Clearing the Mind through Meditation

In this post we want to discuss mental changes that occur while and after meditation.

The type of meditation you do is a factor in determining what happens, but there are many commonalities shared by various types of meditation. Relaxation of mind and body are very basic ones. We discussed this relaxation of mind and body in our previous post, and we followed Herbert Benson’s lead in dubbing it “the relaxation response”.

Since Benson is a cardiologist, it should not be a surprise that he focused on physiological reactions relevant to how the heart and blood vessels react. Obviously these changes are important for all of us. But there are also important changes in the way our minds function when we meditate. And these changes impact how we view the world and how we feel and behave.

A very valuable change has to do with getting control of the constant chattering that goes on in our minds.

Limiting the chatter/background noise is essential to developing a mind clear enough to be able to make our perception of reality clear. In Yoga it is seen as a form of enlightenment and in the more scientific framework of Information Theory it is a matter of reducing our mental “noise” level enough to tell whether an input contains something meaningful, a “signal”, or is merely noise.

We see the ancient views from Yoga and the modern views from information theory as expressing basically the same concepts, though within different frameworks.

One of the classic accounts of meditation and its consequences is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The first line of the Yoga Sutras says that “Even-mindedness is Yoga”.  In this view, the mind can be likened to a pond that responds with waves when something is dropped into it. If the pond is calm, without waves, even dropping a small pebble into it will result in easily noted waves.

In the middle of a storm, the impact of that same pebble may be impossible to detect.

With meditation, our minds have increased clarity and a wider awareness than they had prior to meditating. This clarity and extensiveness of awareness goes beyond mere facts. After meditation, things you have passed by many times with little reaction may suddenly reveal their beauty and trigger a sense of awe in you.  So meditation also clarifies a more emotional aspect of what we experience.

Until the 1960s, Western science paid little attention to claims that healthy changes could result from meditation. Such claims were generally ignored or seen as hokum. In the early 1960s this easy dismissal was called into question, and research began to be published that confirmed some of the claims.

Interesting early work by a psychiatrist, Arthur Deikman, made a start in recognizing that our perceptions of many aspects of reality and our reactions to that reality are intensified and improved by meditation. He did a small study in which he got various colleagues to meditate on an ordinary blue vase. He simply asked the colleagues to sit in a room and keep their attention on the vase, putting aside distractions that came to mind.

Participants reported a wide range of reactions. Here is an illustration from an article written by Deikman describing a shift in perception of the vase that occurred quite generally:

   Sooner or later they experienced a shift to a deeper and more intense blue. “More vivid”   was a phrase they used frequently. Ss experienced the vase as becoming brighter while everything in their visual field became quite dark and indistinct. The adjective “luminous” was often applied to the vase, as if it were a source of light. For example, subject B, Session #6, “The vase was a hell of a lot bluer this time than it has been before . . . it was darker and more luminous at the same time.”

(When Deikman wrote this article, the term “Subject” or “S” was in general use when referring to volunteer participants in psychological experiments.)

If you do a search in Google Scholar for research on meditation today, you will find many confirmations of beneficial effects of meditation.

We will continue discussing changes due to meditation in our next post.


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Why Not Put Meditation Through the Ultimate Test? Try It Out!

Prior to the 1960s claims about psychological and, especially physical improvements from mind training practices, got about as much serious attention as claims that the earth is actually flat.

A variety of influences encouraged those who are scientifically oriented to take a second look at these techniques. A very significant shift in readiness to take them seriously resulted from the work of Herbert Benson, a senior cardiologist at Harvard’s Medical School.

His work was presumably stimulated by popular demand, stemming from such things as the wildly popular Beatles’ taking up “Transcendental Meditation”, a very well packaged program centered on an ancient method of “Mantra Meditation”.

In a nutshell, Benson confirmed that mantra meditation induced something he called the “relaxation response”. This was a clear and simple label for a complex pattern of physiological replenishment responses along with corollary psychological feelings of calm and relaxation.

The mind-body pattern was familiar to the few people who understood how our nervous systems respond when we are distressed versus when we are comfortable and calm. The pattern was based on activity in a number of neural systems that can only be understood after much study of neurophysiology.

So his simply calling their effects as “the relaxation response” was pure genius. It focuses on a central benefit of controlling those neurophysiological and corollary psychological reactions without getting bogged down in technical details a person doesn’t need to know in order to get the systems under control.

(What is Mantra Meditation, and how can you learn how to do it? To get our answers to these questions, click here).

There are many types of meditation, and, in our experience, which one is seen as best seems to depend as much on the person trying to use it as on the meditation method itself.

Though mantra meditation is widely used, the current star of the show in our part of the world is mindfulness meditation. We have described how to engage in this practice here. The method we describe is an ancient one which has shown its usefulness over thousands of years.

We did a Google search to find out how well the effectiveness of mindfulness is supported by good research. For this kind of search, we use Google Scholar, which emphasizes research that has been reported in journals that are attentive to scientific standards of evidence. If you do an ordinary search, you may get as many sales pitches as scientific findings.

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True Grit: a Remarkable Display of Resilience Guided by a Problem-Solving Attitude.

A recent article in the New Yorker was written by Jonathan Kalb, who, after a period of unexplained, severe headache woke up unable to smile on one side of his face. His face on that side just drooped, though he seemed to have normal responses on the other side. He had experienced an attack of  “Bell’s Palsy

This kind of functional loss is particularly disturbing because it can distort the facial expression of emotions. Thus, it can impair the ability to interact with others.

In Kalb’s case, the problem was increased by his role as a journalist, whose job called for him to interact normally and to form a kind of bond with strangers.

Those symptoms could even influence his ability to maintain a normal relationship with his immediate family.

What if his wife had been put off by his distorted smile? What if his son was embarrassed by him?

You can see that he had plummeted into a threat to his normal family relationships as well as his job and his social interactions in general.

Yet, his article focuses not on his woes, but instead on how he continued his life despite the problem that had haphazardly come his way. In other words, it focuses on the tactics he used to respond with resilience.

All of us have, at times, faced blows that made our lives harder. So we have something in common with Mr. Kalb. We can learn to improve our own resilience by seeing how people with troubling challenges like his can respond successfully.

So what did he do?

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The Role of Resilience in Making Failure a Stepping Stone to Success

They say that “dog bites man” is not worth reporting, but “man bites dog” is newsworthy.

Some of our blog posts started as cases of “man bites dog”.   After decades in which “positive thinking” was generally accepted, those posts took a close look at a growing view that “negativity may be good for you”.  But we ended up concluding that arguments for negativity commonly turn out to be based on mere matters of how you define negativity.

Upon close examination, at least some claims for negativity appear to be simple matters of treating realism as negative thinking. For example, thinking through obstacles that might get in the way of reaching a desired goal is considered negativity.

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Anticipating Barriers as an Aspect of Positivity.

Should you do all in your power to block every negative thought from coming into your mind? Some people have argued that you cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought.

A common refrain in our society is “Be positive!” And there is a great deal of research supporting the idea that positivity is good for you. But can you really turn your mind from negative to positive on demand? Does that really help?

Convincing research indicates that pretending we are not distressed when we really are results in physiological responses that are known to be unhealthy, e.g. high blood pressure. This doesn’t happen if we get to think and talk about our feelings of distress, which inevitably involves letting negative thoughts and feelings enter your mind.

More than a few highly competent researchers have argued that there are actually benefits to negativity.

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Prepare for Your Later Life by Accumulating Skills and Habits of Resilience

Why should we invest in improving our resilience? Usually it is because we want to:

  • Avoid having painful, distressing reactions to potentialy jarring occurrences that come up in our lives, and instead to stay reasonably calm and cool in the face of such experiences.
  • Avoid ending up lastingly impaired by such experiences. That often quoted saying “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” Is only true when permanent or long-term damage isn’t done. (Think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
  • If we fail to avoid being impaired, minimize the damage by developing effective “work-arounds”, and thus maintain our quality of life.

Researchers have provided us with many studies that show striking positive effects of resilience. A remarkable example that comes to mind is research showing that optimism predicts  better outcomes of surgery, including recovery from a coronary bypass.

Still, studies in real life situations with large samples of real people that trace the effects of resilience over fairly long periods of time are rare. The work of Lydia Manning and her colleagues is one of the rare exceptions. Continue reading

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Mental Contrasting: An Important Technique for Reaching Your Goals.

In this post we hope to show you the value of a technique called “mental contrasting”. We want to explain that concept, to cite evidence that mental contrasting really helps people change their habits to healthier and more productive ones, and to tell you what you need to know in order to use it yourself.

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Reconsidering Your Initial View of Stressful Situations Can Help You Respond with Greater Resilience.

Inevitably life confronts us with situations that are hard to handle. Sometimes our ability to handle them falls far short, and we are forced to go through a period in which we struggle and take some painful hits.

If we manage to get through such situations “in one piece”, we can be strengthened instead of being defeated.  When that happens, we have increased our resilience.

There are many different ways to come out on top of our struggles, or at least to keep them from utterly defeating us. If you take a quick trip through our 100+ posts in this blog, you will almost certainly find some that you can use as tools for getting through experiences you may encounter in the future.

A tool that has been occupying our attention lately is “Cognitive Reappraisal”.  It will be the central focus of this post.

What is cognitive reappraisal? It is a way to regulate our emotions. It calls on us to focus on finding alternative interpretations of what we are going through. This includes appraisals of the events that trigger our emotional reaction, the bodily responses that have been triggered, and of any other aspect of the total experience.

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Build Your “Toughness” and Become More Resilient

In the late 1980s, a Professor from the University of Nebraska published an important article on something he called “toughness”. He pointed out that the prevalent belief of experts was that the “arousal” that is stimulated by stress is just plain BAD. (This word “arousal” in ordinary parlance usually refers to sex, but here it means having the brain highly activated and the body prepared for action, the kind of action that enables you to confront a threat and either escape or defeat it).

The Professor, Richard Dienstbier, summarized a wide range of research showing that this arousal could damage you, but could also toughen you. In some cases it can even be exhilarating and good for your health.

This is where the technical sense of “arousal” and the sexual sense of it converge. During sex the body responds in many of the same ways it responds to threats, for example, with fast and strong heartbeats and elevated blood pressure. It also recovers quickly and fully.

Quick and full recovery are at the heart of toughness and resilience.

If you do not recover, and have high arousal over long periods with few times at rest, THAT is damaging.

So if you are a person who suffers from constant distress, what can you do? Here are a few examples.

  1. Develop the Knowledge and Skills that Enable You to Recover promptly from Stress for example, learn how to relax deeply.
  2. Practice some form of meditation.
  3. Exercise regularly, and include aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, or cycling.

Just click the links and you will find instructions how to do each of the listed techniques.

Further Possibilities: Exposure Training

Dienstbier’s work focused attention on the key role of recovery from stress, but that is not all it did. It also led us to see how valuable exposure to stressors could be. Being exposed to stress from which you can recover promptly will make you physiologically tougher.

This is exactly what we do when we engage in regular exercise that is moderate.

We can do the same sort of thing with just about any kind of stressor. For example, most people find public speaking very stressful, and many of them join Toastmasters, where they regularly give speeches to groups of people who are also working to develop their public speaking skills.

Cognitive Reappraisal

Two things interact to produce stress reactions. First is the event itself, and second is our interpretation of the event. The interpretation can be at least as important as the event. Dienstbier makes use of a well-known model of stress reactions (Lazarus and Folkman). Their view is that we make two appraisals, a ”primary appraisal” and a “secondary appraisal.” Primary is an appraisal of the level of threat the stressor presents. Secondary is an appraisal of the resources you have to cope with the stressor.

If you judge that a stressor is beyond what you can manage, you are facing a threat. If you judge that you can handle the stressor, you are dealing with a challenge. And challenges can be opportunities to toughen yourself, and maybe even have fun.

Appraisals need not be set in concrete. They are, after all, in our minds. A good deal of research has been focused on teaching people to reappraise life events, and it turns out that these reappraisals can really improve performance.

To clarify the concept of reappraisal, imagine a student who does poorly on an important exam. The student interprets this failing as evidence that s/he is “stupid” and “hopeless”.

Now suppose the student is guided to consider that the failure was due to lack of skills of note taking, studying, and/or test taking. The new appraisal implies that there are things s/he can do to perform better the next time. Now a threat has been changed to a challenge.  And dealing with it can make the student tougher.

Cognitive reappraisal has a wide range of applications. Good research has shown that is helpful in dealing with PTSD, fighting food temptations, reducing negative feelings, and reducing anxiety. And this is very far from a complete list.

We will be saying more about cognitive reappraisal in future posts.


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Lessons for the Old and the Young on Recovering from Nasty Challenges

Elderly people can have devastating consequences, including death, from injuries such as breaking bones. Broken hips are hard for any of us to deal with, but often can be fatal to elders.

Recently research on the factors that predict recovery after falls for the elderly has shown that those who were more fit before the fall were significantly more likely to recover.

Our take on this is that elderly people who have a lifestyle that makes them more fit are more resilient in the face of mortal threats.

Many countries, including ours, have populations that are increasingly older. But if you take away from this recent finding that you should stay fit as you grow older, you are right, but you are, at the same time, missing the heart of the matter.

The main thing to take away is that the more you, whether old or yourng, cultivate your resilience, the more likely you are to come out well after any of life’s nasty challenges, and the more likely you are to recover a good life.

Nietszche said “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger”.  Another, less dramatic and less poetic, way to phrase that is, if you have developed resilience skills, you are more likely to grow strong after nasty challenges instead of being taken down by them. And this is true no matter how old you are, or what kind of damage you are facing.

The take-home message is “start NOW to build your physical, and mental resilience”. It will help you through all the phases of your life.

This is YOUR LIFE we are talking about.


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