Posts Tagged ‘Breathing Meditation’

Meditation, Mandalas and the Brain

December 9, 2008

Greetings readers, a follow up on questions concerning choosing a visual meditation practice:

First a few words about the practice itself:

With respect to stress reduction and the desire to create a sense of inner well being, visual meditations may be ideal for

a) Those who find deep appreciation and calm in viewing visual art; and

b) Those who find the visual complexity of a mandala, the perfect sensory road to travel on in the quest for time/space centering of one’s “self.”

Put in everyday (well sorta) terms, visual meditations call on rehearsed neural circuits that enable the human brain to “pattern recognize” in ways that stretch beyond ordinary looking and seeing. Pattern recognition, after all, is basic to the acts of looking and seeing.   As the great anthropologist and cognitive theorist Gregory Bateson pointed out, “pattern recognition” is that which binds mind to life. Or as AI theorist Ray Kurzweil maintains, pattern recognition constitutes the first sign of biological intelligence (something that can be shared with non-biological intelligence, presuming we program the “thing,”).  Following this line of thinking, rehearsed pattern recognition creates the neurochemical connections necessary for the production of  new “brain maps” —  neural networks that correlate with learning and memory retention.

Practice, in other words, creates greater synaptic connections in our brains that form and correlate with sense perceptions, images, ideas, feelings and intuitions. With respect to using visual meditation as a way to reduce stress, some evidence suggests the less complex visual image, the easier it is to perceive and focus attention upon.  Let’s take. for instance, the act of attending to a single image like this week’s Hubble Telescope shot of a globular cluster of stars in the Northern Sky!

hubble

Northern Sky, Globular Cluster M13 captured by the Hubble Telescope

If you’re prone to nature mysticism (C.F. William James), then you might first sense the awesome beauty of the cosmic start system. If you’re given to the metaphysics of geometry, you might pause on the elegance symbology of a cosmic circle. But if you’re interested in using the image of a cosmic star system to train your attention toward calmness and stability, then I suggest bringing along with visual attention, your sensory awareness of ordinary breathing. As one learns from the ancient Buddhist practice of mandala gazing, its the repeated experiential pairing of “looking” and “breathing” that helps one move from image perception and analysis to image experience. Meditative looking, to put it neatly, is embodied.

Today, neuroscientists reporting on perception and cognition, tell us that visual meditation experiences, like all other visual experiences, are synthesized in the visual cortex, related to other areas of the brain, e.g. the somasensory cortex. By adding breathing to the mix, visuality is further grounded in the body of experience.

Or to put it another way,

Bringing the art of breathing to the art of meditative visual image gazing transforms the neuroscience, if you will, of the visual experience.

What then do we make of the complex patterns one finds in Buddhist mandalas or Islamic mosque imagery, such as we find anew on Phil George’s sublime surfboards?

To be continued in my next blog….

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.



Advertisements

Use your brain to over-ride the pattern of “shock, fear and dread” in 2008

September 23, 2008

The Platform: The State of U.S. Affairs, 2008

The Twitter: Shock, Fear and Dread in the U.S. (and abroad)

The Big Idea: There are no hopeless situations; only those who grow hopeless about them (George Greenstein, M.D., 1920-2005)

I’ve been receiving emails (and have sent a few myself) regarding the “shock” and “dread” from which people are reeling in light of the bail out crisis and media popularization of the Palin effect. So please allow me today to use this blog to address the neuroscience of “fear” and offer ways to change the neural setting in our brain to recognize the signals of creative problem-solving and hope.

There is no mistake that Barack Obama uses the term Hope, and more precisely, “the audacity of hope” in his attempt to reconnect American citizens to the core principles that shape a vibrant democracy, a politically and economically solvent society.

Obama’s cunning rhetorical move highlights the path of resistance to the Bush/Cheney SHOCK DOCTRINE that has waylaid many voices of contest and innovation, especially over the last eight years. What is the Shock Doctrine? Here I am drawing your attention to Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: THE RISE OF DISASTER CAPITALISM, a thick, powerful study of the methods of shock used by students of Milton Friedman (e.g. Dick Cheney) to exploit the psychological and economic circumstances of crises and disasters.

My point is not to unpack Klein’s argument but to indicate a human and cultural pattern of response that we learn from reading Klein: When disaster strikes, shock takes over all body responses — breathing contracts, sweating begins, rational thinking becomes confused… for many, reason exits quickly out the door! An old and trust-worthy mammalian pattern has just set in: FEAR! For those who wish to take advantage, fear offers ideal conditions for exploitation. (Consider the logic: Fear responds to help.)

Turning to neuroscientists, we learn more about the neural conditions that create and perpetuate fear: Writing for Newsweek (Sept 15, 08) Dr. Michael Craig Miller, explains:

“Two deep brain structures called the amygdalae manage the important task of learning and remembering what you should be afraid of.”

The amygdalae, it appears, function like good mental health turbo-networkers, rapidly collecting info that mobilizes the brain/body forces: heart rate, blood pressure, the capacity to reason. The two little clusters of neural networking also interface and connect with networks generating MEMORY.

“The fear system is extraordinarily efficient. It is so efficient that you don’t need to consciously register what is happening for the brain to kick off a response. If a car swerves into your lane of traffic, you will feel the fear before you understand it. Signals travel between the amygdala and your crisis system before the visual part of your brain has a chance to “see.” Organisms with slower responses probably did not get the opportunity to pass their genetic material along.”

Now the important paragraph that points to the generating pattern of collective shock and hysteria:

“Fear is contagious because the amygdala helps people not only recognize fear in the faces of others, but also to automatically scan for it. People or animals with damage to the amygdala lose these skills. Not only is the world more dangerous for them, the texture of life is ironed out; the world seems less compelling to them because their “excitement” anatomy is impaired.” (my emphasis)

Miller’s clarifying essay is just one of many to come down the pike, pointing out the DRAMATIC neuro consequences of being shocked by economic fallout and horrified of the short and long range possibilities of McCain/Palin in office.

So let’s connect the dots and do our simple brain math:

Frying in our own rage and gripped by the mighty handles of fear, our culture, our bodies, our speech, our minds entrain our brains into the rituals of fear: Fight or Flight.

Yet we are not mere mammals. Thanks to our highly evolved brain and thus the scientists, monks, somatic therapists who use their refined aptitude and skills to understand the brain/mind/body connection, we have learned a very important neural lesson that has large historical ramifications:

Fear is a response in the brain/body/mind. Change the brain and we change our body, our mind! Change our mind, our body and we change our brain!

To that end, and in service of offering a slice of whole-brain, somatic sanity to those hungering for a more judicious and delicious cultural pie, the following SpaceSuit Yoga tips for transforming Fear into Calm, Dread into Hope:

1) Practice a BIG IDEA: There are no hopeless situations, only those who grow hopeless about them.

2) Changing our brain begins with changing our breath.

Breath, after all, is the beginning and end of all human life.

To address a pattern of fear that has paralyzed one’s embodied brain and mind, go back to a daily practice of conscious, contemplative breathing. This blogsite offers tips on how to engage a simple practice of easy restorative breathing practices. (See the parent GGI website for links to other helpful meditation sites.

3) Breathing supports Initiation (Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen): To start any activity in your day, remember to notice what breathing actually feels like, what parts of the body are moved or involved in the process of breathing. Sturdy Breath enables A Sturdy Mind.

4) Mental Practice. With a calm and sturdy body/brain/mind, use your powers of Mental Practice to imagine a liberated landscape, a liberated body, an open space of movement and possibility. Picture hope, picture success.

"Sunny Sideways with Oxygen," work by the U.S. artist Terri Friedman, www.terrifriedman.com

“Sunny Sideways with Oxygen,” work by U.S. artist Terri Friedman, http://www.terrifriedman.com

For the “how to’s” and the “go to’s” for stress reduction, breathing meditation and mental practice, please leave a comment or contact me by way of the GGI contact link.

May the Breath Be with you through this trying times!

Dr. G.

P.S. Check out the following sites that address or infer the neuro effects on the 2008 election:

1) http://dir.salon.com/topics/robert_burton/

2) google Newsweek and and search for Michael Craig Miller’s Newsweek essay noted above, entitled Sad Brain, Happy Brain) or go to http://samharris.org and search for the Miller piece.

More on Strokes and why we all need hemisphere time outs

March 29, 2008

I’m writing this tonite, after a week of travel — much to report from the front lines of neuroscience but right now a personal note:  I’ve just learned that one of my dearest friends and colleagues has suffered a massive stroke.  On the heels of Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk, it seems all the more auspicious to bring to your attention the wisdom of entraining your brain toward relaxation and restoration by means of some contemplative practice. Please take note of the followings symptoms of stroke which Dr. Taylor noted in her talk:From the American Stroke Foundation web page,  http://www.americanstroke.org

If you believe you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs do not hesitate to call 911 for immediate treatment!

 

Suddenly feeling weak in an arm, hand or leg

Cannot feel one side of your face or body

Suddenly cannot see out of one eye

Suddenly have a hard time walking

Cannot understand what someone is saying

Feeling dizzy or losing your balance

Having the worst headache you have ever had

 

 

How to Recognize a Stroke

 

If you think someone is having a stroke, remember the 60 second test:

 

1. Ask the individual to smile.

 

2. Ask him or her to raise both arms.

 

3. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “It is sunny out today.”

 

IF THE INDIVIDUAL HAS TROUBLE WITH ANY OF THESE TASKS, CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY!

 

 

Reduce your Risk of Stroke

 

Annual physicals

Healthy diet

Be aware of your family history

Maintain a healthy weight for your body type

Quit smoking

Get regular blood pressure and cholesterol checks

Exercise

If diabetic, manage your blood sugar levels

Take your medications accordingly

 

And to this list, may I add: Please give yourself hemisphere balancing opportunities by means of relaxation or contemplative practices like T.M. or Breathing meditation from any number of traditions like Zen, Qi  Gong … or the breathing practices taught by yours truly, SpaceSuit Yoga.

 

May the Breath Be With All of You Tonite!