuroimaging technology to verify self-report data; and 4. changes in gene expression as a result of mindfulness. Research along these lines is likely to enhance our understanding of mindfulness and its potential benefits to psychotherapy.

Research is also needed on effective and practical means of teaching therapists mindfulness practices. Future research could investigate ways mindfulness practices and mindfulness meditation could be integrated into trainees’ practicum and clinical supervision. Since mindfulness-based stress reduction has been successfully used with therapist trainees (e.g., Shapiro et al., 2007), the technique may be a simple way for therapists to integrate mindfulness practices into trainees’ practicum class or group supervision. Future research questions could include: Does therapists’ practice of mindfulness meditation in clinical supervision with their supervisees affect the supervisory alliance or relational skills of supervisees? Does practicing formal mindfulness meditation as a group in practicum or internship aid in group cohesion, self-care, relational skills or measurable common factors that contribute to successful psychotherapy?

Given the limited research thus far on empathy, compassion, decreased stress and reactivity, more research is needed on how mindfulness meditation practice affects these constructs and measurable counseling skills in both trainees and therapists. For example, how does mindfulness meditation practice affect empathy and compassion for midcareer or late-career therapists who are experienced at mindfulness?

Shapiro and Carlson (2009) have suggested that mindfulness meditation can also serve psychologists as a means of self-care to prevent burnout. Future research is needed on not only how the practice of mindfulness meditation helps facilitate trainee development and psychotherapy processes, but also how it can help therapists prevent burnout and other detrimental outcomes of work-related stress.

In addition, despite abundant theoretical work on ways to conceptually merge Buddhist and Western psychology to psychotherapy (e.g., Epstein, 2007, 1995), there is a lack of literature on what it looks like in session when a therapist uses mindfulness and Buddhist-oriented approaches to treat specific clinical issues.

In conclusion, mindfulness has the potential to facilitate trainee and therapists’ development, as well as affect change mechanisms known to contribute to successful psychotherapy. The field of psychology could benefit from future research examining cause and effect relationships in addition to mediational models in order to better understand the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation practice.


Daphne M. Davis, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass.

Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD, is a professor of counseling psychology at the Pennsylvania State University department of educational psychology, counseling and special education.

mindfullvsmindful

 From the New York Times

Lotus Therapy

By BENEDICT CAREY

The patient sat with his eyes closed, submerged in the rhythm of his own breathing, and after a while noticed that he was thinking about his troubled relationship with his father.

“I was able to be there, present for the pain,” he said, when the meditation session ended. “To just let it be what it was, without thinking it through.”

The therapist nodded.

“Acceptance is what it was,” he continued. “Just letting it be. Not trying to change anything.”

“That’s it,” the therapist said. “That’s it, and that’s big.”

This exercise in focused awareness and mental catch-and-release of emotions has become perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade. Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad.

For years, psychotherapists have worked to relieve suffering by reframing the content of patients’ thoughts, directly altering behavior or helping people gain insight into the subconscious sources of their despair and anxiety. The promise of mindfulness meditation is that it can help patients endure flash floods of emotion during the therapeutic process — and ultimately alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, where the above group therapy session was taped. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”

At workshops and conferences across the country, students, counselors and psychologists in private practice throng lectures on mindfulness. The National Institutes of Health is financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes.

Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed.

Yet so far, the evidence that mindfulness meditation helps relieve psychiatric symptoms is thin, and in some cases, it may make people worse, some studies suggest. Many researchers now worry that the enthusiasm for Buddhist practice will run so far ahead of the science that this promising psychological tool could turn into another fad.

“I’m very open to the possibility that this approach could be effective, and it certainly should be studied,” said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory. “What concerns me is the hype, the talk about changing the world, this allure of the guru that the field of psychotherapy has a tendency to cultivate.”

Buddhist meditation came to psychotherapy from mainstream academic medicine. In the 1970s, a graduate student in molecular biology, Jon Kabat-Zinn, intrigued by Buddhist ideas, adapted a version of its meditative practice that could be easily learned and studied. It was by design a secular version, extracted like a gemstone from the many-layered foundation of Buddhist teaching, which has sprouted a wide variety of sects and spiritual practices and attracted 350 million adherents worldwide.

In transcendental meditation and other types of meditation, practitioners seek to transcend or “lose” themselves. The goal of mindfulness meditation was different, to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught the practice to people suffering from chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts medical school. In the 1980s he published a series of studies demonstrating that two-hour courses, given once a week for eight weeks, reduced chronic pain more effectively than treatment as usual.

Word spread, discreetly at first. “I think that back then, other researchers had to be very careful when they talked about this, because they didn’t want to be seen as New Age weirdos,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, said in an interview. “So they didn’t call it mindfulness or meditation. “After a while, we put enough studies out there that people became more comfortable with it.”

One person who noticed early on was Marsha Linehan, a psychologist at the University of Washington who was trying to treat deeply troubled patients with histories of suicidal behavior. “Trying to treat these patients with some change-based behavior therapy just made them worse, not better,” Dr. Linehan said in an interview. “With the really hard stuff, you need something else, something that allows people to tolerate these very strong emotions.”

In the 1990s, Dr. Linehan published a series of studies finding that a therapy that incorporated Zen Buddhist mindfulness, “radical acceptance,” practiced by therapist and patient significantly cut the risk of hospitalization and suicide attempts in the high-risk patients.

Finally, in 2000, a group of researchers including Dr. Segal in Toronto, J. Mark G. Williams at the University of Wales and John D. Teasdale at the Medical Research Council in England published a study that found that eight weekly sessions of mindfulness halved the rate of relapse in people with three or more episodes of depression.

With Dr. Kabat-Zinn, they wrote a popular book, “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” Psychotherapists’ curiosity about mindfulness, once tentative, turned into “this feeding frenzy, of sorts, that we have going on now,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn said.

Mindfulness meditation is easy to describe. Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes.

After mastering control of attention, some therapists say, a person can turn, mentally, to face a threatening or troubling thought — about, say, a strained relationship with a parent — and learn simply to endure the anger or sadness and let it pass, without lapsing into rumination or trying to change the feeling, a move that often backfires.

One woman, a doctor who had been in therapy for years to manage bouts of disabling anxiety, recently began seeing Gaea Logan, a therapist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. This patient had plenty to worry about, including a mentally ill child, a divorce and what she described as a “harsh internal voice,” Ms. Logan said.

After practicing mindfulness meditation, she continued to feel anxious at times but told Ms. Logan, “I can stop and observe my feelings and thoughts and have compassion for myself.”

Steven Hayes, a psychologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, has developed a talk therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT, based on a similar, Buddha-like effort to move beyond language to change fundamental psychological processes.

“It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” Dr. Hayes said, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content — and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”

For all these hopeful signs, the science behind mindfulness is in its infancy. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which researches health practices, last year published a comprehensive review of meditation studies, including T.M., Zen and mindfulness practice, for a wide variety of physical and mental problems. The study found that over all, the research was too sketchy to draw conclusions.

A recent review by Canadian researchers, focusing specifically on mindfulness meditation, concluded that it did “not have a reliable effect on depression and anxiety.”

Therapists who incorporate mindfulness practices do not agree when the meditation is most useful, either. Some say Buddhist meditation is most useful for patients with moderate emotional problems. Others, like Dr. Linehan, insist that patients in severe mental distress are the best candidates for mindfulness.

A case in point is mindfulness-based therapy to prevent a relapse into depression. The treatment significantly reduced the risk of relapse in people who have had three or more episodes of depression. But it may have had the opposite effect on people who had one or two previous episodes, two studies suggest.

The mindfulness treatment “may be contraindicated for this group of patients,” S. Helen Ma and Dr. Teasdale of the Medical Research Council concluded in a 2004 study of the therapy.

Since mindfulness meditation may have different effects on different mental struggles, the challenge for its proponents will be to specify where it is most effective — and soon, given how popular the practice is becoming.

The question, said Linda Barnes, an associate professor of family medicine and pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, is not whether mindfulness meditation will become a sophisticated therapeutic technique or lapse into self-help cliché.

“The answer to that question is yes to both,” Dr. Barnes said.

The real issue, most researchers agree, is whether the science will keep pace and help people distinguish the mindful variety from the mindless.

A variety of meditative practices have been studied by Western researchers for their effects on mental and physical health.

Tai Chi

An active exercise, sometimes called moving meditation, involving extremely slow, continuous movement and extreme concentration. The movements are to balance the vital energy of the body but have no religious significance.

Studies are mixed, some finding it can reduce blood pressure in patients, and others finding no effect. There is some evidence that it can help elderly people improve balance.

Transcendental Meditation

Meditators sit comfortably, eyes closed, and breathe naturally. They repeat and concentrate on the mantra, a word or sound chosen by the instructor to achieve state of deep, transcendent absorption. Practitioners “lose” themselves, untouched by day-to-day concerns. Studies suggest it can reduce blood pressure in some patients.

Mindfulness Meditation

Practitioners find a comfortable position, close the eyes and focus first on breathing, passively observing it. If a stray thought or emotion enters the mind, they allow it to pass and return attention to the breath. The aim is to achieve focused awareness on what is happening moment to moment.

Studies find that it can help manage chronic pain. The findings are mixed on substance abuse. Two trials suggest that it can cut the rate of relapse in people who have had three or more bouts of depression.

Yoga

Enhanced awareness through breathing techniques and specific postures. Schools vary widely, aiming to achieve total absorption in the present and a release from ordinary thoughts. Studies are mixed, but evidence shows it can reduce stress.

Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life

Grateful for the Greater Good

I first heard about GGSC taking a free online course called The Psychology of Happiness.  It’s a course offered at Berkeley – and you can download it from MIT’s Open Courseware online uni if that sounds like fun.

My good friend reminded me about The Greater Good Science Center when she heard about their  web-based, interactive, shareable gratitude journal—that also serves as a scientific tool for understanding what it means when we say “thank you.”

They hold fabulous events like Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion (with Jon Kabat Zinn) and also post brilliant articles like this one below, a slice of advice for people who want to be happy but hate positive thinking  😉

How to Harness the Positive Power of Negative Thinking

By Oliver Burkeman | October 31, 2012 | 0 commentsCan visualizing death make you happier? Research says yes. Here are four surprising ways to harness the power of negativity.

It’s sixty years this year since Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking—and though his message may have been radical back then, it’s the conventional wisdom now. Self-help gurus, motivational speakers, businesspeople, presidential candidates, and many psychologists agree: optimism is the foundation of a happy life, and negativity is for losers.

Those of us who consider ourselves naturally cantankerous and gloomy have always felt left out of what the philosopher Peter Vernezze calls “the cult of optimism.” But now there’s a reason for us to feel more hopeful… in an appropriately downbeat way, of course.

A growing body of research suggests that negative thinking, if strategically pursued, has a role to play in happiness, too. Ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions, from the Stoics to the Buddhists, recognized the life-enhancing potential of trying less strenuously to be happy. Here are four ways to benefit from their approach.

1. Focus on the worst-case scenario, not the best

Visualizing your ideal future is a staple of self-help bestsellers—but vividly picturing success can backfire badly. In one series of experiments, when thirsty experimental subjects were asked to visualize drinking an icy glass of water, their energy levels actually dropped: apparently, they were less motivated to find real water because they’d already imagined drinking some.

Besides, negative visualization can be an excellent antidote to anxiety. The Stoics called this “the premeditation of evils,” while modern-day researchers call it “defensive pessimism”—a strategy deployed regularly by between 25 and 30 percent of Americans, according to the researcher Julie Norem.

Consider the logic: when you try to persuade yourself that everything will work out for the best, you risk reinforcing your unspoken belief that it would be utterly catastrophic if they didn’t. Instead, try soberly working through how badly things could really go. You may find that your fears get cut down to manageable size.

2. Consider getting rid of your goals

For many years, the popularity of goal-setting rested, in part, on something known as the “1953 Yale Study of Goals.” Reportedly, this showed that among members of Yale’s graduating class of 1953, those who had specific, written-down goals for the future ended up, twenty years later, immensely wealthier than the rest.

But when the journalist Lawrence Tabak, searching for an original source, got in touch with the gurus who relied on the study, they all pleaded ignorance, and suggested asking other gurus—because the study, as a Yale archivist confirmed, almost certainly never existed.

Among management scholars, too, the pro-goal consensus is breaking down. Recent research suggests that the “overpursuit of goals” can prompt employees to cut ethical corners. Meanwhile, studies of successful entrepreneurs, undertaken by the business professor Saras Sarasvathy, reveal that they rarely stick rigorously to detailed, multi-year business plans. Instead, they just start, and keep correcting their course as they go. Their philosophy isn’t so much “ready, aim, fire” as “ready, fire, aim”—and then to keep on re-aiming.

3. Don’t get too attached to “positive thinking”

Tell yourself you’re a winner, and you might end up feeling worse.

When researchers in Canada tested the efficacy of self-help affirmations—specifically the phrase “I am a loveable person!”—they found that those who already had low self-esteem experienced a further decline in their mood.

Trying to control your emotions, as the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has shown, can be an invitation to “ironic effects”: struggle too hard to eliminate negativity, and you risk generating more of it. As in the old parlor game, when you try not to think about a polar bear, you may find that being hyper-vigilant about stamping out unhappy moods merely puts unhappiness center stage.

By contrast, early Buddhist psychology advocated treating thoughts, whether negative or positive, more like smells, sights, tastes and sounds: things that arrive in your awareness, rather than things that constitute the essence of who you are. This stance of “non-attachment”—now also supported by research as an effective way of dealing with physical pain—embodies what you might define as the opposite of positive thinking: learning, instead, to resist the urge to manipulate your inner states.

4. Don’t ignore death

The anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that countless human activities, from wars to great art, are ultimately motivated by the subconscious desire to deny the fact that, in the end, we’re going to die.

These days, with the processes of dying hidden behind the doors of hospices and funeral homes, it’s never been easier to perpetuate the delusion of immortality—until the moment when the reaper inevitably intrudes. We might benefit from rediscovering the lost tradition of “memento mori,” which focused on building reminders of death into daily life: the dual result was to make everyday experience feel more valuable while reducing the horror of death when it arrived. (The Death Clock iPad app is a modern example: it purports to calculate the date on which you’ll die, then starts a countdown to keep you aware.)

Although research suggests that reminders of death can prompt people to behave more aggressively, there is also evidence that, in the right contexts, remembering our mortality triggers compassion. In one example, people walking through a graveyard proved 40 percent more likely to help a stranger— specifically, one of the researchers, who pretended to drop her notebook—than those walking down an ordinary block. Another study found that visualizing their own death led people to become more grateful.

Death is what we all have in common: the most negative of negatives, perhaps… but also the most unifying.

This essay is based on Oliver Burkeman’s new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Proven: Yoga and Meditation Enhance the Lovin’

While I’m studying hard and running back and forth between classes, I’ll continue to post interesting articles I find written by other people online (instead of my own articles).  I found this little gem on LiveScience.com while I was doing research on the benefits of meditation (I swear, the search terms had nothing to do with lovin’!).

This Friday I’ll be posting a “Day in the Life of” focusing on the ATTC just to update some of ya’ll who’ve been writing me with questions.  Thanks again for all the feedback – keep it comin’!

Text: Sally Law

Another year, another batch of resolutions: eat right, exercise more, pay bills on time etc. All good in theory, but potentially dull in practice.

In 2009, then, resolve to have better sex. According to a recent review article in the Dec. 3 issue of The Journal of Sexual Medicine, sexually unsatisfied women who practiced the Eastern techniques of mindfulness and yoga reported improvements in levels of arousal and desire, as well as better orgasms. In addition, yoga has been found to effectively treat premature ejaculation in men.

Eastern practices have been touted as sexually beneficial for years — as the article states, the techniques have “their origin in the Kama Sutra of the fourth to sixth centuries.”

But authors Lori A. Brotto of the University of British Columbia, Michael Krychman of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine, and Pamela Jacobson of The Healing Sanctuary in Tustin, Calif., think that recent research findings warrant increased attention, and respect, from Western medicine.

Mindfulness — an awareness of the present moment, also a key component in yoga — proved especially beneficial in a study, cited in the article, that asked women to study pennies in detail. The coins were then collected, and each woman was asked to find her original penny. Every woman was successful. “In our experience, (nearly) all women feel that they have a problem with remaining focused; they are highly distractible,” the article states. “However, after this penny exercise, they accept the notion that they can focus their mind if they so choose.” The study then went on to encourage body-awareness exercises, which eventually had a sexual goal.

Not all Eastern-based benefits manifest in the mind. The article cites another study from The Journal of Sexual Medicine, published in September 2007, in which 68 Indian men who suffered from premature ejaculation were given a choice of yoga-based, non-pharmacological treatment or Prozac. The men who practiced yoga for one hour each day “had both subjective and statistically significant improvements in their intra-ejaculatory latencies, similar to participants in the pharmacologic treatment group.”

The article acknowledges that mindfulness and yoga are challenging, but they also can be fun — and whose sex life couldn’t benefit from a little mental and physical flexibility?

Related link: Top 10 Bad Things That Are Good for You

Sally Law has written about health and sexuality for the Cleveland Clinic, and has appeared regularly as a guest host on Sirius Radio. Her column, The Science of Sex, appears weekly on LiveScience.