Tuesday, December 11, 2018

THE JOY OF RUNNING MINDFULLY

‘There is something magical about running; after a certain distance, it transcends the body. Then a bit further, it transcends the mind. A bit further yet, and what you have before you, laid bare, is the soul.’—Kristin Armstrong.


I have been jogging for over 40 years. I’m also into mindfulness in a big way, as my blog shows.

Some say that jogging is the shortcut to the cemetery, but I’m still here. Indeed, although I have no way of knowing whether this is true, I strongly suspect that if I had not jogged all those years I would have died years ago as a result of other bad lifestyle choices I made. Despite those bad choices, I kept on running throughout the years, my heart is strong and healthy and I have an athlete’s heart rate—at 63 years of age. I jog three times a week, for 30 minutes on each occasion, making sure that my heart rate is between 75 and 85 percent of my maximum heart rate. I don't run as far, or as fast, as I used to, but I remain fit. Further, despite the warnings of some physiotherapists and chiropractors that I would do damage to my ankles and knees as a result of my running, X-rays and scans reveal that no such damage has occurred in my case. (I've always run in good running shoes. Maybe that has helped. Who knows.)

Source: Shutterstock.com.

One of the great things about running is that, at its most basic, it’s just one foot in front of the other. The repetitive nature of the activity is akin to numerous mechanical activities and makes running ideal as a vehicle for meditation. Instead of listening to the sound of a metronome, your body becomes one, so to speak.

The phrase ‘mindful running’ is gaining wide acceptance. Well, why not? Mindful walking has been around for a long time. Mindful running simply means running mindfully, that is, running with awareness of all that is involved in your running from one moment to the next. As you run, you are present to all of the action within you and outside of you that relates to your running.

Your awareness of anything else is not so much non-existent but diffuse. By that, I mean you are aware to the bare extent necessary of, for example, passing motor vehicles, the occasion siren or bird noise, but you do not direct the focus of your attention and awareness to those sorts of things. On the contrary, you remain fixed and focused on such things as the act and pattern of your running, the sensations engendered by your running (for example, your posture, your heart rate, heartbeat, the pattern of your breathing, the sensation of your feet hitting the ground one at a time, and so on), and the feel of the surface upon which you are running include its flatness or steepness as the case may be. You are aware of the hill that you are climbing, of the various little holes in the road surface, of the driveways you cross over, and so on. In other words, you are fully present while you run.

Source: Getty Images.

Mindful running is like all mindful activity. You are mentally and physically connected with the activity. You listen to, and are one with, the activity of your body and mind. Should thoughts, feelings and sensations unconnected with the immediate activity of running enter your mind—as they will from time to time—you simply let them go. You give these little distractions no power and, without force, bring the focus of your attention and awareness back to the activity of running and all the sensations involved in that activity as they arise from moment to moment. Your running then becomes a mindful meditation in and of itself—and a very powerful one at that.

I do not listen to music or an audiobook when I am running, although I am aware that many do. You cannot do two things at once. Forget all about so-called ‘multitasking’, for there is no such thing. There is only ‘switch-tasking’, that is, toggling from one task to the other. Follow the advice of Saint Paul who said, ‘This one thing I do’ (Phil 3:13 [KJV]). Zen says the same thing. When you’re washing the dishes, just wash the dishes. Do nothing else. Think of nothing else. Just wash the dishes. Ditto when you’re running. Just run—with choiceless awareness of what is happening inside of you both psychologically and physiologically. You have enough to do just doing that. So, my strong advice is—get rid of as many external distractions as you can. That way you can focus on the activity of running and the sensations engendered by that activity.

Source: Pressmaster.

When you run mindfully, you are aware when your breathing becomes laboured or too fast. Ditto your heartbeat. Listen to your body and make the necessary adjustments in the pattern of your running. Obviously, you have to maintain a general awareness of what is going on around you. For example, if you are running on a road, close to the gutter, you need to be aware of the imperfections in the road surface that might cause you to stumble. You also need to listen to the sound of any motor vehicles coming up in the rear, and so on. As I say, there is enough to do in simply running mindfully. You cannot assume that others will look out for you. It annoys me when I see runners and even pedestrians listening to their earphones and being totally oblivious to what is going on around them and close to them. That sort of behaviour is tantamount to lunacy.

You may not be into running or jogging, but some sort of aerobic exercise is extremely important. Find something you really enjoy that is especially good for your heart—and do it regularly and mindfully.

Note. You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting running or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.


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HOW TO DO A WALKING MEDITATION ... MINDFULLY

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

MINDFULNESS REDUCES ANXIETY ASSOCIATED WITH BREAST BIOPSY

A brief session of guided mindfulness-based meditation may help women undergoing a stereotactic breast biopsy to feel less anxious, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Large-core needle stereotactic breast biopsy, sometimes just called ‘core biopsy,’ is used to sample tissue deep within the breast and is done with only local anesthesia. High distress before and during the procedure is uncomfortable for patients and can contribute to appointment cancellations, incomplete procedures, complications, and longer procedure times, the study authors write.


‘A stereotactic breast biopsy is a procedure that has a high frequency and is really stressful,’ said lead author Dr Chelsea Ratcliff, an assistant professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. The study, albeit a small one, suggests that short-term mindfulness meditation can be effective in such a setting. However, Dr Ratcliff has said that the study needs to be replicated and expanded.

Journal reference: Ratcliff, C G et al.A Randomized Controlled Trial of Brief Mindfulness Meditation for Women Undergoing Stereotactic Breast Biopsy.’ Journal of the American College of Radiology, online October 12, 2018. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacr.2018.09.009.

Photo credit: Presence St Mary's Hospital.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND THE ART OF MINDFUL LIVING

Ernest Hemingway went out in style—with a double-barrelled shotgun. In saying that, I don’t wish to be seen to be making light of suicide. In my own family, I lost a grandmother, a great-aunt, and a great-grandfather, and possibly one or two others as well, to suicide. Those left behind after the suicide of a family member or close friend ordinarily struggle with a particularly difficult grief, yet I learned long ago that it is always wrong to pass any form of judgement on the deceased in relation to their decision to end their life.

In his final years Hemingway was beset with physical and psychological troubles and was not helped by an American government that incessantly trailed him with FBI agents, in both Cuba (where he lived in the 1940s and '50s) and the United States, and which in 1960 basically told him to denounce the Castro regime and leave Cuba or face the consequences, namely, being declared a traitor by Washington authorities.


Hemingway refused to denounce the Castro regime. He had declared his solidarity with Cuba in January 1959. He wrote that he believed completely in the 'historical necessity' [sic] of the Cuban Revolution. He knew that the Castro regime was far from perfect but he had also lived through the years when, for all intents and purposes, the American Mafia, in cahoots with the CIA, ran Cuba. At least Castro got rid of the Mafia from Cuba, even if they went elsewhere, and he gave the Cuban people universal health carea damn good thingand a decent education system. (No, dear reader, I am not a Commie. I simply believe in giving credit where credit is dueand putting the boot in as well when that is necessary.) 

Anyway, Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary left the Cuba they loved for good on July 25, 1960, leaving behind thousands of books, personal papers and memorabilia. Hemingway found his own solution to his troubles on July 2, 1961. Even on that last fateful day, the dreadful J Edgar Hoover’s agents were located just 150 metres from his house in Ketchum, Idaho.

Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway.
Havana, Cuba, May 1960.

Local fishermen erected this monument
in memory of Hemingway at Cojímar,
a town east of Havana.

My wife, youngest son and I were recently in Cuba for a holiday. It was a great trip and we travelled all over Cuba. I loved the people, the architecture of the buildings, the mountains and valleys, and the music. The hotels we stayed in were grand and we also stayed with some delightful Cuban families in their own homes. The people we met were happy for the most part, despite many problems, made much worse by the American embargo. That the latter continues to this day, after almost 60 years, is a disgrace. It does not speak well of the United States. 
The embargo, which has been condemned by the United Nations with overwhelming support every year since 1992, has been called a sustained act of genocide against the Cuban people—and it is. The accumulated cost of the embargo to Cuba over almost 60 years amounts to close to 934 billion United States dollars.

The Cuban people, especially in Havana, revere Ernest Hemingway, and while we were in Havana we went to Hemingway’s former home and farm Finca Vigía (now a museum), the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he resided in 1939, the hotel La Terraza de Cojimar at Cojímar, the little port town 9.6 km east of Havana where Hemingway kept his fishing boat, the Pilar, which was the inspiration for the village Hemingway depicted in The Old Man and the Sea, and the restaurant-bars El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway ate and drank (mostly the latter, its seems). In all these places, and many others, there are photos and other memorabilia recalling Hemingway’s presence in Cuba. Books or parts of his novels were written on the island. Copies of those books, as well as many biographies of the man and his life in Cuba, can be purchased in Havana book shops and elsewhere in Cuba.

Entrance to Finca Vigía

My wife and son outside Finca Vigía

Yours truly at the top of the tower at Finca Vigía

Hemingway’s writing style has been much written about and discussed. A former journalist and war correspondent, Hemingway is the master of the short, unadorned sentence, direct speech and simple dialogue. He uses no unnecessary words. His vocabulary is often tight but expressive and charged with meaning, even when reduced to only a few words. Sentences tend to be arranged in sequence rather than in a logical pattern. Take, for example, this exchange from chapter 10 of For Whom the Bell Tolls(Some of that novel, which arose out of Hemingway's own experience, was written in Cuba.)

‘What are you going to do with us?’ one asked him.
‘Shoot thee,’ Pablo said.
‘When?’ the man asked in the same gray voice.
‘Now,’ said Pablo.
‘Where?” asked the man.
‘Here,’ said Pablo. ‘Here. Now. Here and now.’
‘Have you anything to say?’
‘Nada,’ said the man. ‘Nothing. But it is an ugly thing.’

Hemingway's study in Finca Vigía


Hemingway's study in Finca Vigía
Vestibule and room where Hemingway
received his family and friends at 
Finca Vigía

In Hemingway’s famous short story ‘The Killers’, the author makes effective use of tight, machine gun-like exchanges such as the following to create an atmosphere of impending doom:

‘What's he going to do?’
‘Nothing.’
‘They'll kill him.’
‘I guess they will.’
‘He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.’
‘I guess so,’ said Nick.
‘It's a hell of a thing.’
‘It's an awful thing,’ Nick said.
They did not say anything. George reached down for a towel and wiped the counter.
‘I wonder what he did?’ Nick said.
‘Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for.’
‘I'm going to get out of this town,’ Nick said.
‘Yes,’ said George. ‘That's a good thing to do.’
‘I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful.’
‘Well,’ said George, ‘you better not think about it.’

His themes and ideas arise from and out of the story and its imagery, as opposed to being thrust upon the reader as is the case with many writers. The emphasis is on action rather than introspection (although the latter is there as well). His aim, in his own words, is to record 'the way it was'. He is a master of mindfulness, recording what happens more-or-less as it happens or as it happened not that long ago. Even when one of his characters recalls something that has already happened, the remembrance of the event generally takes place in the context of the character remembering in the present moment what has already happened. That is the essence of mindfulness, along with remembering to stay present in the present moment, from one moment to the next, and remembering what is present.


Some of the 8,000 books in
Hemingway's library at Finca Vig
ía 

The 'Pilar' aFinca Vigía

Listen to these words from chapter 11 of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway contrasts the directness and immediacy of life itself, experienced mindfully, with an experience of life that falls short of that:

You only heard the statement of the loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream. You knew the father died in some courtyard, or against some wall, or in some field or orchard, or at night, in the lights of a truck, beside some road. You had seen the lights of the car from down the hills and heard the shooting and afterwards you had come down to the road and found the bodies. You did not see the mother shot, nor the sister, nor the brother. You heard about it; you heard the shots; and you saw the bodies.

In chapter 13 of the novel, the combatant Robert Jordan, a young American fighting in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and Maria, a young woman who has been captured by the Fascists, have just made love in the heather. Shortly thereafter, we get these words from Hemingway, words that are more openly philosophical than is usual for him:

You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you will never get, you will have a good life.
 A good life is not measured by any biblical span.


My wife and son at La Terraza de Cojímar

Hemingway lives on at La Bodeguita del Medio

A life-size bronze statue of Hemingway
at the end of the bar in El Floridita

Each one of us is an inlet and an outlet of life's self-expression. Life is forever renewing itself, and expressing itself, as the present moment—from one moment to the next and ever onwards. Life is this moment and life is the reality of our very selves. We are the action of life that is always taking place. We live in the eternal now—the present moment forever renewing itself. The past? It exists only as a present memory. The future? It exists only as a hope. 

Life is endless movement—from one moment to the next. Any meaning we find must be found in the moment-to-moment experience of the eternal now, which is that ‘present’ which is forever renewing itself in and as each new moment. Eternity—the eternal now—is not the present time plus all the past and all the future, nor is it a postmortem experience. It is a present—indeed, ever-present—reality. In truth, there is no time after time after time. The eternal now transcends time altogether. There is a ‘present’ in the present as well as a ‘present’ beyond the ‘present’. Of course, in a very real sense the eternal now and the so-called temporal now are one and the same! Everything is—here now! Life is eternal, and we are alive in eternity—now! Well, at least we should be.

So, cherish this present moment. It is more than enough, even though it is so fleeting and ephemeral. Nevertheless, seize the moment—and live.









Saturday, September 15, 2018

MINDFULNESS FOR PAIN RELIEF


A study conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine has shown that an individual's innate or natural level of mindfulness is associated with a greater tolerance for pain. In other words, they feel less pain than others.

Dr Fadel Zeidan
The researchers analysed data obtained from a study published in 2015 that compared mindfulness meditation to placebo analgesia. In this follow-up study, the study's lead author, Dr Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the medical school, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, sought to determine if dispositional mindfulness—that is, an individual's innate or natural level of mindfulness—was associated with lower pain sensitivity, and to identify what brain mechanisms were involved.

In the study, 76 healthy volunteers who had never meditated first completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, a reliable clinical measurement of mindfulness, to determine their baseline levels. Then, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were administered painful heat stimulation (120°F).

Whole brain analyses revealed that higher dispositional mindfulness during painful heat was associated with greater deactivation of a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex, a central neural node of the default mode network. Further, in those that reported higher pain, there was greater activation of this critically important brain region.

The default mode network extends from the posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. These two brain regions continuously feed information back and forth. This network is associated with processing feelings of self and mind wandering.

‘As soon as you start performing a task, the connection between these two brain regions in the default mode network disengages and the brain allocates information and processes to other neural areas,’ Zeidan said.

‘Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing. Default mode network is reactivated whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions. The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.’

The study provided novel neurobiological information that showed people with higher mindfulness ratings had less activation in the central nodes (posterior cingulate cortex) of the default network and experienced less pain. Those with lower mindfulness ratings had greater activation of this part of the brain and also felt more pain, Zeidan said.

‘Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows that we should consider one's level of mindfulness when calculating why and how one feels less or more pain,’ Zeidan said. ‘Based on our earlier research, we know we can increase mindfulness through relatively short periods of mindfulness meditation training, so this may prove to be an effective way to provide pain relief for the millions of people suffering from chronic pain.’

Journal reference:

Zeidan F et al. ‘Neural Mechanisms Supporting the Relationship between Dispositional Mindfulness and Pain.’ PAIN, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001344


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MINDFULNESS AND POST-OPERATIVE PAIN RELIEF



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Monday, August 13, 2018

MINDFULNESS AND RESPONSES TO EMOTIONAL STIMULI

How well can you control your emotions?

The essence of mindfulness is acceptance and non-reactivity. It’s like the old-fashioned tape recorder or the modern-day video surveillance camera; the equipment records but does not react to what it hears or sees. So it is with mindfulness.

Ordinarily, whenever there is an activating experience, there follows an emotional response on our part. The emotional response may be positive, negative or neutral. In between the activating experience and the emotional response is the interpolation of some belief or misbelief (eg ‘This is pleasant’, ‘This is unpleasant’, and so on) about the activating experience which causes us to pass judgment on, and then react emotionally to, the experience.

A recent study, involving more than 150 adults, evaluated the impact of long and short-term mindfulness meditation training on the amygdala response to emotional pictures in a healthy, non-clinical population of adults using blood-oxygen level dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Now, the amygdala, at the end of the hippocampus, is part of the limbic system of our brain and is responsible for the processing of memory, decision-making and emotional responses, especially fear, anxiety and aggression. Mindfulness meditation and other forms of meditation can quieten the activity of the amygdala.


 Photo credit: National Institute of Mental Health.


Long-term meditators had 9081 hours of lifetime practice on average, primarily in mindfulness meditation. Short-term training consisted of an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. The control group, made up of people with no meditation experience, was randomly assigned to a ‘health enhancement program’ over the same time period that included well-being practices, but not meditation specifically.

After an eight-week period, participants viewed and labelled photos as either emotionally positive, negative or neutral while undergoing a brain scan by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Meditation training was associated with less amygdala reactivity to positive pictures relative to controls, but there were no group differences in response to negative pictures. Reductions in reactivity to negative stimuli may require more practice experience or concentrated practice, as hours of retreat practice in long-term meditators was associated with lower amygdala reactivity to negative pictures, although the researchers did not see this relationship for practice time with MBSR.

Short-term training, compared to the control intervention, also led to increased functional connectivity between the amygdala and a region implicated in emotion regulation (in particular, the processing of risk and fear), namely, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), during affective pictures. Thus, meditation training may improve affective responding through reduced amygdala reactivity, and heightened amygdala–VMPFC connectivity during affective stimuli may reflect a potential mechanism by which MBSR exerts salutary effects on emotion regulation ability.


Study
: Krak T R A et al. ‘Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli.’ NeuroImage vol 181, 1 November 2018, 301-313.