Meditation, Genetics, Conditioned Response to Life

Mind colours photoNot so long ago modern psychology defined a split between how we perceive our world; between flexible conditioned responses to stress, and our  genetic inherited traits, the latter then considered as immobile and concrete.

At that time, researchers seemed confidant that our genetic predispositions were locked in genetic codes; that the only route to therapy lay within modifying conditioned responses.

But recent evidence from the University of Wisconsin, and the Institute of Biomedical Research, Barcelona, showed that experienced meditators practicing mindfulness turned down the activity of genes and enzymes related to inflammation of the body’s cellular structure. If not changing the genes, then as a by-product of meditation, changing the messages that genes send is possible, flexible, and provable.

As we have seen in previous posts on this site, mastering the mind comes through freeing it from automatic mental conditioning of life experience which we frequently become stuck in. After all, life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to live through. Where people fail is when they elect a state of mind, usually pleasant and ego- driven, to remain in. This avoidance of displeasure, becoming stuck, is a kind of death.

But meditation offers a freedom from suffering due to being stuck. This is accomplished, in varying states of success, by assuming a comfortable posture, controlled breathing, and a progressive yet passive wish to halt the inner mind-chatter that occupies much of our waking days.

University of Toronto clinical psychologists showed 14 years ago that six months of mindfulness practice, coupled with cognitive therapy, reduced the relapse rate of chronic depression patients by 40 per cent over the following year. With today’s brain monitoring instruments, researchers are discovering how and why this works.

I offer this information to new meditators who may be unsure of their progress, or have become discouraged by the influence of friends who elect to be stuck in their own lives, and feel threatened by we who choose a process of becoming, of experimenting in the human condition.




Managing Strong Emotions

flooded riverManaging our stream of strong emotions is like having charge of maintaining and channeling a powerful river.

If we fail to look after the river by clearing away debris and removing obstacles to the natural flow of water, then over time there will be log jams, overflow of the riverbanks, and uncontrollable flooding that destroys or hurts the surrounding environment.

Like the river, if we fail to manage our daily flow of emotions, if we allow them to accumulate by repressing or denying their troubling nature, if we distract ourselves from painful emotions with television, video games, drugs or alcohol, then eventually the buildup threatens to overflow our boundaries or banks.

Like the neglected river, our emotions then overflow, breaking the banks and  log jams we have allowed to accumulate through neglect or denial, causing suffering to others, and compounding our own frustration, fear and anger. Like being the diligent custodian of a river, Meditation has proven to help manage the flow of our emotions and it does this in a two-stage aspect.

We have learned that meditation involves primarily pausing the mindlessness of our distracting lifestyle for a period. Because this aspect is what most people have difficulty achieving, yoga and mediation teachers have strived for ways to impart a method to their students to achieve this. Controlled breathing is often cited as a prelude to this state of mindfulness, so I offer my own samples to method on this Link.

The second aspect of mediation involves looking deeply while in the state of mindfulness. This state brings with it enough energy to discover the true nature and origin of the thoughts, emotions and feelings that we experience during mindlessness. By discovering the truth, we are able to direct those troubling thoughts and feelings toward  love, compassion and understanding of ourselves and others.

The trouble with emotions and feelings is, some of them are so powerful we think we can’t survive them, so we deny (or repress) them until they explode, causing hurt and suffering to ourselves and others.

Simplified, emotions come, stay for a while, and then leave. Prolonging the “stay” interval through resentments and obsessing, or through distraction or denial, causes a logjam of needless suffering that will eventually overflow unmanageably, but if we practice looking deeply while mindful, we can uproot the sources of painful emotions.

If we know how to breathe our way to mindfulness for periods of 20 minutes or so, then the chaos will roll away, leaving us with awareness that we can survive the storm.

If we practice emotional maintenance, we can experience surviving strong emotions and we can rest assured that the next time they come, we can survive them again.


Mindfull Body

Meditator man copyWe can take a simple step toward better physical and mental health if we are mindful of the effects that our daily living is having on our bodies and minds.

Consider spending a few non-judgmental every day not to worry about your body, or push it harder at the gym, but simply to be in it.

Find a comfortable position, so you feel supported and relaxed.

Close your eyes, or if open, attain a soft, unfocused gaze.

Rest for some moments, becoming mindful of the natural rhythm of your breathing.

When body and mind settle, become aware of the entire body. Be aware of your body resting, being supported by the chair, mat, or the floor.

Now, begin to focus attention on a particular area of the body, or proceed in sequence: toes, feet, calves and thighs- pelvis, abdomen-  lower back, upper back-  chest, shoulders- arms and hands- neck, face, and scalp.

Spend several minutes focussed on each body section, as you notice the various sensations the body transmits.

The moment you notice your mind has wandered, return your attention to the last part of the body you remember.

The body scan practice helps you to anchor where you are in the here and now.

It can also help you become more attentive to bodily signals from stress, fear and anxiety. Noticing this, you can take steps to relieve the tension before it presents as a mental or physical problem.

Importance of Breathing in Meditation and Yoga

YogaIn yoga and meditation classes there is always a focus on the sensation of breathing, like “… take some deep belly breaths, notice the belly rising and falling rhythmically… expanding the breath now from the belly into the ribs… feel the ribs move up and out… expanding up into the chest like a wave… feel the chest rise… exhale… feel the air leaving like a wave rushing out…” after some intervals “Allow the breath to regulate unconsciously, focus on the passage of air” Italics are mine.

You may also notice that instructors introduce a pattern of conscious breathing reminders and/or more breathing exercises en route. This is not coincidence!

Sure, it’s calming, but why all this attention to alternate conscious regulated/unconscious breathing?  There is a practical answer.

Truth is, concentrating on the sensation of breathing within the body takes us to the crossroads of where physical sensation meets  mental activity .  Breathing is the perfect “route of least resistance” to begin studying where conscious (thinking about breathing) meets subconscious (allowing breathing to regulate as an unconscious activity).

Another advantage of this switching, is the opportunity of discovering how sensations and the mind are connected, and how this plays out on meditation and yoga.

Sensing bodily sensations during conscious breathing are the prelude to controlling your mind (concentration) by noticing  that every thought, emotion, mental action is accompanied by a corresponding sensation in the body.

Sensation then, is the meeting of mind and body together. Let’s see how this happens.

Although physical, sensation also encompasses one of four mental processes

  1.  consciousness (aware of the sensation)
  2.  perception (labels the sensation , categorizes it ,judges it)
  3.  awareness (sensation is pleasant – I want it… or  unpleasant –  repel it)
  4. reaction (physical reaction or mental reaction)

Therefore, by observing the physical sensations of breathing in mediation, and the breath and body in yoga, we also begin, whether we know it or not, observe the mind!

Peace and abundance to all.