The Pause That Refreshes and Balances

Neuroscientists and psychologists have been making progress in catching up with what the ancients knew long ago–that meditation is good for us. It helps us to maintain balance. It helps us to regulate the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). When we regulate the ANS we balance the two opposing, yet complimentary, parts of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems are both necessary, but cannot both control at the same time, and when out of balance in either direction cause us to be un-well.

The sympathetic nervous system engages when we face external threats, activating the Fight-Flight system–our stress response. This happens when, for example, a driver cuts us off on the highway or our boss doesn’t recognize our contribution in a group meeting. On the highway, it saves us from getting into an accident by activating mechanisms that get us quickly and safely out of the way of the vehicle that has just swerved in front of us. In the office, it triggers healthy anger which is the motivating energy we need to get out of there and go and find another, more fulfilling job. Of course, if the ANS is really out of whack, it can also lead to inappropriate behavior such as slamming into the back of the vehicle that has just cut us off or punching the boss in the face.

At the moment that the stress response engages our bodies prepare for action. The liver dumps sugar and fat into the blood stream, the cardiovascular system heightens blood pressure; the respiratory system speeds up breathing; the senses and thinking sharpen to focus solely on this moment (not the future), and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) shuts off to keep us from slowing down, from doing nothing while we think about options, organize, or plan. If the PFC weren’t inhibited at this moment we might crash into the guy who has just cut us off because we are pondering, “Do I swerve or brake? Which would potentially produce less wear and tear on my car in long term?”

The opposing and complimentary system, the parasympathetic system slows breathing and heart rate and keeps us calm; it is the state in which we heal and rejuvenate, and turns on the Pause and Response System which relies on the ability of PFC to resist the immediate temptation staring us in the face. We may think, “Boy, I’d really like to punch the boss in face,” but when the PFC weighs in and we see ourselves being shunned for our violence by our co-workers, we plan another course of action. In general terms, in this instance, it allows us to resist temptation: The “I won’t.” It also allows us to engage in the “I will.” After the initial burst of healthy anger motivating us to look for a new job—or get out of there–the flight response, the Pause and Response system kicks in turning on the organizing and planning we’ll need for our new job search. It also engages the “I want,” which, in effect, remembers our motivation over time: “I want to get a new job,” even when, right now, we’d rather be playing a game or socializing. The “I want,” “I will,” and “I won’t” are functions of the Pause and Response System and all reside in the PFC.

So what does this have to do with meditation? Everything. If our Fight-Flight system is continually being turned on over and over again, all day long, there is no time for recovery and activation of the Pause and Response system. Unfortunately, the modern, civilized lives we lead turn on our Fight-Flight system so many times a day, that we end up in chronic stress mode. With no opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system and the Pause and Response system to activate, our ANS is out-of-balance and that’s when we run into trouble. That’s when disease, regret, and unhappiness come on line. Meditation helps us to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems so that when we need to swerve out of the way of a car we can but then recover so that the lunch we just ate gets digested properly or the immune system keeping us from catching a cold can do its job, or we can engage in the organizing, planning, and doing necessary to get that new job.

Let’s see how by examining what happens in meditation focusing on the breath. We begin with an intention. “I will focus on my breath.” As we sit concentrating on each breath cycle, a thought enters our head; our mind wanders. Suddenly we’re thinking about the boss who snubbed us in the group meeting and we’re feeling agitated. Then we recognize that we’re distracted and that we have an intention, “Oops, I’m distracted. The boss is not the breath.” Then, without making any judgement about our wanderings, we return our concentration to the breath. This act of having a plan: “I will focus on my breath,” recognizing when we experience distractions (and we will): “How dare the boss snub me. Who does he think he is?” and returning our concentration to what we originally planned, to focus on the breath, without making judgements, without shame or feeling guilty, is building more and denser gray matter in the PFC. Amazingly, it’s the distraction, the recognition of the distraction, and the returning to concentration that builds the gray matter, the neurons and their connections. These, in turn build and strengthen the Pause and Response system.

In meditation, we’re slowing down, we’re calming ourselves, we’re emptying out.  We’re bringing online the Parasympathetic Nervous System to provide overall balance to our ANS. We feel happy, our health improves, our well-being increases, our stress decreases, our actions are more even, and our self-reflection and self-control gets stronger; we’re refreshed.

The Creative Brain

Where do our creative ideas come from? Even if we think we’re not creative, all of our brains have what it takes.  To be creative, the whole brain needs to be in the best mind state for the job.

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to approach creativity in the same way. What each of us does when we are doing something creative can be very different. Some of us wake up from a dream saying, “I’ve got it!” Others work  in a certain place or at a certain time of day. And, then, there are those of us who just take a walk.  Which way we choose to work creatively doesn’t seem to matter.

What does matter is what goes on in our brains. Back in the 70s, creativity was thought to be solely a right brain activity. Today we know that it is a whole brain activity: Left-right, top-bottom, as creativity requires the brain to access a large web of connections. Neuroscientists now tell us tell us that about 300 milliseconds before an “aha moment,” when the creative answer comes to us, our brains go into very high gamma activity (neural oscillation with a frequency between 25 to 100 Hz) allowing the binding together of neurons as far flung brain cells connect in a new neural network creating a new association. This heightened activity takes place in the temporal lobe centered on the side of the right neocortex. This is the part of the brain that understands metaphor, gets jokes, comprehends the language of the unconscious, as well as that of poetry, art, and myth.  At this same moment the right brain uses its longer connections to other parts of the brain to collect more information and put it together in a novel way.

And before that 300 milliseconds? That’s just as critical, too. First, we have to concentrate intently on the problem or goal. But, if we just think and think about it, or try to force an insight, we stymie creativity. That’s why the next stage is critical, too. Just let go. In this state the brain enters a high alpha rhythm (neural oscillations in the frequency of 8-12 Hz), signaling mental relaxation, that state of openness when we are more receptive to new ideas. Being in this alpha state sets the stage for the gamma spike when new neural connections make novel associations and the new creative idea enters our consciousness.

You’re probably asking now, “But how do I get my brain to do this?” Each of us has to discover what’s the best way to concentrate with high focus on the problem. We may sit down at our desk with paper and pen or take a walk to clear our heads of everything but the problem at hand. You get the idea. Then once we’ve accomplished that deep focus, we don’t think about the problem any more. We just let go and relax. Meditation evokes this relaxed and open state and focusing on the breath is an excellent approach, especially for beginners. In meditation, the brain relaxes into alpha rhythm. Once in alpha, all is ready for the brain’s leap into high gamma activity leading to the aha moment, a feeling of joy, and the coming into consciousness of the novel idea or solution. Practice makes perfect. Habitually doing the stages of intense concentration followed by completely letting go make the difference.

There’s one more thing. Novel ideas are fragile so it is best to surround ourselves and our creative ideas with a supportive environment and with those who are willing to help the fledging flourish.

The Swinging Door

When I was a university student I was introduced to Zen Buddhism by way of Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki. Of all my reading, my most favorite on the subject then and now, is Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Lately I have taken to picking it up and opening the pages to see where I land. The other day I landed at the swinging door. I held the swinging door in focus during my morning meditation and found it most agreeable. The breeze of breath swung the door this way and that. It rippled and shone and seemed to be like a river gently flowing here and there over pebbles and branches.

…When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out into the outer world. The inner world is limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind or body; just a swinging door.

(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shambhala Publications, 2011)

A swinging door, a flowing river, a breath of fresh air.

Thoughts

Thoughts. Where do they come from? Where do they go? And what leads one to another? Why do they keep appearing and dissolving? Why do they never stop? What’s the mechanism producing this constant rising and falling away? It’s not as though we can point to any place in the brain and say, “This is where it all happens!”

Some thoughts rise up out of memories, some appear out of thin air, and others pop into our consciousness in an “aha moment.” When we are solving a problem, we use the power of our brains, in particular, the frontal cortex, to “think.” We analyze, relate, and create. But, what about other times when unorganized and disconnected thoughts tumble into our consciousness? Perhaps we’re just having a cup of coffee and looking at the leaves falling from the tree outside the window. Thoughts come any way. Perhaps at this moment they arise from memories of other trees or other cups of coffee or perhaps not. Thoughts about the dirty dishes left in the sink or a friend who hasn’t returned a text message we sent him may take us far away from the cup of coffee and leaves falling from the tree.

Sometimes a thought appears because we’re on the same wavelength with another person. We pick up information (become entangled with someone) and the thought occurs to us. We saw this example last week when we talked about synchronicity. Suddenly I’m thinking of a friend for no reason. The phone rings. It’s the friend on the line.

Thoughts often have a way of bothering us. We may not want to think particular thoughts but in they come, invited or not. We can be so disturbed by them that we become distressed; we want to run away from them; or we yearn to fall asleep. Sleep may be acceptable at bedtime, but not in the middle of the day. What are we to do? Where’s the on/off switch?

There are no muscles, like those that control our bladders, that turn on and off thoughts. But, we can be with them in such a way that they are there without causing us any distress or interest at all. That’s what we do in meditation. When we focus on the breath, thoughts rise and fall away, but we pay no attention to them. In the beginning, we can nod to each one as it appears by saying, “Thought,” and then return to focusing on the breath. After awhile, we don’t feel the need to make this acknowledgement. We simply allow them to do what they do without showing interest, or interacting, or reacting to them. After a few minutes, the space within us grows bigger; we become calmer and more centered. The thoughts are still there, but they have receded into the background like wallpaper in a room that we’ve become accustomed to. We give them no notice and if asked, “What was that thought?” Well, we have no idea. So, in this way, we turn off thoughts.

Focusing on the Breath

Our  breath is always with us. It’s automatic. Although we breathe more than twenty thousand times a day, we pay no attention. But when we notice our breath it can tell us much about the current state of our health and well-being. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly from the shoulders. When we are relaxed we breathe more easily, gently, and slowly from the diaphragm or belly.

Take a moment right now as you read this to notice your breath. How does it feel? Is it tight? Or relaxed? Shallow? Or deep? Rapid? Or slow? Hard? Or gentle?

If it feels tight, hard, shallow, or rapid I invite you to try this practice.

Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor or on a pillow on the floor with your legs crossed so that your shins are parallel to your body, your back upright (not sloughing over or leaning back). Place your hands on your thighs or fold your hands in your lap.  Set a timer for five minutes.

Close your eyes.

Take a few deep breaths to relax.

Now pay attention to the physical sensation of your breath. That’s all, nothing more. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “Breathing in.” As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathing out.”

When thoughts rise up, don’t worry. They will. Notice how they draw your attention away from your breath. Don’t make any judgements; thoughts rising up and falling away are a natural thing. When distracted by thoughts, simply acknowledge them by saying, “Thoughts,” and return your attention to the breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

When an ache or pain arises in some part of your body distracting you from your breath, acknowledge it gently by saying to yourself, “Sensation,” and return your focus to the breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

If this is not enough to rest your focus on the breath instead of the ache or pain, try this.  Breathe into the place of pain as you focus on the breath. Doing this diminishes the pain and then you’ll realize that it is not there any more. Continue to focus on your breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

Keep your focus on the breath in this way until the timer sounds. Now open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Do you feel different? How? This is a calming practice that will greatly enhance your sense of well-being. Now breathe.

Do this every day.

Once you feel comfortable watching your breath in this way for five minutes, increase the time. Don’t worry about how much you increase it. Maybe you’ll watch your breath for just a minute more, for six minutes, or maybe you’ll watch it for ten minutes. When you can comfortably sit for the new period of time increase the length of time again until you reach twenty-four or more  minutes.

Remember, it is the doing, not the duration that is the gift of this practice.