The Science Scoop: Meditation, emotions, stress and our genetic inheritance: the fascinating link between the practice of meditation and gene expression

This is a post I'm republishing from last year.  The reason?  It's just too fascinating a topic to not bring up from time to time.  The information we now have from the field of epigenetics and how gene expression is influenced by the histories and experiences of our ancestors is profound and tells a story about how their stories often become our experience.  But - and this is important - what we also now know is how WE are empowered to influence those stories RIGHT NOW, rewrite them, and create a new legacy for those who follow us.  I'll write even more on this soon. 

_________________

In what is one of the most exciting new subfields in the study of gene expression - behavioral epigenetics - the intersection of our brain's plasticity - the ability of our brain to change and adapt - and genetic expression is becoming better known. 

You know, once upon a time, science believed that the brain ceased development in childhood. The brain you had - with all its hard wiring - was the brain you would have forever.  Here's a Ted talk from 2004 that discusses this theory of plasticity. In it, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says, "Your brain can do things tomorrow that it can't do today."  By way of acquired skills, it adapts.  

And his take home message to you is: you, YOU have a great deal of influence on what habits and patterns are reinforced in the brain. 

So, what is behavioral epigenetics, and why is it so fascinating? Behavioral epigenetics says that the experiences of our ancestors can impact upon gene expression in our bodies and brain and affect the way we experience the world.  This fascinating article on the topic refers to it as the 'molecular residue' from the emotional patterns of our ancestors.  

That means that the anxiety and stress, or the resilience and resourcefulness, of your grandparents and great-grandparents may be alive and well within you.  It's like an inherited pattern of gene expression. 

Recent research has also revealed a link between disturbed emotional states - like depression, anxiety and PTSD - and gene expression in the brain.  One article discussed some of that research, the gist being that our emotions (or in this case "disturbed emotions") have the ability to turn on and off the expression of certain genes in our brains.  And, according to my reading, particular focus was paid to "emotional disturbances." 

This is important to note, because the "disturbed emotional states" mentioned above often related to strong unexpressed emotions (like grief) or were the result of a sort of truncation in the process of emotional expression; like PTSD, a situation in which an event overwhelms our system so that we are unable to process it; we become 'stuck' in the energy of the event in a 'fight or flight' response, or in a shut down 'freeze' (or a combination of both!) response. 

I'd then ask the question:  Can a distinction be made between fully expressed emotion and emotions that are denied full expression, or are buried deep within us?  That's an important distinction, I would imagine, from the standpoint of gene expression.  

This is just scratching the surface of what is now believed to be tangible evidence regarding our thoughts and emotions and how they come to impact our bodies and minds.  At first glance, and if you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, this can feel disheartening.  

Speaking for myself, I have always fought against any idea or theory that "essentialized" human experience. In other words, any explanation that took control of my experience out of my hands. If my negative emotional states and behavior are all genetically determined then I am destined to suffer.  My mom would blame all of her struggles - both physical and mental - on genetics.  And as a young child, she would constantly remind me about what I was possibly inheriting and how it could effect my life (never positive things).

I understand now that the old 'nature vs nurture' picture is far more complex than that, and I can embrace the idea of some genetic inheritance now. 

And this is where contemplative practices, like mindfulness meditation, play an important role.

Science has come to embrace the theory of plasticity; the theory that our brains' wiring - at least with respect to emotion, thought, and behavior - can be altered based on our practices and habits. If we always react with anger every time our mother in law says something we take offense to, we reinforce that reaction within us. We reinforce our anger. So that even the thought of our MIL can be enough to crank up our adrenal glands, alter our breathing patterns, and ignite a flurry of thoughts around how disrespected and misunderstood we feel.  

The most exciting idea to come out of the plasticity model is that if our brains are alterable then there must be practices we can do to direct our thought and emotion into more helpful patterns.

Indeed, a recent study out of Wisconsin, France and Spain, revealed that meditation altered certain molecules that impacted gene expression.  In this study, they found meditation to effect gene expression along inflammatory pathways.

That means that that our 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation could be impacting inflammation levels in the body.

It is now widely accepted that there is a link between depression (at least some forms) and chronic, low-grade inflammation.  One of the highest ranking science and medical journals in the world, Nature, published a review that discussed this link.  The research now shows a link between low-grade inflammation and the development of depression over an extended period of time. 

This has exciting implications for us!  It's likely that the mechanism through which meditation alleviates many of the physical and emotional conditions related to stress is in its ability to calm the nervous system and the excessive, chronic output of cortisol (an important hormone in our stress response).  

The link between stress and inflammation is clear.  If meditation has been shown to impact inflammatory pathways, and the reduced inflammation has an impact on depression, then we have a very real and tangible tool that enables to us engage with our epigenetic inheritance and legacy. 

This is one of the more empowering aspects of contemplative practices - they empower us to influence the health of our brains and bodies - despite our genetic profile and possibly breaking inherited patterns for future generations.  

 

 

I am broken, I am whole (inspired by "E")

It was in mid-2007, when I had a glimpse into the subconscious mind that would go on to alter the course of my life. 

I sat in an office waiting room when a handsome, well-dressed young man came in and stood, back to me, at the reception desk.  Checking him out in a half-detached manner, slightly curious about what it would be like to date him, a voice in my head shut the prospect down with a whisper: "I'm not that girl", it said.  Catching hold of that thought before it had a chance to slip back into obscurity, I asked myself, "I'm not that girl? What does that even mean?!".  For the rest of that afternoon I thought about that moment. 

And in the days and weeks to follow, that one moment became a crack through which I could clearly see one of the stories that had been playing out deep within me for the first part of my life. 

There's something wrong with you, that story told me.  That's why I wasn't that girl that would date a (nice, I presumed) guy like that. 

There's this voice within each on of us that speaks to us on a level we don't often hear.  That voice is a storyteller that is constantly confirming the perception of reality that we hold.  A perception that includes who "I" am, who you are, and how the world is. 

For many of us...that voice is telling us a story of our dysfunction and brokenness.  And all the many ways we are often wrong for what we think, feel and do. 

Origin of the Story

Feeling as though you are somehow broken, or that there is something wrong with you, is one of the most common experiences human beings in our culture have.  But it’s also an experience based on a premise, on an idea, that there is some way that you should be that you believe you’re not.   

This idea “there’s something wrong with me” has its roots deep within your own personal story.  It’s steeped in the small and big ways you constructed for yourself a picture of the kind of person you were expected to be and the kind of person that you think you “are”.  

This “person” you’re supposed to be is built from elements you were exposed to from the time you were an infant.  As babies and young children, you watched and learned from your environment how “things are”.  You learned what kinds of thoughts and behavior met with approval, and what met with disapproval from the people around you who mattered to you the most.  As a small person, these were the people you depended on, so their thoughts and feelings really mattered to you.  

One of the things that happens to us as we grow older is that we carry the voice of “how things are” and “how people should be” with us, without questioning that voice within us telling us a story about how much we’re failing to live up to that.  Our preoccupation with this idea is like a dense fog obscuring our vision and keeping us in a state of low (or high!) level anxiety. 

We aren’t aware, or we don’t even realize, that this is just a story we’ve been living by for most of our lives.  

The "just" in that last sentence belies just how real the story feels - the version of it that your experience of the world reflects.  You can use the example of the fish in water who doesn't know what water is because it so permeates the fish's experience that she knows nothing else. Your story, unexamined, feels like that. 

Unexamined, that story of our brokenness guides our thinking, and often causes us to react (with anger or depression) when someone triggers it within us.  The story often guides our behavior, so we develop ways of attempting to control ourselves or others in an attempt to avoid feeling this brokenness. 

In a very human way, we try to avoid the pain associated with this belief, and we can develop some really funky ways of doing this!  (Examine all the behavior you don't like in yourself and you'll know what I'm talking about). 

What we slowly ease into through a practice of awareness is the awareness of this story as it plays out in all the many moments of our lives, and in the many relationships we have.  Turning up the volume of awareness can be very uncomfortable because we begin to see this happening more clearly…and we turn away from the pain of it less and less.

But we’re not doing this with harshness and self-judgment (likely the qualities we’ve been practicing for years), but with a new approach that includes kindness for our experience, patience for the process of looking down through the layers of that experience, and acceptance for “how things are” right now in our minds and bodies. 

And through this process what develops is a wise understanding.  That is, an understanding of the nature of human life, and how the many conditions of our lives have come together to shape the experience we’re having right now. 

When we have this understanding onboard, self-compassion flows like an unimpeded river, because we see how unnecessary self-judgment is through this lens. We can see that our humanity is nothing more than the product of so many contributing factors so that judgment no longer even feels appropriate to the situation. 

Judgment literally falls away when we open up to a broader understanding of how we came to be as we are today, and how we came to experience our lives. 

Instead of self-judgment, which often shuts us down, we have wise understanding…and this wise understanding is the starting point for self-transformation. 

There's something else really profound about seeing the story for what it is.  We can let the old story slowly drift away as a new one replaces it:  I'm whole just as I am.  And suddenly all of the (funky) ways I've developed to bypass the pain of the old belief can loosen their grip...and something else emerges.  A belief in my wholeness.

That day I stopped to consider what the voice in my head was saying - the one that told me of my brokenness - was the beginning of a series of events that led me (quite quickly and dramatically) down a completely different path in my life.  (A bigger story for another time. Hint: it ends with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children).

Reflect for a moment on this...

What if you were to reflect for a moment for yourself on the difference between these two ways of looking at yourself?  Close your eyes and sit for a few minutes with the following statements (like mantras) suspended in your mind:

“I am broken and I need to be fixed” – stay with that thought hanging out there and sense into the body as you marinate in it.  What does it feel like to have that thought there? 

Open your eyes again, focusing for a moment on the breath, and then try the next…

“I am whole as I am.  There is nothing wrong with me.”  Stay now with this thought permeating the mind and body.  How does it feel to have this thought there?

What do you notice happening in your mind and body when you hold each of these statements in mind for a few moments? 

Just out of curiosity - which one feels better to hold onto?

You can begin to wake up to your life and become more selective about what beliefs play out in the operating system of our minds and bodies.  If we're living often with stress and insecurity, we can trust that we're believing something unhelpful anyway.

Practical Matters: What to do with your resistance

Are you familiar with resistance when it comes to your meditation practice, or to other things important to you?  How about in your life in general - are there moments when you're aware of this force putting the breaks on things you want to do or don't want to do?  

If there's one experience that most of us can relate to in our meditation and mindfulness practice is that resistance will likely make an appearance.  At least a cameo, more probably a starring role. We may be aware of it when it arises, as it manifests in this resounding NO at the thought of sitting down to meditate.  Maybe we want to do anything but...

But resistance may be present even if we're unaware that it's there.  Maybe it manifests in the form of a forgetfulness or confusion about our practice, or about being truly present within our bodies. We may find ourselves fleeing into thoughts about how busy we are, but at heart we may be feeling fearful of being wholly present.  Maybe it comes in the form of a sleepiness or general malaise in our practice. 

Does this resonate with you?  And why does resistance show up at all?  What are we actually resisting in those moments?  Are you curious to know? 

The truth is, I can't tell you what you're resisting.  Resistance is often the experience we have when what lies beyond it - the emotions and sensations - is too difficult to be with, or so we believe.  Like an automatic flinch when a ball comes flying towards our face, we tense and constrict parts of our body against the felt sense of certain experiences. 

This tension and constriction in our bodies - so ingrained and automatic that it becomes normalized - can become trapped.  Just as squeezing a hose constricts the flow of water, so too does the tightness and tension in our bodies constrict the flow and exchange of energy. As one of my mentors puts it, resistance is trapped sensation.  We don't want to feel what's there, and the resistance arises in how we're relating to what's there. (But don't take my word for it - you can investigate this for yourself.)  

In that sense, you could also see resistance as a protective response.  Only, we're protecting ourselves in this case from being with our own experience.  Cutting ourselves off from emotions and sensations that want to be felt and expressed (they're there, and not allowing them to be there doesn't make them go away). 

Resistance might be our response, but it's not the resolution to what we don't want to face.  In fact, as the saying goes, what we resist, persists.  

There is a goldmine of information beyond our resistance, but resistance is not our enemy.  Instead, we can come to see it for what it is (this self-protection against uncomfortable experiences), befriend it, come to know its contours, and allow it to give way to what's beyond it.

Resistance is an invitation to a deeper understanding and self-knowledge about what we want and what we need in our lives to be fully connected and at ease.  And resistance can inform our response to situations and people in our lives.  But we have to first understand its presence within us.  

So, how do we do this?  How do we invite the resistance in?  

You guessed it - come to the body.  Bringing the qualities we're learning to cultivate in our mindfulness practice to the experience of resistance, we can begin to investigate how resistance feels in our bodies. 

We need to bring our curiosity, our kindness, our openness and acceptance if we're going to learn from it. Meeting resistance with judgment or criticism, guilt or shame, doesn't invite us to learn why it's there in the first place, and what it's keeping us from experiencing.  

Invite resistance in to tea...

Step 1 - Take a moment to sense into your body.  Connect with the floor through your feet, or connect with your body through the breath.  

Step 2 - Bring curiosity to your investigation of resistance.  Sensing into the body, where can you feel it?  What physical sensations are present that you'd call resistance?  Describe how it feels and where it lives.  

Step 3 - Notice any inclination to retreat to analysis or interpretation in the mind.  Just notice, and then come back to the body.  Stay in the body - letting be any fixed ideas or concepts we may have about what we're feeling or sensing.  

Repeat this process again and again when you feel resistance to your practice (or in other areas of your life!).  Notice what happens when you start to investigate its presence.  It may not lift for the duration of your meditation, but as you learn to befriend it, to understand it and why its there, it can give way to the experience beyond it that needs to be experienced in order to be resolved...the one that we are trying hard not to experience.  

 

 

Why Meditation is my Non-Negotiable

What if there were something that could call you back to yourself, give you a feeling of homecoming without traveling anywhere, remind you of your deeper values and provide you with the balance and clarity needed to live from those values?

What if there were something that could give you a moment's pause before you did or said that thing you'd later regret saying or doing, or act out of overwhelm and frustration towards your children when all you really need is a little space?

This tool has, for me, become the single most important non-negotiable in my life.  I'll explain why...

You may know that mindfulness also means "to remember." That is, to awaken from the haze of habitual and automatic thought and behavior in order to inhabit your embodied life fully in this moment in time and space. 

For me, it's also about a re-membering.  Sitting in my body and calling back to myself the mental and emotional energy that I can often attach to the past, the future, and to every other life except the one that I'm inhabiting here and now.  This life.  Right here. 

We've actually evolved to forget those things that aren't sustained, practiced, and focused on with consistency.  Chances are, if you're a human being living in the modern world, you've practiced being busy, not slowing down, overriding your mental/emotional and physical boundaries, and otherwise dissociating from your own life for a long time.

Meditation is your invitation back to your own life.  It's the time and the space to be in your body and connect with the life that is here.

What do you want from this life?  Who do you wish to be in the world? How do you wish to be in the world?  With the people you love. How do you wish to feel?

The clarity and insight you need to live your life connected with what matters most to you - what you want to remember - is born from our connection to ourselves. 

Meditation is your invitation to re-connection.  For me, it's what creates the present state of mind that helps in my connection with my husband and children.  It's the practice that has give me CHOICE about how I wish to respond to the circumstances in my life, and the people in my life. 

Meditation is my non-negotiable.  And it's an invitation.  Are you going to accept it? 

 

Practical matters: Keys to a consistent meditation practice

It's 6.30am on a Tuesday morning and the first signs of conscious life appear.  You hear the buzz of your alarm clock, or wake to the sounds of loved ones shuffling about, the cat stirring for his morning feed.  Not seconds after you've cracked open one eye, your mind starts to glow with the light of a million conscious and unconscious thoughts about the day - what you need to do, how you're feeling, what you should have said yesterday, that thing you're looking forward to, etc ad infinitum

It takes no time at all for the momentum of the day to take hold, propelling you forward into the future, or reminding you of that anchor you have firmly rooted in a past event.

But you want to meditate.  You've committed to learning how to incorporate this practice into your everyday.  You want to experience that thing they call "effortless mindfulness".  But this and this and this need to get done and...maybe later.  

If this sounds anything at all like you then, rest assured, you belong fully to the human family.  We human animals have evolved brains that have the capacity for a great many things - among them, imagination.  This neocortex that is sometimes referred to as the "higher brain" has given us the advantage of imagination and planning; things other animals don't do.  

But this great ability of ours also causes our incredible distraction and detraction, at times, from clarity around what we truly want from our lives, how we want to live, how we wish to be in the world.  So we have to learn to cultivate the ability to stay present.  Stay rooted in the only moment in which clarity and insight are truly possible, and our ability to actually shape that moment (and our experience of it), and all future moments, exists. 

I initially wrote this post for my mindfulness students, but I also wanted to share it more broadly, because it's the list that has helped me, and others, tackle some of the greatest hindrances to a consistent and sustainable meditation practice.  

So, here we go.  What helps keep us on track?:

1)    Remind yourself that you’re here by choice.  Whether that means you're attending a class or a course on meditation and mindfulness, or you've picked up a book on the subject, heard a talk, and were inspired to sit your butt on a cushion.  Even if someone else talked you into it, there was a motivation in there, somewhere, some part of you that thought, “this might be something for me.” Remember, you don't have to learn about or practice meditation. 

2)    Remember your why.  Take a moment to settle into yourself and ask yourself what is it beyond the "I should do this" that brought you to meditation that could be your intention for practicing.  We all know that modern human life creates the conditions for stress.  We've all experienced stress.  So turn that "I don't want to be stressed" negative into a positive (or two), what DO you want to feel/experience as the result of becoming more mindful? Remember your why.  

3)    "Choose your battles", as one of my mentors would say.  If the things you want to feel/experience are important to you, then can you prioritze those things that are likely to lead you to them?  This could include getting more sleep, eating better, exercising more, and your meditation and mindfulness practice.  If you've identified an intention for practicing and believe it could hold value for you, then make it a priority.

4)    Put it in your calendar!  Things with priority should get priority treatment.  You'll schedule a doctor's appointment, or a coffee date with a friend, why not schedule your practice.  As said, that morning momentum when it takes hold is a powerful intention-amnesiac, and the best intentions get laid to waste in the face of the to-do list.  Make your practice #1 on that list. Schedule it.  Make it a non-negotiable. 

5)    Be your own really good parent.  This means, work with your resistance the way a good and loving parent would work with their child.  You don't want to do it? Check in with yourself as to why.  If you're not dealing with a mental health crisis, or a lion chasing you, or a fire blazing in your house, then what's holding you back from your practice?  Take yourself lovingly by your own hand, sit your butt down, and ground yourself in your present moment experience.  Connect with your body, and investigate what's happening.  Just see what's there, with kindness. Get to know your resistance and let it show you the places you don't want to go (but need to go).  

6)    Don't beat yourself up when you don't get a practice or two (or six or sixteen) in.  When you don't catch that ball of momentum before it starts steamrolling your intention to practice.  Every time you notice you've forgotten, remember.  Remember your why.  Check back in with your intention.  Schedule it, and start again.  

7)    Trust in the process - the course (and your continued practice) was developed as a process to take you from one level of understanding to the next.   We all have our preferences (I'd rather do jumping jacks instead of meditate today), but this isn't about indulging our preferences as much as it is learning about our present moment experience.  If we never allowed ourselves to feel uncomfortable, we'd miss out on all those opportunities to learn from our discomfort, and learn to be with our discomfort.  Can you imagine how much more resilient you would become if you could withstand some discomfort, some stretching of your comfort zones, from time to time, rather than always shifting out of discomfort into anything and everything that could (momentarily) take it away? 

8) Lastly, but not least importantly, don't forget to bring your sense of humor to the party! We can apply ourselves to this work of looking at our own experience without taking ourselves so seriously in the process.  In fact, the more we look, the more we can see how random our thoughts and emotions can be at times, how interesting our triggers.  Allow some levity to accompany you on your journey. 

Zentrum-für-achtsamkeit_basel-2-1024x681.jpg

A New Course Starts Soon

English-language MBSR at the Basel Center for Mindfulness - January, 2018

A 30-second practice to stay grounded this Christmas season, and every other season

Walking into a department store on a main street in Basel, I’m struck by the demand on my senses to look, hear, smell and touch everything around me.  Smaller shops and larger stores are adorned, outside and in, with the colors of Christmas.  The light of a million Christmas decorations covers everything in a festive glow.  And, while I love this time of year, the bustle of it all can get overwhelming, if we let it. 

As I stand there in the entrance to this department store, I realize how my eyes dart from one offer to the next, one bright and shiny object to the next, my attention is pulled to a sound over there, and the people brushing past me over here.  I start to make my way down an isle and it’s not long before I realize how disconnected it’s possible to feel when we lose a sense of connection to ourselves and our internal environment when so much is happening outside of us.  I wonder to myself, with so much happening all around, how aware other people even are of the other people and things around them, or if it's just a lot of taking in without digesting what's being consumed. 

We often don't allow much time in our lives for stillness and connection to our inner experience.  In the busy-ness of everyday life, we don’t leave a lot of room for moments to rest and digest our everyday experiences, and the chronic condition of this can lead to many things.  On one hand, it can leave us feeling disconnected from ourselves, as if our energy was scattered in the wind – our thoughts can feel random and disorganized and we can have this overall feeling of not being grounded.  As a chronic state, this can lead to a feeling of low-level anxiety, a generalized feeling of insecurity in the world. 

We need to learn to stop and gain a sense of ourselves relative to our environment – both inward and outward - to connect again with what’s happening in and around us. 

As human beings, we often forget that we're still part of the animal world, and as animals our sensory experience is what connects us with the world - both inside and out.  When this is overloaded, we can feel overloaded.  We need to come back to our bodies, back to our senses, so to speak, back to an attunement with our sensory experience – to rest for a moment, and digest all that we’re taking in. 

Here’s a 30-second practice (that you can also do for longer, if you like) you can use this holiday season, and in any other season of your life, to come back to center when you feel ungrounded by the intensity of what’s happening in your world.   

Feel your feet on the ground beneath you.  I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate how profound this practice alone can be. When we’re overstimulated, we can get sucked up into our heads, and the myriad thoughts cycling around.  Bringing awareness to our feet can have a powerful grounding effect, pulling you down into your body.  Try it – stand tall, wherever you are (in a tram, in a shop, waiting somewhere in line) and feel the sensation of your feet making contact with the ground.  Name the sensations you feel, if possible (warmth, tingling, etc). 

Notice your breath in the belly.  After you’ve sensed the ground beneath you, bring awareness to the breath that animates your body.  Focusing on the area of the abdomen can help, as it can cause the rise and fall of the belly with the in and out breaths.  Really feel this.  If you need assistance, you can bring your right hand to your belly to help you feel the rise and fall of breath in your body. 

Look at the world around you.  Intentionally move your head and eyes around your environment so that you take it in while remaining connected with the sensations of breathing.  Notice if your mind starts producing a lot of thought and come back to “seeing” and “sensing” – your eyes taking in the environment with part of your awareness on your breath. 

If you're with a friend or two, wander off for a moment to do this, or invite them to join you!  Having company in these hurried moments can exacerbate the feeling of overwhelm, but they can join in the grounding fun!

You can try it now - wherever you are.  I'll wait...


How did that feel?  Did anything change? 

Try this out a few times and see how it impacts those moments when you feel less connected with your experience relative to your environment and see if it helps! If so, please get in touch and let me know!


Check out MBSR courses in 2018. A new one starts soon!


The Irresistible Invitation of Fall

We're quickly nearing the official start of the fall season, and already here the weather has started to shift.  Today, as I look out my office window, I see a cool grey sky and tree tops being blown by a strong wind.  The leaves have entered the next phase of their life cycle...their movement toward death.  Soon they'll start falling to the ground in a sort of potter's field of red and yellow and orange. And all of this reminds me of why I love this time of year, though, for many, it can also be challenging.

For me, fall has always been a welcome change to summer's heat and intensity.  The outward expansion of summer is met by the colder, more inward, energy of fall.  I love summer - doors and windows open, we're out exploring the world, meeting friends, traveling, and are often more active than at other times.  But the contrast that fall offers is irresistible to me. (Not to mention the tapestry of color the trees provide!)

It was a blazing hot summer, years ago, when a dear friend said, "I'm sick of these sunny days." She was in the midst of a breakup when we had a two-week heat streak with temperatures in the upper 90s and nothing but sun, sun, sun.  "I just want one rainy day," she sighed.  And I knew what she meant.  The heat and sun left her feeling she had to go out and "enjoy" the day, but one rainy day would give her the excuse she felt she needed to stay home and do what every cell in her body longed to do.  Grieve.

Grieve the death of her relationship.  She didn't want to be "sunny" about it, she wanted to have a good cry, and she longed for a rainy day to complement her mood and the grieving process.  She wanted to contemplate this transition in her life.

Of course not everyone needs a rainy day to be their excuse to stay home and be contemplative, but it helps.  And, for me, that's what fall represents.  It presents the contrast to all that we typically hold up as our "ideal" - sun, hot, light, expansion - and (re)introduces us to that which we often try and avoid - cold, dark, contraction.  Fall often symbolizes aging, death, and the silence that accompanies them.  

Fall represents the end of nature's life cycle.  All around us we find evidence of the reality that we know all things face.  But, more symbolically, we sense the energy of things slowing down, and if we welcome this change, this can be a time of retrospection and reflection for us.  If you're anything like me, then you welcome the opportunity to simply "be" that fall seems to invite.  And the insight and clarity that slowness and silence make possible.  You may even choose to reflect on the impermanence of all things - this moment, this day, this time in our lives, relationships, and, ultimately, this life. 

This is not meant to be depressing.  In fact, if you've ever allowed the natural life cycle of a moment, a period of time, a relationship, a person, to be as it is - impermanent - you may know the sense of reverence that grows out of that awareness.  You likely know the deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for life that this acceptance of "how things are" engenders.  You may have had your moments, upon this type of reflection, infused with a profound sense of meaning and a love of life that you'd not known before. 

I once heard a radio program on NPR (that's National Public Radio in the U.S.) lament the end of summer and the start of fall.  Gone, it said, were the hot summer days full of fun and friends.  In, they said, was the return of the darkness and the cold (read: death, both real and symbolic).   But perhaps they've missed fall's greatest invitation - to go in, to "be with", and to contemplate and deeply know this life in the process.

Do you love fall?  If so, what do you love about it? 

The Body Cannot Lie

Did you know that your body cannot lie?  If you don't know what I mean, then observe a guileless child when you ask them if something they've just told you is the truth. 

"J, did you brush your teeth?" I asked (again). 

My little man's lips pursed and his nose crinkled and his shoulders raised up high.  His eyes averted mine and he took several loud, deep breaths before responding with a stilted, "yes, I did." 

I love that the body cannot lie.  We big people have whetted and polished tools over many years that enable us to silence the truths that the body speaks.  All addictions are some manifestation of this suppressed voice.  We silence it with drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol.  We shove it down into the depths of our bowels with food.  We spend our money and depend at times on our money to distract us (temporarily).  We create drama around people and situations, create stories about why we're right and they're wrong - all in the interest of shutting out what we don't want to feel. 

I know what it's like to deny the body its truth.  To allow the mind to create narratives in order to avoid certain, painful, truths.  For many people this manifests in a state of detachment from our emotions, or an over-sentimentality and emotionality that comes out over the smallest things having nothing to do with what we're avoiding. What is happening in our minds, and what is happening in our bodies can become grossly out of synch.

This is what we learn to do in meditation - we learn to connect with our embodied experience.  That means, the experience we're having OUTSIDE the incessant flurry of thoughts that are generated about our experience - This is good. This is bad.  This person is awful.  This moment is awful, etc. We drop our attention out of our heads and hang out for a while in the body.  Doing this is a fascinating experiment that you have to experience for yourself - though I'll explore the idea in more depth in another post. 

I once observed that when my daughter is bored, she stomps around the house, flailing her arms, and with her head tilted back a little, makes these moany, kind of whiny sounds. For her, boredom is a totally embodied experience. This was before she had words, which likely meant that she did not yet have the ability to formulate thoughts about her experience, she just felt it and then moved on. And I realized, that's EXACTLY how I felt when bored, but for me it just remained this unrealized mass that usually came out as a funky mood. I promised myself that the next time, I was going to try putting my whole body into the experience and see what happens!  I was going to connect with the experience of being bored. 

Are you curious to know what happens when you do that?  Next time you feel agitated, try this:  sit down comfortably somewhere, relax as much as possible, and close your eyes.  You may notice how agitated the body feels and you may want to just get up and distract yourself again.  That's ok - see if you can stay with it.  Now, focus on the full inhale and exhale of 3 breaths.  Make them as steady and as deep as you can (but don't stress about it).  Follow the breath as it enters your nose, travels down into the lungs, and the mechanics breathing cause the belly to rise and fall.  Follow it as it rolls out again.  Once you're finished reflect on what you experienced? 

Were you still bored in those moments?

"I know you didn't brush your teeth," I told J.  He took a deep breath and stomped his foot.  "Do you know how I know?", I asked him. 

"How?"

"Your body.  It can't lie.  And that's a good thing - it means your head and your body are still working together. It means they're still in synch."

He didn't get it and he didn't care.  But I do.  

How our grief transforms through mindfulness

How our grief transforms through mindfulness

Mindfulness is a way of relating to our experience that opens us to the totality of it - that is, we learn to embrace it all, the joy and the heartache. But some experiences are harder to be with.  It’s difficult to be with physical or emotional pain, and we often retreat to the mind in search of distractions.  But when we are able to fully be with our experience, something that feels like magic happens.

The Science Scoop: Are you focused on the doing or the achieving in meditation?

The Science Scoop: Are you focused on the doing or the achieving in meditation?

Whenever we pursue a new activity, we’re often focused on the goal that activity is set to achieve.  For example, in the case of meditation, we often come to the practice with the hope, expectation or goal that it will achieve a desired outcome; less stress, more joy, overall improved health, etc.  That’s normal.  However, two researchers from the University of Chicago, Fishbach and Choi, were able to demonstrate how our motivation to pursue and to stick with an activity is impacted by how we attend to the activity. 

 

The Science Scoop: Meditation, emotions, stress and our genetic inheritance: the fascinating link between the practice of meditation and gene expression

This is a post I'm republishing from last year.  The reason?  It's just too fascinating a topic to not bring up from time to time.  The information we now have from the field of epigenetics and how gene expression is influenced by the histories and experiences of our ancestors is profound and tells a story about how their stories often become our experience.  But - and this is important - what we also now know is how WE are empowered to influence those stories RIGHT NOW, rewrite them, and create a new legacy for those who follow us.  I'll write even more on this soon. 

_________________________________

In what is one of the most exciting new subfields in the study of gene expression - behavioral epigenetics - the intersection of our brain's plasticity - the ability of our brain to change and adapt - and genetic expression is becoming better known. 

You know, once upon a time, science believed that the brain ceased development in childhood. The brain you had - with all its hard wiring - was the brain you would have forever.  Here's a Ted talk from 2004 that discusses this theory of plasticity. In it, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says, "Your brain can do things tomorrow that it can't do today."  By way of acquired skills, it adapts.  

And his take home message to you is: you, YOU have a great deal of influence on what habits and patterns are reinforced in the brain. 

So, what is behavioral epigenetics, and why is it so fascinating? Behavioral epigenetics says that the experiences of our ancestors can impact upon gene expression in our bodies and brain and affect the way we experience the world.  This fascinating article on the topic refers to it as the 'molecular residue' from the emotional patterns of our ancestors.  

That means that the anxiety and stress, or the resilience and resourcefulness, of your grandparents and great-grandparents may be alive and well within you.  It's like an inherited pattern of gene expression. 

Recent research has also revealed a link between disturbed emotional states - like depression, anxiety and PTSD - and gene expression in the brain.  One article discussed some of that research, the gist being that our emotions (or in this case "disturbed emotions") have the ability to turn on and off the expression of certain genes in our brains.  And, according to my reading, particular focus was paid to "emotional disturbances." 

This is important to note, because the "disturbed emotional states" mentioned above often related to strong unexpressed emotions (like grief) or were the result of a sort of truncation in the process of emotional expression; like PTSD, a situation in which an event overwhelms our system so that we are unable to process it; we become 'stuck' in the energy of the event in a 'fight or flight' response, or in a shut down 'freeze' (or a combination of both!) response. 

I'd then ask the question:  Can a distinction be made between fully expressed emotion and emotions that are denied full expression, or are buried deep within us?  That's an important distinction, I would imagine, from the standpoint of gene expression.  

This is just scratching the surface of what is now believed to be tangible evidence regarding our thoughts and emotions and how they come to impact our bodies and minds.  At first glance, and if you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, this can feel disheartening.  

Speaking for myself, I have always fought against any idea or theory that "essentialized" human experience. In other words, any explanation that took control of my experience out of my hands. If my negative emotional states and behavior are all genetically determined then I am destined to suffer.  My mom would blame all of her struggles - both physical and mental - on genetics.  And as a young child, she would constantly remind me about what I was possibly inheriting and how it could effect my life (never positive things).

I understand now that the old 'nature vs nurture' picture is far more complex than that, and I can embrace the idea of some genetic inheritance now. 

And this is where contemplative practices, like mindfulness meditation, play an important role.

Science has come to embrace the theory of plasticity; the theory that our brains' wiring - at least with respect to emotion, thought, and behavior - can be altered based on our practices and habits. If we always react with anger every time our mother in law says something we take offense to, we reinforce that reaction within us. We reinforce our anger. So that even the thought of our MIL can be enough to crank up our adrenal glands, alter our breathing patterns, and ignite a flurry of thoughts around how disrespected and misunderstood we feel.  

The most exciting idea to come out of the plasticity model is that if our brains are alterable then there must be practices we can do to direct our thought and emotion into more helpful patterns.

Indeed, a recent study out of Wisconsin, France and Spain, revealed that meditation altered certain molecules that impacted gene expression.  In this study, they found meditation to effect gene expression along inflammatory pathways.

That means that that our 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation could be impacting inflammation levels in the body.

It is now widely accepted that there is a link between depression (at least some forms) and chronic, low-grade inflammation.  One of the highest ranking science and medical journals in the world, Nature, published a review that discussed this link.  The research now shows a link between low-grade inflammation and the development of depression over an extended period of time. 

This has exciting implications for us!  It's likely that the mechanism through which meditation alleviates many of the physical and emotional conditions related to stress is in its ability to calm the nervous system and the excessive, chronic output of cortisol (an important hormone in our stress response).  

The link between stress and inflammation is clear.  If meditation has been shown to impact inflammatory pathways, and the reduced inflammation has an impact on depression, then we have a very real and tangible tool that enables to us engage with our epigenetic inheritance and legacy. 

This is one of the more empowering aspects of contemplative practices - they empower us to influence the health of our brains and bodies - despite our genetic profile and possibly breaking inherited patterns for future generations.