A few months ago I wrote about the virtues of 5 deep breaths (Reset with 5 Deep Breaths, 5 Mar 2017). Now I’m back with scientific news that shows breathing affects brain function in mice. To put it briefly, there are special brain cells that connect breathing with states of arousal: sleep-wakefulness, vigilance, and emotions.
“Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice” (Yackle et al., Science, 31 Mar 2017, p. 1411) summarizes its findings as follows:
As a rule, mindfulness meditation practice involves 3 steps:
- choosing something to be aware of (breath, sounds, touch, feelings)
- paying attention to this phenomenon
- returning one’s attention to it once we detect that our attention has wandered
The first step, choosing, often strikes people as a bit odd because nearly every set of instructions says, “pay attention to the sensations of breathing.” But why? My breath isn’t that interesting: I do it all the time without thinking about it. Worse, it seems to change whenever I pay close attention to it, and it just doesn’t seem that interesting compared to all of the other things I might focus on. So why pay attention to breathing?
Is the 3-headed monster (final paper, final lab report, final EXAM) chasing you? Don’t hide. Reduce stress and restore focus with a meditation break. Reed’s Community Wellness team is sponsoring:
Thursday, May 4, 12-1 PM, at the Eliot Chapel
Meditate to Reduce Stress and Increase Focus:
Learn a simple yet powerful technique of meditation that reduces stress, improves physical and emotional well-being, and promotes calm focus regardless of outer conditions. Conducted by cellist, teacher, writer and meditation practitioner David Eby, who specializes in exploring the benefits of meditation for performance (http://www.davidebymusic.com).
Open to anyone (Reedies & visitors), regardless of religious or spiritual background, seeking to access their highest potential.
If it helps, come back to the Chapel the following Tuesday, May 9, for silent meditation, 12-12:40 PM.
I’m “coming out” today. Here’s what I want you to know about me,
- I meditate regularly. Often alone. Often with others.
- I think a lot about meditation, especially while I’m meditating.
- I nap during meditation sometimes. I haven’t found an answer to this “problem” except to stop treating it as a problem.
- Meditation feels special, but I try not to fool myself into thinking that it makes me special.
- I tend not to talk about my meditation practice (#1) or what it’s like (#2-4), even though its an extremely interesting topic to me and I think I’d be happy to share.
I had a lot of questions about meditation when I first started. Some have been answered. Others persist. If unanswered questions are keeping you from trying, or being satisfied with, meditation, send them my way. Start out, “Hi Alan,” and then follow wherever your fingers take you. firstname.lastname@example.org
My mind during a part of last week’s meditation session:
- in breath
- a thought: “one”
- out breath
- in breath
- a thought: “two”
- a thought: “Hey, I’m doing ok, two breaths! I’m really focused today. Nice.”
- a thought: “thinking”
- a thought: “gone”
- (in breath)
- a thought: “one”
- (out breath) …
My mind was wandering, just like always, and, each time awareness of this wandering eventually dawned on me, I observed the wandering mind (“thinking”), released it (“…”), and noticed its absence (“gone”). That was the story of my meditation session, but the rest of my day was another story entirely …
There are many types of meditation techniques, but nearly all of them have one instruction in common: when you discover your mind has been wandering, gently pause, observe that you have wandered, and then return to the instructions.
This act of changing direction functions as an attentional reset. It takes only a few moments, but it allows you to reset your focus, your attention, and (at least temporarily) free your mind from one task so that it can take up another.
A 15-minute meditation session might provide over a hundred opportunities for attentional resets, but you don’t need to take a 15-minute break to reset your attention. A few well-timed breaths, a short walk around your building, listening to some music, or almost any focused activity that you can give your undivided attention to, may provide a much needed reset.
I’m discovering that there is fairly large research literature on attentional resets (I’ll just call them “resets”) and I’ll try to share some of that with you. For starters, here is an article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (D.J. Levitin, Sunday Review, NY Times, 9 Aug 2014) and two posts from this blog:
Spring Break is right around the corner, and so are midterms, papers, and qualifying exams. Your chances of squeezing a meditation session into your schedule this week are probably zero, but you can still use this simple, portable, breathing technique to calm yourself down when you start to feel crazy:
1. Take a deep breath, expanding your belly. 2. Pause. 3. Exhale slowly to the count of five. 4. Repeat four times.
When you have a little more time, learn more about other controlled tools: Unsure What To Do? Breathe. Exhale. Repeat. (A Quiet Place, 14 Nov 2016)
Students of zen meditation are famous for their cultivation of the arts of haiku, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. Presence. Simplicity. The qualities that emerge on the cushion appear in every aspect of one’s life.
The cross-currents of zen, poetry, and calligraphy, have a rich history at Reed as well. “Loosen Up. Festoon.” by John Sheehy ’82 (Reed Magazine, March 2016) explores the currents sailed by Reed poet and zen master, Philip Whalen ’51 (Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen by David Schneider ’73). Continue reading
Apologies for the last-minute change, but the College is sponsoring a Support & Solidarity Rally today, 12-1, in the Library foyer. Because that event begins almost at the same time as ours, I’m delaying the start (and end) of sitting meditation by 5 minutes. So our first three bells will ring at 12:15 and final bells at 12:45.
Go to the Rally if you wish. Drop in at meditation when you can. There’s time for both (maybe).
Back in the 1960′s, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton wrote,
Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
He went on,
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ by Thomas Merton*
I have spent most of my 60+ years being ‘carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns.’ If the internet and email and work haven’t been enough, there has also been my natural desire to be valued by my peers and my unshakeable belief that my ‘value’ is rooted in my accomplishments, real and imagined.