Pillow Talk: Five Lessons Learned in Six Mindful Weeks

7887746638_a2c6678aaf_z
Photo: Don’t Worry, Be Happy by MaticesLA CC BY 2.0

I’m six weeks into starting a meditation practice, and besides struggling to find the time to quiet the mind as we approach holiday mayhem, it’s going well.  I’ve not gotten to the point of practice every day at the same time, but I’m now able to sustain 30 minutes with a relaxed focused attention. I’m excited about getting deeper into the experience in the new year.

In the interim, here are five lessons learned so far that I hope will help others starting along a similar path:

Start Small

I usually jump into new tasks with ambition and enthusiasm, always thinking about the end result and wanting to skip steps along the way. In taking on a meditation practice, it was important to temper my nature and approach the task incrementally. By gradually increasing the length of sessions from a short five minutes to half-hour sittings, I’m slowly building capacity for concentration.  When I avoid rushing, I observe more subtle details of the mind’s activities.

Prepare Before You Practice

One of the biggest challenges was taking a break at midday on particularly busy days, and then having any success concentrating.  One trick I discovered was to take a short interim break before starting a lunchtime session, such as a quick walk around the block to clear the mind.

If posture is a challenge, there are ways you can prep the body during your daily routine that can make sitting more comfortable over time. See this Yoga Journal video for some guidance on preparatory stretches.

Don’t Push

Meditation is more about letting go than about making an effort. Paradoxically, the more you try, the less you will succeed. It’s that simple.

Strength in Numbers

While there may be some disadvantages to having tried out meditation in so many different cultural and spiritual settings in this early phase, I have to say that the power of the group was helpful in every session. A room full of individuals engaged in focused attention is truly energizing.

Find Your Own Way In

It’s easier to engage when you find a tradition that speaks to you. I’m most comfortable in a secular setting, and that’s where I’ll continue to sit. But I’ll continue to learn as much as I can about the philosophies behind the practices, because they fascinate me and I’m not sure the two can be separated.

 

 

 

The Science of Meditation

In a post earlier this month, I highlighted the trend of mindfulness programs being adopted in more and more modern workplaces. A growing number of companies are banking on these programs, speculating that investing in the physical and psychological health of their employees through mindfulness may offer a solid return in increased productivity and reduced employee health costs.

Now that mindfulness practice has entered the mainstream, there’s been an explosion of research on the effects of mindfulness on the mind, body and brain.  Here’s a media round-up highlighting some of the most interesting findings:

Neurons
Image of neurons by Zeiss Microsocpy CC BY 2.0

I’ve already flagged some of the positive neurological effects of meditiation, and there’s plenty more chatter on the web on that subject.

Forbes contributor Alice Walton provides a good beginners overview of these benefits, including decreased activity in the default mode network (associated with mind wandering and rumination), and volume changes in cell matter in key parts of the brain associated with capacity to manage stress and anxiety.  Walton also highlights studies that have identified psychological benefits, such as managing depression (as effective as antidepressants), improving concentration and attention, reducing anxiety, and treating addiction.

Huffington Post’s Meredith Melnick offers up a handy infographic – ‘The Body on Meditation’, which illustrates the neurological benefits as well as positive effects on the heart, blood pressure and immune system.

But there’s even more interesting research on how meditation might combat decline of our actual DNA.

CNN recently showcased Jo Marchant’s Mosaic.com article on research that shows mindfulness practice could actually help slow down the aging process. At the vanguard of this work is collaborative research between Nobel Prize winning biochemist Elizabeth Blackburn and University of California psychiatrist Elisa Epel that measured the impact of perceived psychological stress on the length of human telomeres.

Isolated by Blackburn in the 1970s, telomeres are the protective caps of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. These naturally shorten over time, and when they become too short, our cells lose the ability to divide and the aging process takes hold.

telomeres
Telomere Photo by AJC ajcann CC BY 2.0

In the early 2000s, Blackburn studied a group of mothers managing the stress of caring for chronically ill children.  Blood samples showed that the mothers had significantly shorter telomeres and lower levels of the protective telomerase hormone than a less stressed control group. In the most severe cases the effects could be correlated to about an extra decade of aging.  This and a variety of similar studies have continued to show the link between psychological stress and aging.

Building on this work, Blackburn and Epel are collaborating with teams around the globe on studies looking to measure the effectiveness of certain interventions – such as diet, exercise and social support – in protecting telomeres and maintaining levels of telomerase.

And now mindfulness has been added to the mix.  While there are skeptics, results are promising, with one study showing a 30 per cent increase in telomerase in subjects that participated in a three-month mindfulness course.

All this is exciting, but there are alternative views out there tempering the meditation craze. In his wry New York Times op-ed, business contributor Adam Grant reminds us that studies suggest meditation is no more effective in lowering stress than drugs, exercise or other behavioural therapies. He also discusses the non-meditative mindfulness work of Ellen Langer, which focuses on encouraging conditional over absolute thinking.  A cushion may not always be required.

Signing off for now – off for a 15-minute telomere stretch…

For a good overview on the science of meditation, including telomeres, check out this video from those asapSCIENCE guys.   

Sunrise Satsang: Toronto Sivananda Centre

2979720103_a1d5f70ca1_z
Photo credit: Happy Deepvali by rx_kamakshi CC by 2.0

I’d first heard of Toronto’s Sivavnada Yoga Vedanta Centre from two friends of mine, a husband and wife TV writing team that completed yoga teacher training through Sivananda before tying the knot a few years ago. (Yoga seems to have left them with the flexibility needed for a happy, successful marriage.)

Sivananda offers a morning meditation and Satsang every weekday at 6 am. I decided to take advantage of my insomniac tendencies and ride a few blocks through the pre-dawn Annex fog and give it a try.

The Experience

Not surprisingly, the early morning session at the Harbord and Spadina location wasn’t overly crowded. A blonde Yogini named Lakshmi greeted me at the door,  wiping sleep from her eye.

Lakshmi must have assumed I was a regular, because she offered neither direction nor instructions. But noticed a candlelit shrine in front of the bay window of the main room, and assumed this was where we would sit.

I laid out a mat and prepared for the sitting, and was soon joined by two other participants, as well as the two staff that would lead the session. We began with thirty minutes of silent meditation. Meditating in the dark was an evocative way to start the day. As the sun rose, its natural light overpowered the candles just as we shifted from silence to chanting. It was as if were waking in sync with the natural world.

The chanting and kirtan were a bit less sublime. I really couldn’t follow the Sanskrit text or the melodies – and my colleagues gave no more of a stellar musical offering. In contrast to Meditation Toronto’s western folk music, this kirtan was the real India. I can only hope Bramha was forgiving and that he was able to use his many heads to decipher of our multi-modal devotion.

While the yoga doesn’t speak to me in the same way that mindfulness seems to, it was a an energizing experience.  There’s something about starting the with intentionally, drawing on the energy of group meditation, that leaves you centred and ready to face the day ahead.

The centre also gives the impression of a well run, valuable institution. A quick scan of its bulletin boards gave much evidence of the positive impact Sivananda’s programs have on both the health and well-being of its members and students, and on life of the broader community. It seems a positive, modern expression of an ancient tradition. 

Where

77 Harbord Street (West of Spadina)

When

Monday to Friday, 6:00 – 7:00 am
Fridays, 8:15 – 9:30 pm and Sundays, 6:15 – 7:45 pm

Offerings

Satsang – Free Group Meditation

  • 30 minutes silent group meditation
  • 30 minutes of chanting mantras and kirtan
  • lecture on yoga philosophy and psychology

Other programs:

  • Yoga instruction (all levels, with children’s and prenatal programs)
  • Meditation courses
  • Yoga retreats and vacations

The Tradition

Toronto’s centre is part of Sivananda International Yoga Vedanta Centres, a non-profit organization mandated to share the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta ‘as a means of achieving physical, mental and spiritual well-being.’

Headquartered in Montreal, but with nine ashrams and 30 centres spanning four continents, Sivananda offers a wide variety of retreats, classes and programs to people from around the world.

Sivananda was founded in in 1959 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of the organization’s namesake, Sivananda Saraswati.   A sort of Deepak Chopra of the late British Raj, Sivananda practiced as a physician before becoming taking the spiritual path, going on to found the Divine Life Society and publish over 200 books on yoga that would have significant influence in the west.

6105875629_24422417d7
Photo of young Vishnudevanada. Credit: Sprattmackrel CC by 2.0

His disciple was a colourful figure in his own right. Known as the ‘flying swami’, Vishnudevananda would conduct peace missions by piloting a glider and dropping flowers over global conflict zones. Most famously, he landed in East Berlin during the height of late Cold War tensions in 1983. (See the BBC coverage of the event below).

 

Sivananda is one of the major yoga teacher training centres in the west, having produced more than 28,000 graduates since 1969. Teaching focuses on five basic principles of yoga – proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet and positive thinking.

Its motto is ‘Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate and Realize’.

 

 

 

 

 

Mindfulness at Work: The Bottom Line

5612100521_50261e4338 (1)

In one of my recent posts, I talked about my new habit of making time during my lunch break to use the quiet room in my workplace, along with my mindfulness app, and sit for a short, fifteen-minute meditation.

The goal? Clear the mind and lay the groundwork for a more productive afternoon ahead. I’m feeling a benefit, but given what early going this practice is for me, I can’t claim anything more than anecdotal evidence.

But what are experts saying about how mindfulness helps employees and enterprises?

Here’s a round-up of four articles on the subject:

In the Atlantic, Jo Pinsker interviews New York Times journalist David Gelles about his new book, Mindful Work, which discusses the phenomenon of more companies offering mindfulness programs for their employees. According to Gelles, corporations are more receptive to mindfulness than ever before because science can now demonstrate tangible mental and physical health benefits that improve a company’s bottom line. For example, Aetna estimates that since instituting its mindfulness program, it saved $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs and $3,000 in productivity.

In the Guardian, Gill Crosland-Thackray interviews corporate mindfulness expert Mirabai Bush, who emphasizes that mindful employees can improve workers’ ability to manage conflict and communicate more effectively in difficult situations.

Canadian Business highlights mindfulness programs at leading companies here at home, including BMO, Hydro One and the Conference Board of Canada. They also provide an overview of Google’s prototype Search Inside Yourself program, which has trained over 500 employees and created meditation spaces throughout the company’s campuses.

Harvard Business Review talks about their participation in a study measuring improvements in areas of the brain associated with effective workplace behaviours. The study found meditators showed increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with self-regulation and decision-making, and increased grey matter in the hippocampus, associated with the ability to manage stress.

But not everyone is sold. Some worry that companies with less than stellar reputations as corporate citizens may co-opt mindfulness programs. In the Atlantic article, Pinsker raises this with Gelles. “Only in a few instances in the book do I really try to say that mindfulness led a company that stand in contrast to the way they behaved previously,” Gelles replies. “The focus I hope is on the employees themselves. Mindfulness is most effective when individuals use it to take better care of themselves and treat their colleagues and other people in a more compassionate and accepting way.”

I suppose only time will tell if these programs will turn out to be a passing fancy or a permanent fixture.

383729933_09c95db99f_o

Photo Credits:

Mindfulness Reminders by ssoosay CC BY 2.0

Guru_Meditation by Hakezuba CC BY 2.0

 

Mindfulness Media

With meditation now a part of mainstream culture, the online conversation about mindfulness has never been more interesting and diverse.

4962991603_c1f94ea5af_b
Photo by IMs BILDARKEV  CC BY 2.0

Whether you’re a curious bystander, a new practitioner, or a fully-realized bodhisattva there’s something for everyone to tune in and turn on.  Here are a few of my picks:

Online Guided Meditations

If you like the structure of narrated, guided meditation, but you don’t have time to look get to an in person session, there are plenty of free resources online to choose from.  Take a look at:  the Free Mindfulness Project, sessions from UCLA’s Guided Mindfulness Research Centre, Insight Meditation Centre’s Audio Dharma, and Calm.com (which offers video nature scenes with a soothing soundtrack).  While not a free service, basicmindfulness.com offers home practice meditation retreats taught via phone by Shinzen Young.

Podcasts

If you’re interested in learning more about practices or the ideas behind them, there are several meditation centres and other organizations putting out regular podcasts. Here are my top three:

New York City’s Interdependence Project broadcasts lectures and discussions with teachers from various backgrounds, and interviews with authors and guest speakers, all aligned with its mandate to promote secular practice, psychology and activism.

Radio Headspace offers a weekly podcast on how the mind works, and what it is capable of – info on mindfulness from a neurological perspective. (The site sells pay-per-service digital ‘gym for the mind’ tools, but the podcast is free, and totally secular if that’s your preference.)

Psychologist, author, and senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington D.C., Tarah Brach, podcasts weekly talks on Buddhist teachings and practices, each ending with a related guided meditation.  If you’re a novice like me, her talks for beginners might be helpful.

On Being

While not exclusively devoted to mindfulness, this is hands down the best media source on purposeful living, IMHO.

Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippet’s media enterprise has grown from public radio’s most progressive radio broadcast on faith and spirituality to a broader multi-platform, cross-disciplinary conversation on human experience. Features on scientists, artists and philosophers now complement regular offerings on spiritual themes. In the archives, you’ll find interviews with leading mindfulness figures, including the Dalai LamaThich Nhat Hahn, Matthieu RicardJon Kabat-ZinnRobert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg.

Always happy to hear about more great sounds from the dharmasphere.  Send links to any more must-hears.

 

Mantras and a Meal: Meditation Toronto

I first came across Meditation Toronto when I saw it listed in a blogTO posting of the top 10 meditation centres in Toronto. The group isn’t affiliated with a specific spiritual organization, but appears rooted in a Bhakti yoga tradition. Their site highlighted their weekly Sunday night EnChanted evening program, which offered instruction in breathing and chanting meditation, and a vegetarian meal, at Trinity St. Paul’s church in the Annex.

The Experience

Full disclosure, I am a WASP from a white-bread suburb, public-schooled and secularly raised.  My interest in meditation and related philosophies is to cultivate well-being and conscious living.  The metaphysical is a bit beyond me at this stage.

IMG_0015
Harmonium used to accompany Kirtan

An evening of singing in Sanskrit (accompanied by a harmonium and folk guitar) took me a bit out of my element. But I jumped in with enthusiasm (and full-on stilted WASP-y awkwardness).

Madhavendra led the session, beginning by outlining the format for the evening , introducing the types of meditation that would be practiced, and providing basic information about mantra (without giving a translation of the texts we’d be singing).

The musical setting for the Kirtan was a folksy campfire tune. Very easy to follow, and Madhavendra had a pleasant voice. A young girl played the harmonium with the assistance of her mother, which was cute.

IMG_0012
Ohm symbol

I found it hard to engage.

 

I’m a very analytical and I like to know what I’m singing about when I sing.  (That wasn’t the purpose of the program, there are other classes offered for that).

I also think I responded with my own cultural biases. Singing mantras in a retro folk idiom, only blocks from the former site of Rochedale College, made it hard to shake associations between  Bhakti yoga movements and the excesses of sixties counterculture (which I understand are not entirely accurate).

The whole experience made me think.  And here are just a few thoughts I chewed on, along with my vegetarian lasagna.

  1. In a postmodern world and a multicultural country, when does western interest in non-western spiritual traditions cross a line?
  2. Are there issues that come with adapting spiritual practices for use in a secular context?

For example, this week the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class for students with disabilities because of cultural sensitivity issues.

When I  read about it, a memory of Madhavendra’s Australian speaking and Sanskrit singing voice kept ringing in my ears.

I think these are very different cases, buy globalization really does mix things up.

Any thoughts?

 

Where

Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church

427 Bloor St. West (west of Spadina)

When

Sunday nights: 6:00pm to 8:00 pm 

Offerings

EnChanted Evening:

  • Free weekly session (donations appreciated)
  • Instruction in two methods of meditation: breathing and chanting (kirtan)
  • Vegetarian dinner provided

Other offerings:

  • Meditation classes and groups, with gatherings in various locations across the GTA, including Downtown, the Annex, and the Danforth in Toronto; Scarborough, Etobicoke, Mississauga, North York, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, as well as Kitchener/Waterloo/Brantford and Ottawa.
  • Annual Free Yoga Meditation Day
  • Yoga and Philosophy Classes

The Tradition

Meditation Toronto describes itself as a group of volunteers that have been teaching and practicing meditation for over 15 years in the Greater Toronto Area. According to its website, all the organization’s teachers “were taught how to meditate free of charge and have received so much from this meditation that it gives them great happiness to be able to pass this matchless gift onto others.’

A review of the website shows it clearly promotes physical, mental and spiritual practices associated with Bhakti yoga.  Also from the site: “The ancient science of yoga offers us a real truth and the easiest way to realize that truth is through transcendental or spiritual sound. Simply by hearing and repeating spiritual sound vibrations we can experience the peace and happiness of transcendental knowledge. This pairing of the chanting of the mantras with music soothes the soul and calms the mind.”

 

This is Your Mind on Social Media: Sitting at the Consciousness Explorers Club

 

3611124024_44d955d491_z

I’ve been curious to check out the Consciousness Explorers Club since I caught the CEC’s President, Jeff Warren on TVO as part of a panel discussion on Mindfulness and Mental Health on the Agenda. Here was a smart journalist and advocate for mindfulness, heading up a progressive, secular group right here in Toronto. My curiosity was piqued so I Googled them.

CEC’s website was an unexpected breath of fresh air. It wins hands down as the funniest site I’ve ever seen for a meditation group. A quick read of the collective’s self-deprecating bios offered more than a few chuckles. they’re a sort of merry band of accomplished, creative, socially aware people –  an emergency room doctor, another writer, theatre and film artists, and a philosopher – who take meditation, but not themselves, quite seriously.

The Experience

I’d wanted to try a CEC session out for some time. When the November listing of their Monday night explorations (more on those below) included a ‘Technology and Attention’ session that  included interactive meditation practice with smartphones, I couldn’t resist. It was like the universe sent me a text.

So I put on some comfortable pants and pedaled west to College Street’s ‘oh so hip’ Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre to sit circle with the tribe.

I wasn’t disappointed.

By its description and demographic, the experience could have turned out to be a self-indulgent co-opting of a non-European spiritual tradition by young urban professionals.

It wasn’t like that at all. The crowd was young and hip, but the room was free of pretension, and the session was authentic and uplifting.

The energy in the room was palpable.  In contrast to the quiet you experience when arriving in a more conventional meditation setting, the  chatter as the group began setting up had the energy of a first day of school. However, all was quiet when the practice began.

Monday night explorations are divided into two 45-minute parts: a (guided) sitting meditation practice, followed by ‘interactive practice, play and discussion’.

For me, forty-five minutes is quite long at this early stage of starting to meditate, but the guide helped me adjust the breath and posture to increase alertness and energy.  I won’t pretend I achieved complete stillness.  I struggled with acute pins and needles in my right leg, but I did manage a respectable degree of concentration.   The guided session ended with a short loving kindness meditation, as I gather is the CEC norm.

The interactive practice, “Addicted to Dopamine”, part of a November program of sessions exploring trance. In this session, participants were asked to observe the effects of their interactions with their ‘personal hypnosis devices – AKA their smartphones’.

From the program description: “Have you ever really paid attention to inside experience of texting and emailing and surfing? That’s what we’ll do here. Surf the dopamine hits. And maybe get a little insight about the compulsive nature of our collective tech-habit.”

The smartphone exercise was followed by group discussion about people’s relationship with technology and how it affects well-being.  Themes that came out in discussion included physical and emotional reactions to communication, differences in relationship to technology between generations, and how technology manipulates our neural reward system for commercial purposes.

One of the reasons I’ve taking up meditation is to counter the mental effects I experience from digital/social information overload,  and these are becoming a hot topic for researchers.  Here’s one psychologist’s discussion of social media’s effects on attention span, and the neurological impacts of multitasking – curious to hear about other people’s perspectives.

8546850049_98046f51b8_z

To wrap up, CEC was a truly positive mindfulness experience in a really unique context.  I’d describe it as applied mindfulness (a term Warren used on the TVO panel), combining a flexible approach to practice with a unique opportunity for thoughtful, interactive engagement.

Where
Octopus Garden Yoga
967 College Street (West of Dovercourt)

When

  • Monday nights, 7:25 pm
  • $12 fee (to cover space, teaching and programming)

Offerings

Monday Night Explorations

Other programming includes:

The Tradition

CEC describes itself as “a non-profit meditative think-tank and community hub that supports personal growth through carefully curated courses, retreats, events, and weekly guided meditation and social practices.” With a humanistic and pluralistic outlook, they integrate insight and practices from contemporary culture and science with those from contemplative traditions, in particular mindfulness. Jeff Warren trained with Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young.

Learn more

Photo credits:

Cosmic Fingerpost by hartwigHKDCC BY 2.0

Facebook Burnout by mkhmarketing – CC BY 2.0