06 Mar

10 Reasons Why You Must Go On a Meditation Retreat

Regular Meditation is enriched by going on Meditation Retreats.

Regular Mediation practice is enriched by going on Meditation Retreats

Regular meditation is said to result in brain growth. However, developing a regular practice is another matter. For years I have found establishing a regular meditation practice very challenging. So many circumstances and excuses come in the way.

Let us see ways in which we can motivate ourselves to establish a regular meditation practice. Of course the first question would be ‘How to Meditate?’ There are plenty of resources to answer that question.

In the last few years Mindfulness Meditation has become very popular. It is the practice of being present with whatever is manifesting within oneself in the present moment. The first sign that the practice is having an effect is that you find yourself to be calmer and less stressed out. However, wonderful that might sound for us these days, I have been interested in going deeper into meditative practice.

In the course of my explorations on rewiring my brain to establish a meditation practice I have been studying a lot of books on Zen teachings and Zazen meditation. The Zen teachings go far deeper than physical well-being when talking about meditation and this I find very helpful.

To deepen my zazen or ‘just sitting’ meditation practice I signed up for a weekend retreat. Synchronistically I found a chapter in one of the books I was studying called ‘Why Go On a Retreat?’ in the book titled: Meditating Selflessly – Practical Neural Zen by Dr James H. Austin. Dr Austin is a clinical neurologist, researcher and Zen practitioner. Definitely a person worth listening to. Hence I thought I might share something that you, the reader, too might find helpful. He says:

Reading words on a page is an ‘armchair Zen’ approach. That’s OK. But are you completely satisfied with your Self, the ways you relate to other persons, and your direction in life? Few are. One remedy is authentic meditative practice. Can Zen practice become such an agency of transformation, help you restructure dysfunctional traits? Yes, but only when first you set aside the time to identify what your problems are and then take the time to examine them objectively. A Zen meditative retreat offers the opportunity to do just this.

The retreat I am attending is not exactly a Zen retreat. However, it is one that is going to be held in Noble Silence and is a non-residential retreat. Let us see the reasons for going on a meditation retreat.

Why Go On a Rigorous Meditation Retreat?

Group of people in a mediation retreat

You will meditate better if you go on a meditation retreat.

There are many benefits for going on a rigorous meditation retreat. They are:

  1. It is an opportunity to foster personal growth and responsibility
  2. Encourage participants to reach beyond their limitations
  3. Being challenged physically and mentally, you will emerge inspired by a fresh sense of what you are capable of.
  4. Your body-mind will be learning a range of new skills and at levels much deeper than mere intellectual knowledge.‘As is the case with other procedural learning skills, these subtle residua tend to linger in the form of a quiet competence.’
  5. Your body-mind will no longer by diverted into another noisy day of mindless multitasking.
  6. You will have the luxury of silent time.
  7. ‘During first-hand, direct experiences with the aches and pains that afflict your physical Self, you will relearn how much your emotional Self – you own resistance – is responsible for your suffering.’
  8. You  will also meet other opinionated extensions of your psychic Self.
  9. When you enter into a retreat, you become a team member in a web of interrelationships.
  10. Having decided to share in the community responsibility of this support group, you make more intensive effort than you would when you meditate at home by yourself.

Dr Austin suggests signing up for a one-day retreat to begin with and then go off for a weekend retreat. He says, ‘Keep reaching out of your comfort zone.’

He continues:

Expect parts of your psyche and body to put up a stiff resistance. It’s been said that the only person who truly welcomes a change is a baby with a wet diaper.

In 2004 I had attended a 9-day Vipassana retreat in India. Recently, in 2013, I had the opportunity to participate in a 2-week course on ‘Mind Training Through Awareness’ conducted by a Theravada Buddhist monk. All these experiences had been very inspiring and eye-opening.

I am now off on a 2-day Noble Silence Meditation retreat. I will share my experiences once I get back. I will also be designing a 40-day Meditation challenge to help myself and others like me to establish a meditation practice. If you would like to receive regular updates and an upcoming Free e-book on ‘3 Quick Tips for a Healthy Brain’ then join follow this blog by signing up a the top right corner of this page.

04 Feb

How to Rewire Your Brain for Happiness

Rewiring your brain to be happy

Repeated patterns of mental activity can help you rewire your brain to be happy

We hear a lot about creating new brain cells and rewiring your brain to staying smart till the day we die by learning new skills. However, we hardly hear about rewiring the brain to be happy. It is possible to do so by turning passing experiences into long-lasting connections in the brain so that you can be happy most of the time. Whatever happens in life you can still maintain a level of inner strength and peace if you build up the happiness resources in the brain.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a one-day workshop with Dr Rick Hanson, PhD, called ‘Hard Wiring Happiness’ based on his latest book. He is a renowned Neuro-Psychologist and Mindfulness Teacher and has written many books. (See below for recommended books and CDs)

Rick presented practical steps to overcome the brain’s negativity bias and demonstrated how we can turn passing positive experiences into lasting neural resources. The workshop had several segments exploring the latest information in neuroscience and included practice sessions on how to rewire the brain to be happy. He taught us how to use several methods to lower anxiety and stress, lift our mood, grow confidence, nurture calmness and contentment and to fundamentally hard wire happiness into the brain.

The workshop’s focus was based on Buddhist philosophy and psychology and how they can be applied in our own life in the 21st century. He explored the causes of suffering and how it affects the brain. He showed us how the brain takes shape according to whatever the mind dwells upon and that repeated patterns of mental activity change neural structure. Hence, it is in our hands whether we have shape our brain to be happy or unhappy.

Rewiring for Happiness – The Three Stages

Dr Rick Hanson emphasized the importance of practicing mindfulness and gaining insight into the subtle processes of awareness. He pointed out that most of our experiences are passing incidents as far as the brain is concerned. They do not make lasting changes to the brain structure. For new cells to be born and new connections to be established it is necessary that we must make a conscious effort to go through three stages:

  • Activation
  • Installation
  • Absorption
Photo - Woman Enjoying the Sunrise

Spending time to absorb happy moments helps change neural structure

For example, looking at a beautiful sunrise is only the first stage – Activation. If you pass it by it will not make a lasting impression in the brain. However, if you pause and become mindful of the details of the experience such as the colour of the sky, the cool breeze, the passing clouds and the pleasant feeling – you are installing it in the brain. The third stage would be to absorb it into oneself by completely experiencing all aspects of the moment and being with it. All this can be done within 10 seconds, that is all it takes.

Linking – This step is optional where you spend some more time to create a link in your mind with an image, sound, feeling or smell of that moment so as to remind yourself of this experience and recall it at any time you like. This will become one of your ‘Happy Places’. So whenever you are feeling down in the dumps you can bring up this experience, ‘Remember Your Happy Place’ and it will help lift your mood.

Going through the process of activation, installation and absorption, and the optional step of linking is self-directed positive neuroplasticity. It means you are taking the initiative to rewire your brain to be happy, with new brain cells being born, maturing, firing and wiring together, to finally change the brain structure.

The secret to building happiness resources in your brain is to pause, take a deep breath and feeling happy in the present moment. Go through a list of things that are wonderful right at this moment. Remind yourself to look around you whenever you are having a pleasing experience and go through the three steps. In a few days you will find that it is easier to be happy most of the time.

Recommeneded Books and CDs by Dr Rick Hanson

Here are some resources to help you start your journey towards rewiring your brain for Happiness and Resilience.

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence

Hardwiring Happiness lays out a simple method that uses the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace. Dr. Hanson’s four steps build strengths into your brain— balancing its ancient negativity bias—making contentment and a powerful sense of resilience the new normal. In mere minutes each day, we can transform our brains into refuges and power centers of calm and happiness.

Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time

Research has shown that integrating little daily practices into your life can actually change the way your brain works. This guide offers simple things you can do routinely, mainly inside your mind, that will support and increase your sense of security and worth, resilience, effectiveness, well-being, insight, and inner peace.

Self-Directed Brain Change: Rewire Your Neural Pathways for Happiness and Resilience (CDs)

Self-Directed Brain Change is based on a significant emerging insight from neuroscience: that to keep our ancestors alive, the human brain evolved to cling to negative experiences like Velcro and shrug off the positive ones like Teflon. The good news, teaches Rick Hanson, is that we can retrain our neural structure out of “sheer survival” mode and into one of greater well-being, mental clarity, and moment-to-moment appreciation.

I hope you have found this article helpful. I will be sharing more of what I learned at the Hard Wiring Happiness Workshop in the next few blog posts. Your feedback is appreciated. Please leave your comments below:

23 Apr

Sugar-Free Diet for a Healthy Brain

image - sugar cubes in a bowl - fortydayschallenge.com

Going on a sugar free diet for a period of 40 days was the best thing I could have done. I made this drastic decision when I read about the damage sugar can do to the brain in the book Rewire Your Brain – Think Your Way to a Better Life – Dr John B. Arden in which he says:

The brain uses glucose as fuel, but when it gets too much of it at one time, this can create a number of problems.

Dr Arden says that the pancreas, the liver, the thyroid, the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland, and the brain – are enlisted in controlling the amount of glucose in the blood. He mentions that a diet high in sugar contributes to accelerated ageing. He goes into many technical details of how the excess sugar consumption can affect the brain. The most important thing for us is to understand the consequences of too much sugar in the diet.

Harmful Effects of Sugar on the Body and Brain

brain_line_drawing

Here are the most common harmful effects caused by taking too much sugar:

  • High sugar consumption is associated with depression.
  • Leads to greater risk of obesity, diabetes, and inflammation.
  • Sugars are refined carbohydrates that can increase free radical inflammatory stress on the brain. A free radical is a molecule with a rogue electron that can rupture cell structure.
  • When people were given the amount of sugar in two soft drinks (75 grams of glucose), the free radical products of damaged fatty acids, called isoprostanes, rose by 34 percent in just 90 minutes after consumption.
  • Mild isoprostane elevation has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Much more shocking is the effect on children and their IQ. As Dr Arden writes:

More than twenty-five years ago, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found a 25 percent difference between the IQ scores of children with high versus low consumption of refined carbohydrates (sugar and white flour) (Schauss, 1984). The differences in glucose result in significant costs to cognition and to the brain itself. Research at Britain’s Swansea University found that dips in blood sugar are correlated with poor memory, poor attention, and aggressive behaviour.

Research in Finland assessed the effects of sugar on children between 10-11 years old and found that withdrawal, anxiety, depression, delinquency, and aggression were twice as frequent in those who had 30 percent more sucrose in the form of soft drinks, sugary snacks, and ice cream.

The Bottom Line: High sugar intake is bad for your brain and results in significant impairment of your ability to think clearly, maintain even moods, and behave effectively in a social situation. Keeping you blood sugar balanced is of paramount importance for a healthy brain.

Vegan and Sugar-Free Diet for 40 Days
It is not enough to gain information but what is important is take action after learning a new fact. My decision to go vegan for Lent and also sugar free (especially in my coffee and tea) has had a great effect in 40 days. I have continued to go sugar free, though I tried having a spoon in my coffee to see if I really miss it.

Next Step – Develop Healthy Habits:

Exercise and Sleep
The next most important thing after a healthy diet is exercise and sleep. I will be making a few changes in my life to include proper exercise and sleep in the next 11 days of my forty day challenge. You might ask why:

Exercise Helps to Grow New Brain Cells: is the best way to jump start neuroplasticity and neurogenesis and building brain resources. It also raises the stress threshold of neurons. There are many other benefits which we will be exploring.

Sleep: Sleep is critical for the maintenance of the brain. Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, even after just one week. It has been shown to compromise attention, new learning and memory.

A Thought for This Week:
… the brain adapts or expands in response to repeated patterns of activity, so that in a real sense the brain we develop reflects the life we lead. — H. H. The Dalai Lama