How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist - Andrew B. Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman (2009)
TRANSFORMING YOUR INNER REALITY
9. FINDING SERENITY
Meditation, Intention, Relaxation,
God can change your brain. This much we have shown. But now our meditation research has brought us to a turning point, for we can distill from the world's spiritual practices a set of simple exercises that will enhance the neural functioning of the brain. When we do so, we improve our physical, emotional, and cognitive health, adding years of greater happiness to our lives.
As a doctor, I must emphasize that these techniques do not, in any way, replace the appropriate use of current medical practice,∗1 but if you add them to your daily repertoire of activities, you will find that they can have a very powerful effect on your life. They will boost the responsiveness of your immune system, sharpen your productivity at work, and enrich the quality of your relationships—not just with family and friends, but with strangers whom you might casually meet. Empathy and compassion will be enhanced, and you'll even find it easier to interact with those who hold beliefs that differ from your own. That's a lot to promise, but we feel that the thirty-plus years of research into the underlying mechanics of spiritual practice is so conclusive that we are planning to incorporate these exercises into various programs at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Spirituality and the Mind.∗2
The exercises in this chapter center on three main interconnecting principles: intention, relaxation, and awareness. Intention refers to the goal you want to manifest in your life, for everything we do has an underlying intention, whether we are conscious of it or not. We use our intention to determine what we want to focus on, and the goal can be anything you choose: money, power, peace, insight, romance, or a closer connection to God. Before you sit down to practice any of the following exercises, clarify what your intention is. Better yet, write it out on a slip of paper and keep it posted in a prominent place. When you clearly articulate your intention or goal in writing and speech, your frontal lobes can more efficiently direct your motor cortex to carry out your desire as you actively engage with others in the world.
It's an extraordinary process: You begin with a goal-oriented thought, and the more you focus on it, the more your brain begins to plot out strategies to carry that thought into the world. Other animals, even primates, can barely do this because they have far fewer neural connections that run from the frontal lobe to other parts of the brain.
Relaxation is the second principle, and it is found in most contemplative practices and stress-reduction programs. Thus, one begins the intention by consciously relaxing the body. Usually this involves focusing on the breath, but as we mentioned in the previous chapter, yawning may be a faster way to achieve deep relaxation and alertness.
Breath awareness serves another function, because it trains your mind to stay focused on a natural—and essential—body process. By focusing your conscious intention on your breath, you begin to slow down mental “busy-ness.” Your thoughts become fewer and more integrated, and your body begins to relax. In an fMRI∗3 experiment we just completed, when we compared a breath-based meditation to a meditation that focuses on a word or phrase, we discovered that breathing awareness increases activity in the limbic system while activity in the frontal lobe decreases. Thoughts recede, but the emotional intensity of the experience increases.
Relaxation is a key element in meditation—for keeping your body and brain tuned up—but for many people, focusing on one's breath will not achieve the deep state of relaxation associated with neurological health. That is why we've included several different kinds of relaxation exercises, and I strongly recommend that you try them all. Use the ones that feel best, but it's also a good idea to alternate between them. Over time you'll realize that the same technique affects your body in different ways.
Once a deep state of relaxation is reached, the next step involves becoming aware of your body in relation to the world. Focused breathing enhances self-awareness by increasing activity in the precuneus, an important circuit that regulates consciousness in the brain.1 But in mindfulness practices, this is only the first step in generating greater awareness and attentiveness. For example, you might be asked to observe a simple activity like eating or walking. Usually, you will do it in slow motion, paying attention to every tiny movement you make. If you put some food in your mouth, you'll pay attention to every muscle that is used when chewing, noting the subtle qualities of smell, flavor, texture, and temperature of each bite. You'll also pay attention to every muscle needed when you lift the fork to your mouth.
You can experiment with this technique right now. Because your attention is focused on reading, you'll notice that you aren't aware of the book that you are actually holding in your hands. But the moment I bring your attention to it, other sensations become conscious. Notice how heavy the book feels. Now notice the texture of the cover. What does the smoothness feel like? Is it warm, or cool? And what about the paper on which these words are imprinted? How thick is it? How dark or light is the ink? What happens if you focus on the spaces, rather than the words? Now do one more thing: Take in ten very deep breaths and watch how your sensation of the book changes.
Each of these shifts in awareness intensifies the experience of the book, which is what meditation is designed to do. It heightens the quality of the experience and reminds you that there is so much “experience” in everything we do. Meditation broadens your scope of conscious experience, and this strengthens important circuits in your brain. Furthermore, it neurologically helps your frontal lobes become more focused and organized. Research confirms that advanced meditators have a greater cognitive ability to recognize subtle changes, not only in themselves, but in the environment as well.2
There is another neurological benefit, for as you become aware of your mental processes, you learn to watch them and not react. You simply observe your thoughts and feelings as they constantly flow through your mind. Some refer to this as “mindfulness.” If an anxious, irritable, or depressing thought pops up, you note it, then immediately return to your breathing or relaxation, watching what the next thought or feeling will be. Frontal lobe consciousness increases to the point that it begins to neurologically suppress the emotional circuits in your brain. When this happens, feelings of anxiety, irritability, or depression subside, which has a profoundly beneficial effect on every other aspect of neural functioning.
WHAT HAPPENED TO GOD?
Even though some of the following exercises grew out of different religious traditions, the neurological benefits are primarily associated with intention, relaxation, and awareness. So, for the purposes of reaching the broadest audience, we have removed the religious inferences. However, if you incorporate your ethical, spiritual, or religious beliefs into these exercises, they can become even more meaningful and experientially rich. For example, we recently studied the religious practice known as the Rosary, which involves the repetition of specific prayers as you count a string of beads, and we found that performing it is associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress. Furthermore, you can bring many of the following techniques into your church, temple, or mosque and integrate them into the rituals of the religion. In fact, Eastern meditation has been widely adapted by many sects of Christianity.
This brings us to the question of religious involvement in general. Does it have a meaningful effect on your health? The answer, briefly put, is yes. The data on religious involvement consistently shows that those who regularly attend religious services live longer and have fewer problems with their health.∗4 Even those who attend once a month have a 30 to 35 percent reduced risk of death.3 The numbers are equally consistent for Caucasians, African Americans, and Mexican Americans, and for older individuals, religious activity is even more beneficial.4 Those who attend weekly are significantly less likely to have a stroke, but interestingly, religious involvement did not have an effect on heart attacks.5 Nor does it protect a person from abusing drugs.6 Overall, it appears that religious activities and beliefs have only a minor effect on an individual's use of drugs.
Are there any drawbacks to religious involvement? Yes, but it mostly involves issues concerning anger and fear. As we mentioned in Chapter 7, if you see God as a punishing figure, or have negative attitudes toward the clergy or other church members, you will be inclined toward poorer health and depression.7 And if you find yourself in conflict with your religious feelings or beliefs, your health can deteriorate and your risk of dying will increase.8 So by all means, pick a religious system or spiritual practice that makes you feel good about yourself and others.
CONFRONTING THE BELLIGERENT BRAIN
The exercises we will describe can change your brain in a matter of minutes, but many people resist doing them, even when they feel an improvement in cognitive function and mood. Why? There are different explanations, but the one that makes the most neurological sense is this: After spending decades building a somewhat stable personality to handle life's tribulations, the brain is hesitant to alter its underlying beliefs. After all, even if your behavior is dysfunctional, it has helped you to survive, which is what your brain is primarily designed to do.
It took your brain decades to form these habits, and it's not easy to turn them off. Old neural circuits do not disappear, especially if they are tinged with negative or stressful memories. In fact, it takes a lot of metabolic energy to grow new dendrites and axons or rearrange synaptic connections that have been firmly established over the years. Furthermore, any disruption in old neural patterns creates a certain degree of anxiety in the brain. That old limbic system, which is largely responsible for maintaining synaptic stability, is not as flexible as the creative frontal lobes. Thus, it's easy to dream up a new idea, but exceedingly difficult to get the rest of the brain to comply. Even if you succeed in changing different aspects of your personality, don't be surprised if old patterns of behavior reassert themselves from time to time.
So what is the solution to this neural resistance to change? Mark and I recommend three things: a conscious commitment to make a small improvement every day, a good dose of social support to help you honor that commitment, and a hefty serving of optimism and faith.
Oh, and one other thing: a willingness to practice, at the very least, for a few minutes every day. With practice, you can build up to twenty to forty minutes a day, which may be the ideal range of time to enhance the neural functioning of your brain.
BEGIN WITH A SIMPLE GOAL
When learning meditation on your own, it is wise to begin with simple goals, then work your way up the ladder to more complex tasks. At that point you can even work in some of the loftier ideals of forgiveness and compassion. But if you ultimately want to promote world peace, start by generating a few minutes of peacefulness during a coffee break. Then extend it into your lunch hour. Yawn a few times and take several deep breaths when you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic, and send a small blessing to the driver who just cut you off. At first you'll feel some resentment, but soon you'll notice an overall lessening of frustration.
Pick a simple goal for today—right now. It doesn't matter what you choose, because if you focus on the three main principles—relaxation, focused awareness, and intention—your brain will stimulate neurological circuits to help you accomplish that goal. The key to reaching any goal is conscious commitment, and the first step required is to stay focused on the idea. Focused awareness teaches you to ignore competing goals or desires, and relaxation will teach you patience, something that is essential to help you over those moments when you think that the meditation is doing nothing at all. Whether you are aware of it or not, neuroscience demonstrates that benefits are unconsciously taking place.
Beginners often find it frustrating to stay focused on something as simple as relaxation or the breath. Irritating thoughts intrude, so if you find that you can't turn them off, shift your goal to passively watching them. I mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating: By training yourself to observe your thoughts, you are learning to subdue the emotional reactivity that normally governs the neural activity of the brain. Sitting quietly and watching your thoughts and feelings may seem boring, but for people who ruminate on anxious or depressing thoughts, it turns out to be a profoundly therapeutic process. In fact, rumination on negative thoughts and emotions intensifies and prolongs the experience,9 and it stimulates the amygdala to generate increased anxiety and fear.10
Still, if you are like most beginning meditators, it can drive you nuts to just sit there and watch your mind telling you that you're a fool to be sitting there, doing nothing. After all, your frontal lobes are inclined to induce you to do something—anything, for that matter. It's a powerful incentive, driven by parental and societal norms and maintained by all the beliefs you have melded together over the years. In fact, your mind can generate so many distracting thoughts and reasons to dissuade you from doing these exercises that a few good books may be needed to keep you on the mindfulness path. Meditation and relaxation CDs are particularly helpful since the instructions are easier to follow when you listen to a spoken voice. In fact, when we conduct our research with initiates, we often send them home with an audio-recorded exercise. (In Appendix C you'll find a list of recommendations for a variety of books, CDs, and training programs.)
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
So how long should you practice? It's up to you. Research studies often use a specific amount of time such as an eight-week training program with up to fifty minutes of practice each day, but if you only feel comfortable meditating for five or ten minutes, once or twice a day, then trust your intuition. Obviously, the more time spent, the greater the results. I would recommend that if you want to create a formal program, try to set aside a specific time of day like the first thing in the morning after you awake, shortly after work, or the last thing in the evening before bed. A regular time trains your brain to get into the habit of being mindfully relaxed. In our studies, we have found that those who set a specific time received the greatest degree of benefit.
Here's a list of the exercises that we have included in this chapter:
1. Breathing Awareness (page 179)
2. Deep Yawning (page 182)
3. The Relaxation Response (page 184)
4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (page 185)
5. Visualization and Guided Imagery (page 187)
6. Candle Meditation (page 192)
7. The Centering Prayer (page 193)
8. Walking Meditation (page 195)
9. Memory Enhancement (page 199)
10. Sitting with Your Demons (page 201)
11. The Imaginary Fight (page 205)
12. Sending Kindness and Forgiveness to Others (page 206)
In developing your personalized “brain enhancement” program, we recommend that you do three of these exercises each day. Nearly every meditation and stress-reduction technique begins with a breath awareness exercise, so we suggest that you begin with Exercise 1. Exercises 2 through 5 will take you into deeper states of relaxation, so you should select at least one of these to practice every day. On different days, you can switch between them, and as you become more skilled, you can vary them or combine them at will. Finally, pick one of the more formal meditations (6 through 9) to practice each day.
When you combine these breathing, relaxation, and meditation exercises, you will have created a basic brain-enhancement program to provide you with a twenty-to forty-minute daily practice. But if you don't have the time to practice this long, select one of the exercises that most closely aligns with your intention, desire, or goal. Perhaps at another time (for example, before going to bed), you'll be able to add another exercise or two.
Exercises 10 and 11 are specifically designed to use when you are dealing with anger, irritability, and frustration, and Exercise 12 focuses on forgiveness and self-love. However, you'll get the most from these meditations if you first begin with a breathing awareness and relaxation exercise.
TEST-DRIVING YOUR BRAIN ENHANCEMENT PROGRAM
As you go through the twelve exercises in this chapter, practice each one, as best you can, while you read. Then select the ones you plan to practice tomorrow. Write them on a sheet of paper, and set an alarm clock to remind you when to begin. As I mentioned earlier, your brain will neurologically provide you with an endless stream of resistances, which is one of the first things all beginning meditators discover. And don't feel bad if the resistance doesn't fade away. Even the Dalai Lama says he has trouble meditating, which is why he practices all the time.
Before we begin, I want to include a brief note about sitting positions, postures, and the use of mantras, prayers, or sounds. Different teachers will sometimes argue that one specific posture or prayer is more effective than others, but the neurological evidence disagrees. You can stand, sit on a Zen cushion, recline in your favorite chair, or lie down. What is important is that you feel comfortable and relaxed. The only drawback with lying down is that you might fall asleep.
Nor has any specific mantra or sacred word been proven to be better than another for obtaining healthy neurological results. Instead, we recommend that you choose a phrase that has meaning for you, because this will significantly enhance your practice. The brain actually “marks” these important rituals, and thus each time you perform them, your memory circuits will guide you into the desired state more quickly and with greater intensity.
EXERCISE 1: BREATHING AWARENESS
Some meditations use passive techniques in which the practitioner is instructed to simply pay attention to his or her natural breathing patterns, while others use various forms of controlled breathing: light, deep, slow, rapid, nasal, mouth, or a combination of styles. Gentler forms of breathing enhance awareness and relaxation, while vigorous styles increase emotional intensity at the expense of feeling relaxed. Research has shown that breathing exercises lower stress and anxiety, improve coping skills, help people deal with substance abuse, improve their general sense of well-being, and improve self-esteem. Breathing exercises also help people deal with problems such as panic disorder, heart disease, and lung disease.
WHAT'S SO SPIRITUAL
In Western cultures, breathing would not be considered a spiritual activity, but in Eastern traditions it is the core of spiritual practice. Why? It's partially a matter of semantics. The Sanskrit word for breath is prana, but prana also means “life force” or “vital energy.” In the Hindu and Taoist traditions, the breath is also a metaphor for “spirit” and “soul.” Thus, by regulating your breath, you deepen your spirituality. Buddhism shifted the focus to the mind and devised breathing meditations that would give you greater control over mental and emotional states. This, it turns out, is neurologically effective. In Eastern traditions, developing consciousness and mental control are genuine spiritual pursuits, and it all begins with the breath.
Slow focused breathing triggers the body's relaxation response.11 It also increases dopamine levels in different parts of the brain during the first ten minutes of meditation, which explains why the experience is pleasurable.12
Deeper breathing triggers a different neurological response and initially decreases activity in the frontal lobes. It lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn lowers blood flow in other parts of the brain and reduces cognitive activity. Simply put, it helps to calm your mind, so if you have trouble turning down your thoughts, deepen your breathing as you meditate.
Deep or rapid breathing also has a stimulating effect on the limbic system, and this can trigger a wide variety of emotional responses. If you do it for even a few minutes, it can disrupt your consciousness in unexpected and sudden ways. For this reason, we suggest you limit deep or rapid breathing to no more than thirty seconds at a time, then return to a gentler breathing rhythm.
In general, when meditating, we recommend that you breathe through your nose. Why? It turns out that nasal breathing increases the release of nitric oxide in the body, and this improves the functioning of your lungs and your circulatory system.13 Increased nitric oxide may also assist in the lowering of anxiety, especially in socially intense situations.14 Nasal breathing, like yawning, also serves to keep the internal temperature of the brain in balance.15
So let's get going with the most basic meditation practice in the world—breathing. We'll begin with you sitting in a chair, but later you may try other postures, like sitting upright on a cushion on the floor. If you have someone reading this to you, close your eyes; it will help you to concentrate better.∗5
1. Sit down in a comfortable chair, in a quiet place where nothing will disturb you for the duration of the exercise. Rest your hands in your lap and uncross your legs, placing your feet flat on the floor.
2. Now, do nothing more than pay attention to your breath. Breathe in slowly through your nose, and notice the cool temperature of the air.
3. Now, slowly exhale through your nose. Notice the temperature as you breathe out. How warm is it?
4. Continue to slowly breathe in and out through your nose ten times, and notice how the sensations change. Take nice, slow, deep breaths in and out. Try not to think about anything other than your breath.
5. If your mind wanders, don't get frustrated, just return to focusing on your breathing in and out. Notice too how focusing on your breathing affects your thoughts. Notice each thought or feeling, then immediately return to your breath.
6. Now, shift your focus to your chest, and feel how it rises and falls with each breath you take. Slowly breathe in to the count of five, then slowly breathe out to the count of five. Do this ten times and then return to your normal breathing. Notice how it has changed, and notice if it feels different. Are you breathing slower? Or deeper? Or more shallow? How far down into your lungs can you feel the coldness of the air? Take another five breaths and notice how the sensation in your lungs begins to change.
7. Now shift your attention to your abdomen. Take a deep breath in to the count of five, and watch how your chest and belly moves. Which moves first, your chest or your belly? Does your belly expand when you breathe in, or contract? Take ten more breaths and watch how it changes the movement in your abdomen and chest.
8. Now return to your normal breathing and listen to the sounds in the room. Do they seem more intense? Notice how many different sounds you can hear, both inside and outside your body. Once more, return your awareness to your body. Does it feel more tense or relaxed? Does it feel more warm or cool? Are there any parts of your body that seem tense or uncomfortable? Just notice the tension, and take another deep breath through your nose.
9. Now, slowly breathe through your mouth. Notice how this changes the movement of your belly and your chest. Repeat this deep breathing ten times, counting the seconds as you breathe in, and counting the seconds as you breathe out.
10. Shift your attention to your mouth and feel the cold air across your tongue as you breathe in. Now feel the warmth when you breathe out. Shift your attention to the roof of your mouth, and notice how different the temperature feels. Return to your natural pattern of breathing and notice any differences you feel. Are you more relaxed or more tense? Do you feel more tired or awake? Whatever you are feeling, don't judge it. Just notice it and accept it, and return to watching your breath.
11. Now bring this exercise to a close. Slowly look around the room, turning your head from one side to the other. Then slowly rise from your chair. Take a moment to see how you feel standing up, and consciously breathe in and out. Slowly start to walk, and see if you can continue to be mindful of your breath as you return to your daily routines.
You can do this whole exercise in just a few minutes or for as long as twenty to thirty minutes. The longer you do it, the more peaceful and relaxed you will feel. This practice trains your mind to be still, but neurologically it is in a heightened state of awareness—the perfect state in which to set about on the tasks that you need to do. As you become more familiar with breathing awareness, feel free to vary it in any way you like, combining it with any of the following exercises, or just watching how your mind responds as you consciously breathe in and out.
EXERCISE 2: DEEP YAWNING
Now that you have had the experience of “mindful” breathing, I want you to compare how yawning affects your awareness, alertness, and bodily relaxation. Even though I enticed you to yawn in the previous chapter, I'm formalizing it here because it is so important for your brain. Yawning will physiologically relax you in less than a minute, and this allows you to move more rapidly into other meditation states. Start the exercise by doing the following:
1. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won't be disturbed by others. Stand in a place where your arms are free to swing side to side. You can sit, but standing allows you to achieve a fuller inhalation.
2. Begin by taking a very deep breath and stretching your mouth wide open. As you exhale, make a long, sighing sound. Don't worry if you don't feel like yawning or don't believe you can. Just use your memory and fake a series of yawns. Continue faking them and pause briefly after each yawn. By the fifth or sixth one you'll feel a real one coming on.
3. Pay close attention to what happens in your mouth, your throat, your chest and belly, and don't be surprised if your eyes start watering.
4. You should allow yourself about twelve to fifteen yawns with a few seconds pause between each one. The total time for this exercise should be about two minutes.
If you have trouble yawning, get together with a family member or friend. Yawning is a “contagious” activity, for if you hear and see someone else yawn, it will neurologically stimulate the same response in you.
Conscious yawning generates a deep sense of relaxation, calmness, and alertness, and as we detailed in the previous chapter, it stimulates a unique circuit in the brain that enhances self-reflective consciousness, the key to any contemplative or spiritual practice. Yawn before you tackle a difficult problem, and yawn when you find yourself in a conflict with another person. If you do aerobic exercises, yawn at various times and you may feel an immediate improvement in motor coordination. Yawning will help reduce stress, literally in a matter of minutes.
EXERCISE 3: THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard made this meditation famous thirty years ago, and it is one of the most researched techniques in the world. Today it is used in hundreds of stress reduction programs throughout the country, generating neurological and psychological states of serenity and health.16 You simply focus on a word, phrase, or mantra—love, peace, God, om, etc.—that makes you feel happy, peaceful, or calm, and you repeat it as you breathe slowly and deeply. Or, if you prefer, you can recite a brief passage from a sacred text.
What matters is that you find it personally meaningful and relaxing, not which religious tradition you choose. In one intriguing study, equal benefits were obtained by those who used “om mani padme hum” (Buddhism), “Rama, Rama” (Hinduism), “Lord have mercy (Christianity), or “Shalom” (Judaism).17 In fact, mere repetition of any positive phrase will reduce stress, anxiety, and anger while simultaneously improving one's quality of life.18 This exercise has been adapted from Dr. Benson's work:
1. Find a comfortable place to sit where you won't be disturbed, and close your eyes.
2. Take several deep breaths, and as you exhale, silently, or with a whisper, say a word, phrase, or sound that gives you a feeling of serenity or joy (peace, love, slow down, relax, om, God, etc.).
3. Stay with your breathing and the repetition of your personal mantra. Repeat the mantra slowly with your breathing for about ten to twenty minutes.
4. If unwanted thoughts or feelings intrude, acknowledge them and let them go, returning to the repetition of your mantra. Don't try to achieve a particular goal or state; just keep focusing on your word for the full ten to twenty minutes.
5. When you finish, sit quietly for a few moments and then open your eyes. Notice how you feel, yawn three times, and slowly move about the room.
If you do this exercise once each day, you will notice, in just a few weeks, significant shifts in your awareness and behavior. You'll feel calmer, less anxious, and more receptive. You may even find, as Benson's research uncovered, that you lose some of your desire to smoke, drink, or overeat. Feel free to change your mantra as often as you like, paying attention to how different concepts affect your awareness in different ways.
EXERCISE 4: PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION
Some people have a very difficult time using their mind to relax their body, so I often recommend this technique, which was developed in the 1920s by the American physiologist Edmund Jacobson. I call it the “heavy artillery” of relaxation training because it is particularly effective with people who are unusually tense. It is useful in reducing stress and anxiety, helping with pain, fibromyalgia, heart disease, and a variety of neurological, psychological, and physical disorders.19 It has also been effective to help people relax before operations, and it speeds up post-operative recovery.20
Progressive muscle relaxation was the first technique I ever tried on other people. When I was in junior high school, I did a report on progressive muscle relaxation, so I experimented on my whole class. They all loved it, and one person even fell asleep (but then, that wasn't so unusual in my school). Which reminds me: Many people report that this exercise, when practiced before going to bed, helps them fall asleep. In fact, studies have shown that progressive muscle relaxation is just as effective as taking a variety of sleep-inducing medications.21 And if you pair it with music, the effects appear to be enhanced.22
Progressive muscle relaxation is easy to do. Essentially you tighten and then relax each muscle group in the body, and in between you take a nice deep breath or yawn. The exercise is best done lying down, on a thick carpet or mat, but you can do it in any large well-padded chair. I also recommend that you have someone read this to you if you are especially tense, or make or purchase a recording. But for now, try to do as many steps as possible as you read. If the deep breathing makes you dizzy, take smaller and shorter breaths.
1. First, take a deep breath, hold it as long as you can, then breathe out as much air as possible. Again, hold your breath as long as you can before inhaling. Repeat this five times.
2. Next, take a deep breath in, and as you do this, tense all the muscles in your body, from head to toe, and hold it as long as you possibly can (most people can do this for about ten to twenty seconds). Then relax everything, expelling the air from your lungs. Do this three more times. Then breathe out and relax all the muscles in your body.
3. Take another deep breath, and starting at the top of your head, tighten up all of your face, then let it go as you breathe out.
4. Breathe in deeply, scrunch up your forehead and hold it for five seconds. Then release, breathing out.
5. Breathe in, tighten your mouth and jaw, hold it for five seconds, and release as you breathe out. Now stretch your mouth open as wide as you can. Hold it for five seconds, and release. Take another deep breath and yawn, and release all of the tension in your face.
6. Take a deep breath in, pull your shoulders up toward your head, and tighten all of the muscles in your neck. Hold for five seconds, then push your shoulders way down as you exhale. Slowly roll your head from side to side as you fully and completely relax.
7. Take another deep breath in and tighten your arms and your hands. Clench your fists tightly and hold them tight for as long as you can. Breathe out and relax your arms and hands. Breathe in, push your arms into the chair or floor, hold for ten seconds, and release, breathing out. Shake out your hands and arms, then take another deep breath. Yawn, and take a few moments to sense the relaxation in your upper body and face.
8. Next, take in a breath and tighten your abdominal muscles. Hold it for a count of ten, then relax, pushing all the air out of your lungs. Push your stomach out, pull it in, push it out again, and then let all of your tension go. Repeat the pushing and pulling ten times.
9. Take another deep breath, and tighten your buttocks. Hold it as long as you can, then breathe out and relax. Breathe in, tighten your upper legs, then quickly relax as you breathe out. Breathe in, tighten your calves, hold for five seconds, then release. Breathe in again, scrunch up your toes, hold, and release, then stretch them upward and apart as you slowly breathe out all the air in your lungs. Now shake your feet and legs as fast as you can for another ten seconds, then rest.
10. Yawn, and spend a few moments feeling the relaxation flowing through your legs. Once more, take a huge breath in, tighten your entire body, hold for ten seconds, then release as you force all the air out of your lungs.
11. Do a body scan: Feel how relaxed your face is … then your neck … your shoulders … your arms … your chest… your abdomen … your back … your legs … and finally your feet. Lie there for a few minutes and gently stretch.
12. When you feel ready, slowly stand up, and slowly walk around, feeling how each part of your body moves. But take it easy for a few minutes—you are very relaxed at this point, and your consciousness may be in an altered state of awareness.
EXERCISE 5: VISUALIZATION AND GUIDED IMAGERY
Even if you don't think you're good at visualization, your brain is built to envision virtually every thought it has. Even abstract notions like peace are first processed unconsciously within the visual centers of the cortex. As I've said before, the more you visualize a spiritual or emotional state, or a specific goal in life, the easier it will be for your brain to bring that intention into your inner and outer reality.
Guided imagery simply refers to the process of using pleasant visions and memories to induce a deep state of relaxation, and it has been proven to be very effective in reducing pain.23 It effectively lowers anxiety and depression in people before and after they undergo a medical or surgical intervention,24 and if you visualize a positive outcome prior to surgery, you'll have a better recovery.25 Guided imagery and visualization will even buffer the effect of stress on the immune system, making you less susceptible to viral infections.26
In a recent brain-scan study I just completed, guided imagery reduced the symptoms of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by lowering activity in the emotional centers of the brain and raising activity in the areas that allow us to voluntarily control our feelings and thoughts.27 Thus, guided imagery techniques can help individuals deal with trauma, as well as a variety of physical and mental illnesses. In fact, a recent fMRI study conducted at Yale University found that visualization and guided imagery stimulate almost the exact same areas in the brain that our meditation subjects activated when doing Buddhist, Christian, and yoga meditation techniques.28
To experience the benefits of visualization, choose any place—imaginary or real—that feels beautiful and relaxing: a beach, a mountaintop, a waterfall, a sailboat on a lake. Now, pretend you're watching a movie. Can you see yourself there? Can you slowly turn around and visualize the tiny details on the ground and in the sky? If you're at work and feeling especially pressured and tense, you can take a three-minute “vacation” to calm the neural dissonance in your frontal lobes by simply recalling a pleasant memory. If you wish, you can visualize a loved one, or a romantic scene. Let your fantasies take you to wherever they want to go. And, if you find that you have trouble visualizing, yawn a dozen times, because it stimulates an important part of the self-visualization process in your brain. Remember, imagination is what the brain does best, and pleasurable fantasies are like desserts, but completely calorie-free.
See how well you can visualize the following scenario, commonly used in self-hypnosis, guided-imagery therapy, and stress-relaxation programs. And remember, the slower you read, and the slower you speak, the more physiologically relaxed you'll become.
1. Find a quiet place to lie or sit down. Close your eyes and take five deep breaths, followed by four or five yawns.
2. Take another deep breath and visualize yourself lying on a warm, sunny beach. Feel the sun radiating through your skin and warming the muscles underneath. Feel yourself sinking into the warm, soft sand as you become more and more relaxed. Take another deep breath and feel yourself melting into the beach. Stay with this image for two or three minutes, and let your imagination take you wherever it wants to go.
3. Now, imagine yourself walking through a thick, humid, tropical forest. Take a deep breath and feel the warm damp air blow across your face. Visualize the path, surrounded by lush, green, tropical plants. Can you hear the birds chirping quietly in the trees? What do they sound like? What do they look like? What colors do you see?
4. As you walk down the path, you come around a bend. There, in front of you, is the most beautiful waterfall in the world. Watch how the water spills down the side of the mountain, over the rocks, and into a crystal clear pool of water.
5. Now step into the pool. Take a deep breath and feel the warm tropical water washing over your feet as you slowly step into the waterfall. Feel the clear, warm water gently flow over your head, washing away all of your tension and cares. Take three deep breaths, and with each exhalation, let the water wash all of your worries away.
6. Now feel your body melting into the pool. As you breathe in deeply, you feel yourself turning into a stream. As you and the water become one, you begin to slowly flow down the stream. Feel the sun shining overhead as you float down the river, far, far away from all of the tensions of the world. Watch where the river takes you, and continue the inner journey as far as it wants to go. When your journey is finished, notice how relaxed you feel.
When creating your personalized “vacation,” or when guiding a friend through these visualizations, remember to use repetitive words and phrases that evoke relaxation: warm, soft, deep, heavy, etc. For example, tell yourself that you are “feeling more and more relaxed … going deeper and deeper into relaxation … arms feeling warm and heavy and relaxed…” The repetition lulls you into a trancelike state of peace.
You can even use visualization and guided imagery with your children. At the pain management clinic at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, researchers found that a combination of guided imagery and progressive muscle relaxation was more effective than breath-based relaxation techniques when working with children who suffered from abdominal pain and discomfort.29 This is why, to achieve the greatest effect, we recommend that you combine as many techniques as you feel comfortable with.
Visualization is an important aspect for setting any goal, since much of your unconscious brain is oriented around a visual construction of the world. If you want to do better in sports, many studies have confirmed that visualizing your performance actually improves your game.30 The same is true for work. If you visualize a possible solution to a problem, the problem is more easily solved because it specifically activates cognitive circuits involved with working memory.31
Visualization helps us distance ourselves from a disturbing memory or problem, yet it simultaneously brings us closer to our desires. Thus, if you envision a sacred or spiritual symbol, it reinforces your religious beliefs. You can visualize yourself being a better golfer, or you can envision yourself as being a more ethical person, but in either case, your neural connections will help you actually achieve those goals.
MEDITATION AND PRAYER
The five exercises we have just described represent the core elements for remaining relaxed and alert. But we want to encourage you to go further by incorporating one or more of the following traditional meditation techniques, because they can make profound and permanent changes in your consciousness and your fundamental perceptions of the world. Our research has shown that they enhance memory, cognition, and attentiveness. Most important, they significantly lessen stress.
Three of the meditations below—Centering Prayer, Walking Meditation, and Sitting with the Demons—are variations of what are sometimes called “mindfulness-based” meditations. Mindfulness-based exercises have been widely studied and found to help people with depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, psoriasis, trauma, eating disorders, substance abuse, and a variety of psychopathological behaviors.32
In fact, most forms of meditation and intensive prayer practices have helped people with a wide variety of psychological and physiological problems, including attention deficit disorder, liver disease, HIV, and cancer. Obviously, meditation practices were not originally developed for these purposes. Instead, they were designed to create feelings of self-awareness, peacefulness, compassion, and spiritual enlightenment.
Research suggests that meditation consistently takes the practitioner into deep states of consciousness. When compared to everyday awareness, the brain, during meditation, is operating in an unusual way. And, since the underlying mechanics of meditation are theologically neutral, it can be integrated with any religious doctrine or creed, or used in schools to improve social cooperation and cognitive performance.∗6
Today, meditation comprises a huge group of practices that range from the deeply spiritual to the completely secular. Some meditation practices involve the repetitive focus on a particular object, while others involve the neutral observance of the thoughts and feelings produced by the mind. There is even a technique called “emptiness meditation,” which we will go into later.
Most meditations begin by calming the mind through relaxation, breath awareness, or maintaining one's focus on a specific object or thought. Then they progress to the more complex strategies of watching one's feelings and thoughts. In advanced stages, different meditations might focus on a variety of philosophies or esoteric goals (developing forgiveness, enhancing sensuality, dissolving the self, merging with the cosmos, expanding consciousness, becoming one with God, etc.).
In fact, there are so many meditation techniques to choose from that the trick is to find the one that resonates best with who you are and what your specific goals might be. A meditation that is spiritually based might be great for a religious person but not an atheist. Some people might like meditations that involve movement (like yoga), while others may prefer a meditation that integrates mantras and prayers. So if you try a meditation program and don't like it, don't reject the other types. Somewhere out there is the perfect one for you. Pick one that is consistent with your personal, ethical, and spiritual beliefs, and integrate those beliefs into every exercise you do. And if you choose to work with a meditation teacher, make sure that his or her underlying philosophy is consistent with your own.
EXERCISE 6: CANDLE MEDITATION
This first exercise is considered a concentration meditation, and neuro-logically, it is designed to interrupt the endless stream of chaotic thinking that normally occurs in the frontal lobe. Ideally, you should do this in a darkened room, but that isn't essential.
1. Begin by placing a candle that will burn for fifteen minutes in a safe holder, on a dining room table or coffee table, close to a comfortable chair. Smells can augment meditation experiences, so a scented candle may be used. Sit down, with feet flat on the floor, with a lighter or matches in your hand.
2. Take a few deep breaths and yawn, just focusing on the unlit candle. Then, in slow motion, light the candle, and take another deep breath. Slowly put the lighter down, and sitting up straight, begin to gaze at the candle. Blink as little as possible.
3. Bring your focus to the flame. Let it fill your entire consciousness as you observe how it dances and flutters. What colors does it make? Does the flame grow taller, then retreat? Keep watching all of the qualities of the flame for three or four minutes.
4. If interruptive thoughts come into your mind, just let them be there, acknowledge them and let them go, and bring your focus back to the candle flame.
5. Now close your eyes and visualize the flame in your mind. Watch how it dances and flutters in your imagination. If the image of the flame fades, open your eyes, study the flame, then close your eyes again. Keep doing this until you hold the image of the flame in your mind for five minutes with your eyes closed.
That's it! It's simple, powerful, and enjoyable. Each time you do the meditation, try to extend the time. In some practices, you use your imagination to become one with the candle. To do this, you imagine the flame coming closer and closer to your closed eyes. Then you imagine that you're inside the flame.
In another variation, you imagine the flame burning away all of your thoughts, desires, and problems: anger, stress, impatience, greed, etc. You can also use other objects—a pretty rock or a crystal, an autumn leaf, or even the food on your plate—to immerse your attention upon. Breathing meditations teach you to become aware of your inner state and body, whereas object meditations, like this candle exercise, train your mind to become more observant of the outside world.
EXERCISE 7: THE CENTERING PRAYER
When we brain-scanned a group of Franciscan nuns, they used the Centering Prayer, a contemplative method first described in the fourteenth century text The Cloud of Unknowing.33 According to Friar Thomas Keating, one of three Trappist monks who reintroduced this technique to the Christian community in the 1970s, it brings the practitioner “into the presence of God” by “reducing the obstacles caused by the hyperactivity of our minds and of our lives.”34
This meditation is very similar to various forms of Eastern contemplation, and as we discovered in our lab, the neurological effects of the Centering Prayer are nearly identical to the mindfulness practices in Buddhism. It is also similar to Benson's relaxation response, which I described before, but the goal is different: to feel connected, immersed, and unified with the conceptual object of your contemplation. The nuns’ goal was to feel closer to God, but the Buddhist practitioners wanted to experience pure consciousness—an intense state of awareness of the world.
In a Centering Prayer, like other forms of mindfulness meditation, you are not concentrating on a single object or thought, nor do you repeat an expression or a phrase. Instead, you allow your mind to reflect on all the qualities associated with a particular idea, and you allow the thoughts and feelings to freely flow through your mind, taking you where they will.
As you engage in this form of meditation, you don't try to analyze the experience. You just let it unfold. There is no specific goal other than observation. You don't try to make your mind blank, and you don't even aim for peace.
For the purposes of this book, I have slightly modified the Centering Prayer so it may be incorporated into any secular or spiritual tradition. The original version, as developed for Catholic practitioners, can be found at www.centeringprayer.com. Begin by finding a comfortable place to sit where you will not be disturbed for twenty minutes.
1. First, identify what your objective is (finding inner peace, experiencing compassion for others, receiving the gift of God's presence, etc.). Or, if you prefer, pick a particularly meaningful quote, poem, or passage from a book.
2. When you have found a concept or passage you wish to explore on a deeper, intuitive level, sit down in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and make sure all of your tensions are gone.
3. Now focus your awareness on your selected object of contemplation. Do not repeat any words or expressions to yourself. Just be aware of all the thoughts, perceptions, feelings, images, and memories that your contemplation evokes.
4. Notice how you are feeling. Are you happy? Joyful? Sad? Now bring your attention back to your goal, and again watch what feelings and thoughts emerge.
5. If your mind wanders too far away, gently return your awareness by taking several deep breaths, bringing your focus back to your goal, phrase, or prayer. Again, let your thoughts take you wherever they want to go.
6. If the object of your contemplation becomes vague or disappears, simply watch what happens next. Don't “do” anything or “make” anything happen—just let the experience naturally unfold. After several minutes return again to the object of your contemplation. Do not choose to focus on a different phrase or prayer. Instead, let the contemplation work on you.
7. Continue this process for a minimum of twenty minutes. Then slowly open your eyes. Remain silent for two more minutes while you take slow, deep breaths and yawns.
It is helpful to have a muted timer to let you know when twenty minutes have passed. During long meditations, you will notice pains, itches, twitches, and periods of restlessness. Observe them the best you can, but if you feel impelled to move around or scratch, give yourself permission, then take several deep breaths and return to the meditation practice.
The worst thing you can do in meditation is to critically judge your performance—and yet you'll find that there's a critical voice inside of all of us that is constantly judging every little thing we do. Meditation practice teaches us how to be accepting of who we are, of our weaknesses as well as strengths. Remember: Self-criticism stimulates the amygdala, which releases myriad stress-provoking neurochemicals and hormones.
EXERCISE 8: WALKING MEDITATION
Another important step (literally!) of meditation is to bring your awareness and relaxation into the world through action. By walking and focusing on your breathing—along with an awareness of the world around you—you can achieve a very calm and balanced state of mind. In particular, this state allows you to actually experience the world in a very pleasant and engaging way. You'll even perceive the world more intensely than in your usual state of mind. Since walking is a well-established technique for enhancing physical fitness, walking meditation has the added benefit of providing a mild form of exercise, which may be especially beneficial for people with heart and lung disease. There is even evidence to suggest that it can enhance memory, attention, and quality of life,35 as well as delaying the effects of age-related disorders.36 Since we all have to walk at least a few minutes every day, why not make it a part of your daily brain-enhancement program? All you need to do is to bring attention to the act of taking a single step.
The following exercise integrates a traditional Buddhist walking meditation with Moshé Feldenkrais's “awareness through movement” techniques. Feldenkrais's work is, in essence, a mindfulness meditation, and research has shown it to be effective for reducing pain and enhancing mood, self-awareness, and overall health.37 In fact, just imagining that your movements become more flexible significantly increases the flexibility and coordination in that part of the body you are focusing on.38 Why? Because the motor cortex is highly interconnected with the imagination-processing centers in the frontal, occipital, and parietal lobes.39 In other words, our thoughts and behavior are inseparably intertwined.
The exercise appears simple, but it really requires concentrated attention and awareness, so watch out for that inner critic who is always in a rush. However, if you experience any balance or coordination problems, do not try this exercise without assistance from a friend.
1. First, find a place where you can walk for about ten or twenty paces. A long hallway will do, or a lawn or open park, but try to find a quiet and pleasant spot, like a garden.
2. Stand up (you can hold this book in your hands as you follow these instructions) and gently shift your weight back and forth between each foot. But take your time. Notice at what point the heel of one foot comes off the ground, and notice how your weight shifts onto the various parts of your other foot. Do you have more weight on the balls of your feet, on the side, or on your heel? Continue to shift your weight back and forth for at least sixty seconds.
3. Now slowly shift your weight forward and backward, and notice what happens in your toes. What does your big toe do as you move? Your little toe? Repeat this for another minute.
4. Continue to shift your weight forward and backward, but turn your attention to the part of your body that makes you shift. Is it in your ankles? Your calves? Your hips? Notice how hard it is to identify where the movement comes from, and continue to rock for another minute.
5. Next, in slow motion, begin to take a single step forward. But only lift your heel a couple of inches. In which muscle does the step begin? In your foot, or leg, or knee? Raise your heel ten times.
6. Now change to the other foot and lift your heel another ten times. Notice how different it feels. Shift your attention to your knee, and notice how it feels.
7. Slowly, very slowly, lift your foot a few inches from the ground, and pay attention to the subtle body adjustments that must be made for balance. Lower your foot and raise the other foot two inches. Continue to alternate twenty times as you study which parts of your body are involved. What happens in your hips? How much does your body sway? How does it make you feel to move so slowly and deliberately? Notice any judgments, take a deep breath, and let them go.
8. Now begin to take slow steps forward, four steps with every breath in, four steps with every breath out. After a few minutes take three steps with each inhalation and exhalation. Do this for another two minutes, then try taking only two steps as you slowly breathe in, and two more steps as you exhale. Practice integrating your breathing with your walking for the next five minutes, walking as slowly as you can.
9. When you reach the end of the hall or yard (or after about twenty steps), turn around in slow motion. Take two minutes to turn around, watching how your balance works, then slowly walk back to where you began.
At first, each step will feel uncoordinated, but as you become aware of how your feet, legs, hips, back, and shoulders move, your steps will become more fluid. This is an ideal exercise to do after a sitting meditation, and for many people it's so intriguing that they can do it for a half hour or more.∗7 The longer you practice, the more you'll become aware of the texture of the ground, the colors of the grass, the sound of people talking, and the exquisite movements of your body. Whatever you perceive, focus on it, and then come back to your breathing and take another step.
And don't forget to smile while you walk. As the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Your half-smile will bring calm and delight to your steps and your breath, and help sustain attention. After practicing for half an hour or an hour, you will find that your breath, your steps, your counting, and your half-smile all blend together in a marvelous balance of mindfulness.”40
To fully appreciate the power of walking meditation, do it with your partner or a friend. With just a little practice, you'll find that you can take your relaxation with you anywhere. From a spiritual perspective, walking meditation also encourages you to bring your inner values into play with the world, thus helping you experience daily life with greater depth and unity.
EXERCISE 9: MEMORY ENHANCEMENT
The meditation that our memory-impaired patients used (see Chapter 2) is more of a concentration and repetition ritual than a form of mindfulness. It includes four different sounds that are sung, not said, and while this happens, you touch different fingers with each sound. The addition of movement and singing to any meditation appears to significantly enhance the brain's performance.41 Neurologically, there are both similarities and dissimilarities to other forms of meditation, which is not surprising, considering that it uses a complex movement ritual (a mudra, in Eastern terms) that activates a variety of motor and cognition centers in the brain. Our research suggests that the more complex you make your meditation, the more you enhance additional functions in the brain. Indeed, there are some esoteric meditations, like those practiced by the Sufi whirling dervishes, that require so much skill we would expect to find very enlarged circuits in distinctive areas of the brain.
Our subjects sang the sounds sa, ta, na, and ma as they touched each of their fingers with the thumbs of each hand. Take a moment and try it now, but don't be surprised if you feel a little odd at first. I did when I first tried it, and so did some of our patients. Touch your thumb and index finger when you say sa, your thumb and middle finger when you say ta, your thumb and ring finger when you say na, and your thumb and pinky when you say ma. Now you are ready to begin.
In the Kirtan Kriya tradition, each sound has a specific meaning that relates to the overall cycle of life or existence, but when we taught our memory patients, we did not emphasize the spiritual meanings of the sounds. Based upon an overview of mantra meditation research, it is not certain if the meanings have an effect on the neural enhancement of cognition. Thus, you are free to substitute any other sound or word that has meaning to you. But for the moment we'll teach you the technique in the same way we instructed our subjects. In our study, the sounds were sung out loud to the notes of A, G, F, and G (you can find them on a piano, guitar, or other instrument). However, different spiritual traditions sing this meditation using different notes. Singing, by the way, stimulates the anterior cingulate,42 which plays an important role in memory formation and cognition.
1. Start by finding a comfortable place where you can sit upright with good posture. Take two minutes to focus on your breathing, watching how your chest rises and falls.
2. Begin singing the sounds sa, ta, na, ma while you touch your fingers in succession on both hands. Continue for two minutes.
3. Next, repeat the sounds in a whisper while continuing the finger movements. You can still sing it, but just in a whisper. Do this for another two minutes.
4. Now, repeat the sounds internally. Say them silently to yourself while continuing the finger movements, and do this for four minutes.
5. Repeat the sounds in a whisper for another two minutes as you continue to touch your fingers on both hands.
6. Finally, sing the sounds out loud for the final two minutes as you touch your fingers in succession. Then rest and pay attention to how you feel.
Will your memory improve? Our research suggests that eight weeks of practice creates at least a 10 percent improvement. However, since other meditation studies have shown a wide range of cognitive enhancements, we suspect it is the underlying nature of meditation itself that works—intention, relaxation, and awareness—and the willingness to practice every day.
Since complexity is an important key to neural enhancement, we recommend that you create variations on this meditation. Mark, for example, used the basic structure to hike in the mountains. He chose four words—peace, happiness, compassion, and joy—and touched each finger as he said the words out loud as he walked. Then he took each word and spelled them out on his fingers. With peace, after he touched his four fingers for the first four letters, he touched his first finger again for the letter e. Then he spelled it again, starting with the second finger. If you try it, you'll see that it requires intense concentration, but that too is key to making neurological changes in the brain. The point I want to make is that you may modify any meditation to suit your interest or needs, and it can still enhance the overall functioning of your brain.
EXERCISE 10: SITTING WITH YOUR DEMONS
Anger and chronic negativity are cognitively, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually destructive. In fact, no other emotion is more difficult to control, or more likely to interfere with your meditation practice, than anger. So I want to offer you several meditation and visualization techniques to help transform irritability into love.
Anger is a defense we are born with, but it is an enemy to dialogue, empathy, and trust. Until it subsides, we cannot negotiate or communicate our needs, nor resolve a conflict with ease. In relationships, anger seems to pose a double bind: If we express it openly, we stimulate defensive neural circuits in the other person. Thus, whoever gets angry first (even if it is disguised behind a false smile) will lose the argument, even if that person's position was right. The only way out of this dilemma, the experts say, is to become intimately familiar with this destructive emotion and its many hidden forms: jealousy, pessimism, prejudice, cynicism, sarcasm, criticism, selfishness, etc. We have to watch it and study it—in other words, meditate on it—if we want to uncover the feelings it may hide. As Steven Levine wrote:
Rather than pushing [such feelings] down or spitting them out, we can let them come gently into awareness. We can start to give them space, to get a sense of their texture, of their voice, of their inclination. We begin to investigate the nature of the anger instead of getting lost in my anger.43
When dealing with anger and frustration, researchers have found that meditation, imagining volatile scenarios, and deliberately suppressing negative thoughts were equally effective in diffusing anger.44Deliberately substituting positive thoughts for negative ones is another effective strategy.45
If the anger is not severe, you can use mindfulness meditation to work through this destructive emotion.46 When we meditate upon the demons within, we become more observant and relaxed, allowing us to go deeper into our emotions without losing control. Thus, we can safely acknowledge our anger with greater detachment and clarity, and without expressing it to others. It may feel good at the moment to express anger openly, but hundreds of converging studies in psychology and neuroscience now confirm that the expression of anger only generates more of the same.
The only trick is to remember to meditate when you are angry, because anger interferes with nearly every cognitive process in the frontal lobes. That's why we want you to try this exercise now, when you're not angry, so it will be in your memory when you find yourself caught up in irritability, self-criticism, or frustration toward someone else. As with the other exercises, find a quiet place to sit, where you will not be disturbed by others or by the phone.
1. Take ten deep breaths, even if you don't feel like it, followed by ten fake or genuine yawns.
2. Recall a time from the past when you were very, very mad at a specific person. Picture the person's face in as much detail as you can, and spend a minute thinking about the things that made you angry. Take three more deep breaths and deepen the intensity of the memory. Tighten your jaw, tighten your fists, hold them for ten seconds, and then let them relax.
3. Allow yourself to remember the feelings of anger that you felt inside. Where do you feel the anger now? In your head? Your chest? Your belly? Take a deep breath and let your emotions take you in any direction they want, watching with detachment.
4. Observe your feelings as if you were watching a movie. Notice each feeling, and label each one with a simple word or phrase: “I feel angry and hurt,” or simply, “Anger … doubt… hurt.” Say it out loud, then let the feeling go and return to your breathing. Watch what the next feeling is and give it a label. Then let it go. Do this for three minutes, and after each minute of observation, note how you are feeling, then take a deep breath and yawn. The internal dialogue might sound something like this: “Anger—anger—sadness—pain—I feel like running away—I want to lash out and hit—I want to run away—I don't care that I'm angry—this meditation is stupid—I'm not getting anywhere with this—now I'm really sad—ah, the feeling is fading—no, it isn't…”
5. If your mind wanders to some other topic, simply take another deep breath and refocus on your angry memory. Notice if your feelings begin to change, but do not judge yourself.
6. Next, ask yourself if you have ever felt this kind of anger before, and make a mental “list” of all the times you can recall. Is there a person from kindergarten whom you can recall being angry at? Visualize that person and say his or her name aloud, if you recall it. Then do the same thing with first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth. Then high school: How many people do you recall being angry at when you were an adolescent? Say their names, take a deep breath, and let the memories and feelings fade away.
7. Now shift your attention to your family. Recall an instance of anger toward your mother, your father, a sibling, Take another deep breath and let these memories fade away.
8. Think about the last time you got angry. With whom? About what? Remember how you reacted. How does it make you feel now? Once more, take a deep breath and let those feelings go.
9. Yawn five times and note how your feelings have changed. If the anger is still there, don't judge it, condemn it, or condone it. Just accept it as a natural feeling inside.
The next time you feel angry toward someone, set aside ten minutes and improvise on the exercise above. Visualize the person's face. Watch where in your body you experience the anger, and use your breathing to explore all the memories of anger associated with that individual. For some people this may take far longer than ten minutes, but it's important to see how deep they run. See if the anger you feel reminds you of different people in the past, and take a few minutes to make a mental list of their names.
Often your anger will subside by observing it, but sometimes negative feelings run very deep, and they will not go away by meditating on them. But that is okay, because the practice trains your mind to slowly disconnect from your feelings. Simple observation is a frontal lobe activity, and the more you activate your frontal lobe and anterior cingulate, the more you'll decrease activity in the limbic areas that generate anger and hurt.
When dealing with difficult people in your present life, you may find it helpful to set aside a few minutes every day to practice this meditation in conjunction with the forgiveness meditation you will shortly learn. If you choose to meditate on the roots of your anger by simply watching where your thoughts and feelings go, in a few days or a week you should notice a distinct difference in how you emotionally process your anger. In fact, you might find that underneath the anger are other strong feelings, like hurt. Use the same structure I just taught you and substitute the new feeling for anger.
If you find yourself stuck in anger, I recommend that you do some form of aerobic exercise—you can even run around the block—until the anger subsides. It's almost impossible to stay angry when you're exercising, because any form of cardiovascular workout strongly activates frontal lobe circuits. Indeed, it may be the best and most reliable mood enhancer in the world.47
But meditation does something that exercise fails to do. It trains your mind to recognize the hundreds of subconscious thoughts associated with every mood. You start to understand how feelings work. By passively observing your emotions, you disengage from them, and this allows for a calmer mental state to take over. As far as we can tell, only human beings have the power to use their frontal lobes to quash destructive feelings and thoughts. And that is one of the most important lessons that meditation has taught.
EXERCISE 11: THE IMAGINARY FIGHT
When dealing with anger, it helps to have an arsenal of peacekeeping weapons on your side, and research has found that having an imaginary fight will interrupt anger, and thus keep it out of your dialogue with others.48 In fact, if you have an imaginary fight with someone you're angry at, you can discover what will and will not work, at least when it comes to getting what you want. Try this exercise the next time you feel angry at your partner, your child, or a friend, but for now—assuming you are not particularly angry with anyone—just recall an unresolved conflict from the past.
1. Visualize the person you were (or are currently) angry with. Scrunch up your face into a frown, and using your imagination, visualize the most unpleasant encounter you can: nasty expressions, a terrible fight, a screaming fit, or a cold, demeaning stare-down. Watch your visualization like a movie. Act it out in your imagination scene by scene. Imagine them insulting you, and respond by being as mean as you can. Let the spontaneous fight take over, and watch where it eventually leads. How does it end?
2. Next, think about the way you would normally confront this person. Say, in your mind, whatever comes to your mind. Yell at the person, or decide to talk in a firm tone.
3. Now imagine how that person responds. Ask yourself if that was the response you wanted to hear. If not, then repeat Step 2 by saying something different. How does your imaginary partner respond now? Keep repeating this step until you imagine how you can get the other person to respond the way you would like.
4. Finally, visualize the ideal encounter between you and the person toward whom you feel conflict. What could you say to make them relax and be open to your view? Play it out in your imagination, and see how your imaginary partner responds. Ask yourself: “Is it possible to actually interact with this person in real life?” If the answer is no, repeat this step again.
Usually, this exercise will help you quickly find a strategy that is likely to succeed when you actually confront the person you are having a problem with. Most people, when they're angry, don't take the time to do this, but if you turn it into an imaginative exercise, logic and reason will eventually win out. Thus, by using one's imagination, you can resolve many conflicts before they actually occur.
A suggestion: Whenever you confront a person about something that bothers you, begin with a genuine compliment. Otherwise, the other person will probably be on the defensive, and if so, your strategy may fail. Also, slow your speaking down; it will significantly decrease the blood pressure and muscle tension in both your and the other person's body.
EXERCISE 12: SENDING KINDNESS AND FORGIVENESS TO OTHERS
After you have interrupted your anger, I want you to do one more meditation before you engage with any person who has upset you. It is simple to do, but you'll be surprised at the amount of resistance you may feel, even if you're not feeling angry. In fact, it may be the most difficult—yet most important—meditation in the world. It is part of most mindfulness training programs, and interestingly, it is also the cornerstone of every major religious tradition: the golden rule of loving your neighbors as you would love yourself.
But the Buddha and Jesus went one step further: They recommended that you practice forgiveness by loving your enemies as well. Gandhi, when counseling a Hindu whose child was killed during a religious war, suggested that the man adopt an orphan, but he was told to raise the child as a Muslim. I know few individuals who would have the fortitude to follow Gandhi's solution for alleviating religious hatred, but it does not dismiss the importance that forgiveness plays when it comes to getting along with others.
Forgiveness improves family relationships,49 decreases depressive symptoms while enhancing empathy and life satisfaction,50 and it can heal a wounded romantic heart.51 Even the act of choosing to replace an unforgiving attitude with a forgiving one affects the peripheral and central nervous systems in ways that promote physical and psychological health.52 In addition, most forms of religious involvement increase your capacity to be forgiving,53 and so does meditation.
Take a moment to think about the person you hate the most, and imagine sending him or her love. It's not easy, is it? Most people would find it repugnant to think kindly about a psychopathic murderer, yet research has shown that victims of violent crime and war who can forgive their perpetrators have decreased anxiety and depression, while those who can't forgive are more inclined toward psychiatric disease.54
There are hundreds of books written on forgiveness, but the following meditation exercise stands out as my favorite.
1. Begin by sitting quietly. First, send love to yourself by repeating the following prayer ten times, out loud, or silently to yourself:
o May I be happy.
o May I be well.
o May I be filled with kindness and peace.
Notice how it makes you feel. If you feel uncomfortable, repeat this prayer by sending love to someone whom you love—a friend, or even a pet: “May you be happy, may you be well, may you be filled with kindness and peace.” Keep repeating it until you are filled with a warm, compassionate attitude toward that person.
2. Now turn that energy around and direct it to yourself: “May I be happy, may I be well, may I be filled with kindness and peace.” I cannot stress strongly enough the neurological necessity of generating self-love, so if you still have difficulty with this step, make this meditation a priority in your life.
3. Next, turn your attention to the person you like the most. Smile as you visualize his or her face and repeat the prayer above. Then return the love to yourself.
4. Then move on to another person, perhaps a family member or friend, and send that person your prayer. Notice how the feelings change when you think about this person.
5. Keep enlarging your circle by generating love to as many different people as you can: colleagues, neighbors, the mail carrier, etc. Again notice how the feelings change your mood.
6. Now extend your feelings to the people you find more difficult to love or forgive. Try saying the prayer and sending a loving thought to those who have hurt you in the past. If you feel resistance, don't fight it. Just acknowledge your feelings and come back to loving yourself.
7. Pick one person whom you find it difficult to forgive. Look for one small quality that you like about them—perhaps his smile, or the way she styles her hair—and focus your entire attention on that single trait. Try to recall one kind thing he or she once did, and concentrate on that. Hold the positive thought as long as you can, then notice if your feelings have changed. Do you feel less anger? Less hurt? Even the slightest decrease is beneficial to your brain. Each time you do this exercise, extend your forgiveness to other “difficult” people and groups.
8. Finally, extend your love, kindness, and forgiveness to the world: “May everyone be happy, may everyone be well, and may everyone be filled with kindness and peace.” Hold a vision in your mind of all the different people in the world, all cultures, all colors, all religions, and all political groups. Imagine everyone getting along with each other and living together in peace.
It doesn't take much effort to practice kindness and forgiveness, and if you make an internal commitment to do so a few minutes every day, you'll train your brain to suppress anger and fear. You might even grow a few new neurons in your hippocampus, which we now know humans can do, but it's important to remember that the hippocampus—which is essential for memory formation and emotional control—is the very first structure damaged by the neurochemicals of anger, anxiety, and stress.
So the next time someone cuts you off on the freeway or makes a clumsy mistake, instead of killing off some neurons in your own brain, just send them a blessing. They probably need it more than you.
Based upon research studies of different training programs developed at universities around the country, we recommend that you do a forgiveness meditation at least once a day for a minimum of six weeks.55When vice presidents and advisors at American Express were given a one-day forgiveness workshop, followed by four teleconference follow-ups over the following year, stress levels were reduced by 25 percent. They also generated an increase of 18 percent in gross sales, whereas those who didn't participate in the forgiveness workshop only improved their sales by 10 percent.56 Forgiveness meditation improves not only the health of your brain and heart, but your pocketbook as well.
FINAL REFLECTIONS ON MEDITATION, RELAXATION,
Although we have only included twelve meditation-related exercises, if you did them all together, it could take you more than two hours. This, I am certain, would turn most people off. Even a daily practice of forty minutes is more than many people are willing to do. Each person has a different capacity and willingness to engage in healthy activities, so it's kind of like going to the gym. Some people love it, some hate it. Some people can only exercise for ten minutes, and some like to spend hours working out. Doctors will tell you to spend twenty to forty minutes doing aerobics, and many patients simply won't try, even when their lives may depend on it.
The truth of the matter is this: Each person should do what feels intuitively right. Otherwise, it becomes work. The same holds true for spiritual and mental practices. If it becomes a chore, you'll resist and resent it. So if going to church once a month suits your nature, then enjoy it. After all, guilt will also hurt your brain. And the same applies to meditation. Remember, our memory patients practiced for only twelve minutes a day, and they improved their cognitive skills. Other studies have shown that even a few minutes can be beneficial to your health. So the amount you practice is really up to you. The more, the better, and the greater variety, the better, but that's about all we can say. After all, happiness is perhaps the ultimate ideal, but everyone will find happiness through different walks of life.
From a neurological perspective, there is some advice to give. Exercise, social interaction, and optimism all tie for first place in terms of keeping your brain healthy, and meditation comes in second. Benson's relaxation exercise, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery all appear to offer equal health benefits and have been extensively researched, but between meditation techniques, there's some debate as to which are best. A wide variety of other meditations—yoga, mindful-ness, Transcendental Meditation, Centering Prayer, mantra, etc.—all provide a wide range of neurological benefits. Each has specific health benefits, but they aren't the same. And, considering that there are probably close to a thousand variations of meditation, if not more, it is next to impossible to definitively analyze all of the neural mechanisms involved.
So it all comes back to intention: What is it that you really want to achieve? If you want to sleep better, then try progressive muscle relaxation. If you want to feel more calm and alert, then use any of the mindfulness techniques we've discussed. Yawning may be the fastest way to relax, but it probably carries the greatest social stigma, since most people interpret it as a sign that you are tired or bored. And if you're angry, it should be clear which of the above exercises to use.
But if you want to reach enlightenment, or feel a unity with God, then we have some specific advice for you to follow. You'll need to meditate daily, for at least thirty minutes, possibly more. And you'll need to become expert in one of the mindfulness techniques, like the Centering Prayer described in this chapter. At least, this is what the research has shown so far. Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll have a unitary or mystical experience, a fact well recognized in the meditation communities.
Advanced meditators can achieve deep states of unity and connectedness through intensive practice, and this can trigger some unusual activity in the brain. If parietal activity declines, you alter your sense of self, and if you do this often enough, you may permanently alter the structure of your thalamus, which is part of the reality-processing circuit in the brain. In these situations, the meditator may see the universe in an entirely different light.
When you consciously direct your intent on a particular object, the brain blocks out sensory and neural information that does not pertain to the object of contemplation, and it screens out anything it considers irrelevant. As your meditation progresses, this blocking becomes more intense. The end result is intense awareness of the object, and a loss of awareness of anything other than the object of meditation. If that object is God, then the meditator has the experience of becoming one with God, or the sense that God pervades all of reality. If the object of meditation disappears, as sometimes happens in the most intense mystical states, the person may experience the universe as a completely un-differentiated whole—a sense of absolute unity of all things. When this happens, you might become aware that “you” are not your thoughts, and this raises the paradoxical question of what “you” may actually be. This can happen in any of the exercises we described before, but it typically results after many months of intense meditation.
Focused awareness sometimes creates the uncanny sensation of losing your sense of self. As you begin to realize that “you” is a rather arbitrary neural construction, activity in the parietal area of the brain decreases, and your sense of self begins to dissolve. Most practitioners describe this state as being simultaneously enlightening and disturbing, because a core sense of self is one of the earliest neural constructs in the brain. However, simply shifting your focus back to your breathing turns out to be an effective way to handle such disturbances. Now you can understand why relaxation is such an important foundation, especially if your goal is to modify an unwelcome personality trait. The only people who run into trouble are those with serious underlying personality disorders.
Ultimately, all that we are asking you to do is become a little more aware of life. We want you to slow down by paying attention to your body movements and your breathing as you go about your daily activities. And we want you to learn to become more aware of how your mind produces an endless stream of unconscious feelings and thoughts. By simply becoming more aware of what you think, feel, say, and do, you train your brain to become more organized and calm. Stress diminishes, and life begins to feel more pleasant and rich. It's easy to be mindful throughout the day, and all you need to do is remind yourself to be aware. You can take a minute to “meditate” in the elevator, when you're standing in line at the grocery store, when you're stuck in rush hour traffic, or when you're gazing into the eyes of those you deeply love. This is what mindfulness is all about, and it will change your brain in beneficial ways.
DESTROYING THE ILLUSION OF THE UNIVERSE
Having a conscious intention or goal underlies nearly every form of meditation and prayer, but there is one style worth mentioning that has a very different objective. It is common in some forms of Eastern philosophies, but absent in most Western religious traditions. It involves the conscious pursuit of having no goal at all. You are attempting to achieve absolute inner silence. No emotions or thoughts—just pure awareness or consciousness of what is.
Many people have had spontaneous, momentary experiences of emptiness, but deliberately evoking such a state for more than a few seconds often takes years of practice. Those who accomplish it say that it is one of the most serenely ecstatic states they have experienced. To my knowledge, no scientist has yet to capture this neurological condition with brain-scan technology. However, one group of researchers may have come close. They found that an advanced group of Zen practitioners could reduce activity in parts of the brain that are usually stimulated by other forms of contemplative practice.57 The result is a complete sense of unity, which is also described as absolute reality, a term that has been variously defined as pure consciousness, nonduality, the negation of physical reality, seeing the world or the mind as illusion, pure Godness, supreme spirit, or nothingness. Others have used the term to describe what is essentially unknowable, indefinable, unfathomable, immutable, unmanifest, timeless, spaceless, or formless.
I have previously identified this state in the brain as being related to a complete blocking of all information into your consciousness. Thus, the end result may be similar to the state reached through intense meditation on a single object when the awareness of the object entirely disappears. At that point the experience is often described as a complete sense of oneness with the divine.
Clearly, this can be one of the most powerful types of experiences people can have, and it lies at the heart of many great philosophical and spiritual traditions. It is associated with a deep sense of realness, so real that our everyday reality seems like it is nothing more than an illusion.
Such experiences might be the ultimate goal of religious or spiritual practices, but the exercises presented here are not likely to get you to such a state. Instead, they will help you achieve a greater sense of relaxation, enhance your cognitive skills, and foster a greater engagement and awareness of yourself and the world in which you live.
∗1 There is little evidence suggesting that gentle forms of meditation have any negative health effects. Although several researchers have hypothesized that the neurological changes associated with meditation may increase the possibility of triggering an epileptic seizure in people prone to this disease, no reports of seizures have been documented. Anecdotal psychological evidence also suggests that people with certain personality disorders should be carefully evaluated and monitored before engaging in intense spiritual practices.
∗2 The center brings together an interdisciplinary group of faculty from all of the university schools to develop, organize, and coordinate research, scholarship, education, and dialogue, both locally and globally, that focuses on the relationship between spirituality and the brain. By establishing courses, teaching materials, public and academic lecture programs, and local and Internet outreach programs, the center's resources will be available for all individuals interested in topics related to the intersection of religion and science.
∗3 An MRI brain scan shows a detailed picture of the brain's activity, whereas an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance image) scan is more like a motion picture. We can watch moment-to-moment changes in the brain as the test subject performs different mental or physical tasks.
∗4 The data, however, is largely correlational. This means that we do not know which part of the “equation” produces the effect. For example, it is possible that people who live longer may have a greater inclination to be religiously involved.
∗5 This exercise combines elements from a wide variety of breath-awareness meditations, but the underlying principle is the same: to train your mind to stay focused on your breathing and the effects it has on your body and mind.
∗6 Whereas prayer is not allowed in the public school system, meditation, when stripped of any religious overtones, has been introduced, but often with considerable controversy, since some people still associate it with Eastern spiritual traditions. If meditation is framed in the language of mindfulness, stress reduction, focused attention, or awareness enhancement, the church/state obstacle can be overcome.
∗7 You can also order a book/CD/DVD combination by Nguyen Anh-Huong and Thich Nhat Hanh (Sounds True, 2006) demonstrating three different forms of walking meditation in nature and in public places.