Meditative practice can help the physical brain to change for the better

In an era when public health commissioners are intent on establishing the evidence base of psychological interventions, and often, as a result, concentrate on one particular approach, it was refreshing to recently discover the book The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, a psychiatrist and meditator and a proponent of mind/body dualism. The book investigates neuroplasticity and maintains that meditative practice can not only bring about spiritual well being but can also help the physical brain to change for the better.

Schwartz is known to some as the one who coached Leonardo DiCaprio for his role as the OCD-afflicted billionaire Howard Hughes in the film The Aviator. The book explains the four step therapy for OCD patients using directed neuroplasticity. Schwartz’s four step process for breaking the chain of obsessive habits involves relabelling, reattributing, refocusing and revaluing.

Schwartz provides an interesting narrative on the history of psychological treatment including Behaviourism, Exposure and Response Therapy (ERP), CBT, Humanism and mindfulness. The book also addresses the question of whether we have free will or not. Through advances in functional neuroanatomy and specifically PET scans and fMRI scanning, Schwartz has claimed that it is possible to show the ability of the brain to create new neurons to forge new connections which can blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles (what is termed neuroplasticity).  Schwartz draws on the work of Henry Sapp, who claimed that the mind and matter can interact, the neurogenesis work of Fred Gage,  the bare attention meditation of Nyanapanika, the ideas of William James who is often seen as the father of psychology, Kant and his need for moral choice, the man within from Adam Smith and, of course, Quantum Mechanics.

What particularly attracted me to the book was the claim that force of ‘will’ (or volition) can, through brain chemistry, help with compulsive and obsessive habitual behaviour. In Schwartz’s words, the casual efficacy of ‘will’ is the most critical issue that any mature science of human beings must confront. This, of course, inevitably involves addressing the whole notion of free will, dualism and our capacity to be the owners of our ‘will’ and for the results of our actions.

The Buddhist view is that you alone are responsible for the motives that you chose to act on. The essence of ‘mental force’ is to first stop the grinding machine-like automaticity of the urge to act. Only then can the wisdom of the pre-frontal cortex be actively engaged. Therefore, there is great therapeutic benefit in bringing awareness to the moment of restraint so that the restraint to act takes hold and deepens. This is consistent with the Existentialists who often refer to better choices in life as a result of addressing the givens in life.

It is also consistent with the transpersonal perspective, when directed wilful effort brings clarity of an external witness through active imagination, meditation and the development of qualities. The ability to sustain bare attention over time is at the heart of any spiritual meditative practice so that neural processes, including thoughts and feelings, can potentially be witnessed as mental data, not necessarily reality in that moment.  This is when one can respond better to life situations and not to react so much to external stimuli. So, perhaps the secret of avoiding fear and worry is not to get personally involved in your own life. That is to say that when you can actively engage with a safe place within yourself through mindfulness and creative imagination,  you can escape the fearful loop that blocks your wisdom. Imagery, the coding language of imagination, is a way of developing qualities to help you carry through with intention.

Resources:

How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety into Calmness by Martin Rossman
The Chemistry of addiction – a Youtube clip.
Steve Volk’s new book OBSESSED: The Compulsions and Creations of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz

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Contacting your Inner Wisdom with Transpersonal Psychotherapy

I attended a fourth year student project at the weekend and the theme of the event was about contacting your inner wisdom using mindfulness techniques.  Students at the CCPE are required to complete a fourth year project to meet the requirements of their transpersonal psychotherapy diploma training. You can attend one of these by paying a nominal fee (that covers the cost of the room hire) and in return you get the opportunity to explore a personal issue in a safe and supportive environment.  We started the project by listening to classical music, to engage left side of the brain, and over the course of the two days we undertook guided visualisation, meditation using candle fire, psychodrama and drawing.

I am always amazed at the feedback I receive from others at what my subconscious throws up facilitated by the excellent Massimo Pamitsch.

Transpersonal Psychotherapy is often considered the new kid on the block. But visualisations, guided imagery, studies on the planes of consciousness and altered states of consciousness have been around for years. After all, Ibn Arabi was talking about these things in the 13th century. Perhaps we should see Transpersonal Psychotherapy as containing the a body of knowledge that is the oldest, not the newest?

But as soon as I think I can define Transpersonal Psychotherapy  then I am entering deep water.  It is to be felt, not defined or explained. My drawings (above) will probably testify to that.

 

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Meditation and Addiction: The Way Through

Meditatio are holding a conference on meditation and addiction on Tuesday, 30 October 9.30 am – 5.00 pm. Meditation and Addiction: The Way Through will be held at 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD

Anyone interested in this event please follow the link here:

http://www.wccm.org/sites/default/files/users/Meditation_and_Addiction/leaflet.pdf

 

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The benefits of meditation when dealing with addiction and alchemy of transformation

Meditation is not just for new age spiritualists or oddballs but should be seen as a practice for everyone, even for children. It is easy and simple and can be done anywhere. Meditation is a powerful antidote to the threats posed by addictions.

There are many great resources on the Internet and from books on how to meditate and on the benefits of meditation.  See the list of resources at the end of the post.

Addiction has nasty associations these days.  However, it originally merely mean’t something you liked.  It was only in the 20th century that it became to be known as a slave to drugs. Addiction is a devotion to yourself.  We are really attached to ourselves but in a dangerous way.  Recuperation, or recovery, comes from the Latin word “recupare” meaning “to regain.” Through meditation we can regain consciousness and reach a certain peace with ourselves.  When we are hooked we lose consciousness, as we become obsessed with ourselves. To recover is to push back the border of our consciousness, to know more and to regain interests in relationships. We begin to feel more present and happier in the here and now,

The important aspect of meditation is to do it on a daily basis.  Here, the fidelity of the practice is important.  Do it even when you don’t want to do it.  It is by the practice of a good habit that gradually outweighs the power of a bad habit. You don’t even need belief, just faith,  to do the practice.

Despair and Acadia will try to tell you to give up hope, that you are no use at the practice. Acadia had been one of the deadly sins but did not make the final 7. You should not, however, look for anything dramatic in meditative practice.  Instead, concentrate on the daily practice without expectation.

Meditation has given me glimpses of a new way of being.  Through the alchemy of transformation I can uncover a lot of my negative past or my shadow in the nigredo stage, similar to undertaking personal inventory work, and through to a brighter stage of albedo. Citrinas is largely unconscious and rubedo is an emerging new life. I have spent most of life struggling in nigredo and flipping between one addiction to another.  I have received glimpses of albedo through therapy and meditation but sometimes it can be fleeting and any attempts at acquiring serenity can feel like pushing water uphill. For me, personal transformation is predicated on the willingness to “let go”.  How can I achieve this if I am nursing unhealthy fantasies and active addictions? I do not have much experience of mastering.  In my meditation I can feel great resistance as my ego defences are very solid. Mastering for me would represent being able to sit with my feelings and not have some manic activity consuming my attention. Is this what we are all searching for?  A peace to be with our own feelings and not having to have any manic activity going on?

My own personal therapy is a journey of letting go, acquiring a new rhythm, keeping an open mind, trusting the process and developing new layers of honesty with my therapist. Freedom is when we are free of our history, or at least when our personal history is not the primary reference in our lives. We no longer react in the instance but can provide a considered response to the events in our lives.

Meditation calms you down.  The practice of meditation eases you into a new state of calm mindful being.  It helps in brain training. However, the higher benefit of meditation is that we are led to the ultimate truth of our own being. Try it.  It might even work.

Resources
Learning to meditate Practical guide
Meditation books Useful list of books on meditation
21 Awake Explores authentic 21st century meditation practice, written by a London Insight regular
AA Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism
GA Meetings for problem gamblers
Narcotics Anonymous non a nonprofit fellowship or society of men and women for whom drugs had become a major problem. Recovering addicts who meet regularly to help each other stay clean
SLAA Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is a Twelve Step, Twelve Tradition-oriented fellowship based on the model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous
Silence in the City Meditation in London
The 12 steps of recovery

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