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Archive for the category “science”

Mindfulness and the Brain

A podcast from Oxford University. Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman



Mindfulness, arousel, adrenaline and diuresis

HPA_Axis_Diagram_(Brian_M_Sweis_2012)Last night I got an upsetting message (sms). But I did not feel upset when I read it. I just noticed it and started thinking about it. Although there was no need to answer it, I must admit that I had the message in mind for quite a long time. But I did not feel upset, anxious or restless, as far as I manage to know myself. I had gone to bed for the night, and sort of reflected upon the message.

The something strange happened. For the next three hours I had to visit the toilet six or seven times to urinate. And it was not something like a nervous bladder. I produced impressive amounts of urine, and although I had eaten cabbage and consumed coffein earlier, that could not fully explain what was happening.

The only explanation seems to be that I was indeed stressed in some way. When my adrenaline levels goes up, so does the anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), meaning that the re-absorption of water in my kidneys went down. That is a common effect of a rise in adrenlin, and also a common effect of stress. We all have experienced that, and while it is often attributed to a nervous bladder, the explanation above is always a part of it.

The interesting part of this is that while my trained brain, through meditation, handled this rationally, my visceral body acted emotionally. What we know is that the anterior cingulate cortex (dealing with arousal) actually fire in the same way when we experience something unpleasant and surprising whether we meditate or not. But while most people keep that level for a prolonged time, the activity in the cingulate cortex drops to a more basic level quite fast among meditators. At the same time the activity in the amygdala (one of the places where negative feelings arise), also drops, while the activity in the prefrontal cortex (our rational mind) increase. Those effects are among the most common effects of what we call “mindfulness”.

How ist it then, that I have had an elevated level of adrenaline, if my amygdala fires less? An important structure involved in a stress-reponse is the para-ventral nucleus (with projections ending in the piutary gland, secreting adrenaline). The PNV is influenced not only through tha amygdala (my highlightning):

If the PVN plays such an important role in the modulation of the stress response, how is this accomplished? The exact answer to this question is not known, but the afferent and efferent connections to the PVN provide some clues. The PVN receives an important input from the amygdala. The amygdala receives multimodal input from all sensory modalities; therefore the PVN receives indirect sensory input. Stress signals can also activate the PVN via the lateral hypothalamus, which receives input from secondary (higher) sensory cortical areas, and via inputs from the locus coeruleus, the prefrontal cortex, and the hippocampus (memories of stressful things!). In addition to releasing CRH into the portal system and inducing ACTH release, the PVN has strong projections to brain stem autonomic ganglia – i.e. the preganglionic neurons in the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus (dorsal motor X) and sympathetic preganglionics in the lateral column of the spinal cord (T1-L2).


So it is possible that I have had a visceral stress response regardless of a possible “control” of my amygdala. The massage received ws definately coupled to memory (Hippocampus), and that may have been a pathway. The second explanation is, of course, that I actulla was more stressed than I was aware of, and that my stress-reaction was a result og a high activity in the amygdala. I prefer to think that this is not the explanation.

Anyhow, the interesting thing in this experience, was that although i did not feel stress, my body expressed s stress-reaction. Mindfulness may bolster negative feelings, but my visceral stress-reactions may still be present. But my mindfulness also implied another victory: I was aware of what was going on, so that I could avoid further distress and anxiety.

Illustration: Wikipedia


Connected Concepts

I exist. Existence is nothing but change. All change is interconnected, and comes from what is. All that is, comes from Tao. Mindfulness is an unconditional awareness of what is.

Zen is concentrated focus. Mindfulness meditation is unconditional and focused experience.

To my understanding.


The Zen of .., the Tao of .., and mindfulness


Before the universe was born
there was something in the chaos of the heavens.
It stands alone and empty,
solitary and unchanging.
It is ever present and secure.
It may be regarded as the Mother of the universe.
Because I do not know its name,
I call it the Tao.
If forced to give it a name,
I would call it ‘Great’.

Because it is Great means it is everywhere.
Being everywhere means it is eternal.
Being eternal means everything returns to it.

Tao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
Humanity is great.

Within the universe, these are the four great things.
Humanity follows the earth.
Earth follows Heaven.
Heaven follows the Tao.
The Tao follows only itself.

This is from Tao Te Ching, the McDonald translation.

We read about the Zen of …, the Tao of …, and it sometimes seems that the terms are used interchangeably. And also the terms Zen and Mindfulness often seems to express the same thing. That’s right, and that’s wrong. With the figure above, I have tried to sort things out a bit.

As a firm foundation we find the Tao, the way, or the principles behind everything that exists. Tao is the eternal laws, the sustaining force of the universe, of the earth, and of all life. We can not avoid it, because it is everywhere. We can try to fight it (humans do all the time, just look at what we do with the Earth), but we shall always loose in the end. What can seem like a victory, is a deception. It’s called Tao, some would say physics, others would call it God. Whatever it’s called, our existence is based on it, our daily life is controlled by it, and in that sense we are all “taoists”. And to my opinion the good life originates from harmony with the Tao.

The “Tao of ..” is unavoidable, but in daily use the term means how to live in accordance with “the Way”. That everything is interconnected, is not any longer just “eastern philosophy”, but reflected in the quantum physics. I shall not go in to the links between Tao and physics in this post.

But since “Humanity follows the earth”, we somehow should try to catch or own reality, and not live in deceptions governed by our experiences from the past, or our worries about the future. All there is, is this moment. Everything else is mental constructs with no actual or inherent reality. And to grasp our own reality, we have to be aware. If that awareness is open-minded, with no judgments, we call it mindfulness. Remember my definition of mindfulness?

Mindfulness is an unconditional awareness of whatever emerges

To reach that kind of awareness that we name “mindfulness”, we have to train our mind. Our brain is hard-wired to accept deceptions as reality, blocking the real experiences. The mind has to be trained, just as our bodies need physical training. And that training needs focusing, on the breath, on our body, on our thoughts etc. That is Zen meditation. Zen meditation require focus, not a forced focus, but an effort to stay in a focused mode, not letting the thoughts wander freely. Zen means a deliberate focusing. The “Zen of ..” means focusing on, and trying to grasp the reality behind whatever we focus on.

But there is a continuum between zen and mindfulness, and we can not experience the one without the other. There is awareness is zen, and there is focusing in mindfulness. The circles overlap to a large degree, and in practical life we usually shift between them, with the formal meditation being more of zen, and a life filled with awareness being more of mindfulness.

I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone but myself. This reasoning helps clearing my own thoughts, and to me that is the most important.

On Meditation and Planning


Staying focused. The mantra of meditation, and usually it comes down to the breath. But it could be any object, like a flame, a sound, a real mantra. Mindfulness meditation could involve awareness of what’s going on around me, in the moment. Through focusing I shall develop awareness, and by focusing I shall reach no-thinking.

That is the theory. And it sounds clear and easy. When I do some lectures on mindfulness and meditation, I emphasize that meditation, or mindfulness trainings, can’t go wrong. If the thoughts drift away, just focus back. At the same time I know how difficult this can be, not losing the focus, or losing the awareness. And I know how easy it is to fall into old patterns of thoughts, worries, – and planning. Driven by emotions, like fear of not get everything done, – in time and perfection, or worries over what should have been finished, or anxiety over the workload ahead. And then I feel the irritation over not being able to keep focus, a judgmental though.

Especially planning seems to have the ability to keep me occupied for long periods of time during my meditation. I never actually have any expectations of calmness, of special insight, or of enlightenment of any sort when I meditate. Meditation with an aim is by definition not Zen, and the best we can do is to accept what shall happen when we sit. Sometimes I feel that the meditation has been very beneficial in all means, but on other occasions I can wonder whether this sitting was worth the time spent. Fortunately I usually feel my meditations refreshing, although in different ways. That’s a reason to continue my efforts in focused contemplations.

But I have no intention of letting my meditation become an ordinary part of my planning of the day, or a planning of a certain task to be done. So when I often drift into planning, and I recognize this, I get irritated, or sometimes a little upset. I have written about this in another post, so I shall not repeat myself. But one reader of that post, a meditation companion through a mobile phone app, agreed with me on how easy the planning thoughts sneaked into the meditation, especially when we were meditating in the morning. But Sebastian, that is his name,  also pointed to the fact that he during meditation often made very fruitful plans, getting ideas he had not seen before.

And after his remark I have started to pay more attention to my planning thoughts during meditation. And I recognize that he is right. Indeed, during meditation I often make better plans than when I sit down with the aim of planning. Meditation seems to activate my subconscious mind in a way that rational planning does not. I am able to take into account factors I had not thought of, or I see solutions that until that moment had been obscure to me. And I take that as a proof of the impact meditation actually has on me, the way my mind functions, and how it is stimulated during and by meditation. So when I so far have judged my meditation as more of a failure because of all planning, I now admit that I that even a meditation filled with all that planning does have a beneficial effect upon me, on my mind, and on my brain. What I have always taught to others, that meditation can’t go wrong, is indeed right, regardless of all disturbing thoughts.

After the remarks of Sebastian, I have become less irritated because of my planning during meditation. Being less judgmental is the first lesson I have learned from this.

But not being judgmental does not mean that I find these drifting thoughts OK.  I still think that meditation shall be meditation, and work shall be work. Confusion about this difference makes all contemplation into work, and I shall lose the the experience of calming down my struggling mind when I meditate. But the other lesson learned from this, is that a mindful approach towards planning is very fruitful, offering results that I possibly could not reach with a pure rational approach.

This way of planning is not meditation at all, but I can use techniques learned from meditation to refine my process of ordinary planning. I can use a more contemplative and mindful approach to grasp those important factors which only exist in my subconscious mind. And by combining these experiences with my rational thinking, I am able to reach a more comprehensive evaluation of the situation, and I can end up with plans containing more solutions and possibilities .

And now I experience that with the use of deliberate mindfulness and contemplation my plannings have indeed become more effective, and the results more satisfactory. Zen is not only about those situations where I chase the moments of no-thought, but Zen can be a fundamental and beneficial part of our daily lives and activities.

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