Buddhism, Meditation, and Yoga

Buddhism, Meditation, and Yoga

Buddhism

Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering.  Buddhism first seeks to bring our focus inward, and then to direct our awareness away from ourselves.  When we practice meditation, we begin by sitting still and calming our mind. From the lightness of spirit that arises during this practice of gentle acceptance, we eventually begin to feel our heart. The mental shift to loving-kindness that we get when meditating cultivates the habits of compassion for ourselves and others. We are asked to stay with our emotions in an observant, yet, non-judgmental way. Eventually, we begin to accept who we are, blemishes and all.

Building on this habit of self-acceptance, we come to recognize other people’s inner-selves, too, and feel encouraged to be kind to them as well. Once we have reached this state of being, in which we consciously and compassionately no longer seek to hold on to people and things, we are in possession of powerful benevolent energy. This enables us to relate wisely, passionately, and unconsciously with ourselves, each other, our family and friends, and the world around us.

The Buddhist teachings encourage us to embrace ourselves as we are, rather than blindly seeking false connections outside of ourselves. As human beings, we naturally possess this ‘awakened heart,’ but we lose it as we leave childhood.  With adulthood come a number of emotions that cloud our awareness:  jealousy, anger, greed, and hatred.

Buddhist Meditation

Meditation done in the Buddhist manner teaches techniques that make known to us that none of these emotions are fixed.  As we continue to practice, we learn how to watch our varied emotions come and go while we remain as a calm observer of them.  Through the practice of meditation, we learn how to remain in the present, to keep our awareness on what is in the now, for example, rather than on what we are thinking about that may or may not come to pass.  When we have learned to be accepting of the present, we begin to see it without the lens of grouchiness and begin to radiate loving-kindness to all things around us.

Our focus on the present eventually overrides our concern that the agenda we have may not be met.  We are no longer attached to the outcome of situations.  Rather we are focused on the experience of life as it happens to us.  Once we have achieved this goal, we are in a position to experience true equanimity.  In a state of true equanimity, we have balance of body and mind, heart and mind, inner vision and outer awareness, giving and receiving, without losing our inner focus as the world races in its frenetic pace around us.

A Brief Story about the Journey of the Buddha

According to the annals of history, we know that Buddha engaged in extreme asceticism and yoga practices.  He experienced both sleep and food deprivation, lengthy breath retention, and he was known to stand on one leg for hours.  In the end he found all of these practices unsatisfactory.

His realization was that by denying yourself, you end up creating an even stronger craving for whatever it is that you are denying. In a way, he reasoned that by acting as if he didn’t have a body or that having a body at all was ultimately a bad thing.  He decided that it was somehow equivalent to indulging in the bodies desires.

The Buddha also realized that no matter how hard you may try to ignore your body, it will still work very hard to make itself known to you.  He and his cohorts went to great lengths to try to escape all forms of desire. In that process they locked out the possibility of any genuine emotions or feelings. Because they were evading desire by blocking out feelings, they inadvertently blocked any potential avenue for happiness.  In addition, they were so sick from malnutrition that it was hard to find joy.

Upon becoming aware of this, the Buddha no longer believed that denial was the answer, and that we must come to terms with the state of our existence.  In this vein of thought, he decided to quit denying and to begin accepting.  He understood that to open up to the true nature of human experience, one must replace punishing asceticism with compassion. In going against the grain of his peers, he began to eat a little and began to become healthier.  It was through this action of eating that he found the “Goldilocks effect” – not too little, not too much.

Content with his new-found truth, he seated himself under a tree and waited and watched. While he sat waiting under this tree, attractive women tried to seduce him, and army appeared from over the horizon and fired arrows at him. As if that were not enough, storms blew up suddenly and rained only over him but not those around him.  Somehow, during all of these trials, the Buddha realized that these things were happening only in his own mind.  The realization that the mind can create its own world and its own problems was what brought him to a new level of awareness.  In this moment, he became the Buddha, or Bodhi, which means “awake.”

In this awakened state, the Buddha was able to develop a mindfulness practice that led him to observe his own thoughts and how they constantly fluctuate.  Emotions transform into other emotions, and this is absolutely normal. The shifting of emotions is neither bad, nor good.

When the Buddha learned to implement compassion in his mindfulness practice, he found he was able utilize his body as a mechanism not just for getting past the mental desire and craving, but also for propagating helpful states such as being gracious, sincere, and content.  After he had seen forty nights sitting under the tree, the Buddha got up and began interacting with the world again.

Yoga as Practiced by the Buddha

About 150 years after the Buddha achieved this state of awakening, Patanjali wrote down the Buddha’s Yoga Sutra.  Many people think that yoga is most affiliated with Hinduism, but it is more closely associated with Sankhya, which is one of the ancient Indian darsanas, or “ways to see.”

Sankhya tries to describe the nature of existence by separating it into things which are unchanging (Purusha), and matter (Prakriti). Sankhya teaches that the disassociation of these two states is the source of suffering and that we may be delivered from suffering by thought repression, withdrawal of our senses, and being in command of our body.  This allows us to know our “true Self” and is known as the state of yoga.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).

As it is practiced today in Western countries, yoga focuses predominately on asanas, or postures.  These asanas are physical postures that are intended to purify the body and develop physical stability.  They also help to develop stamina in order to remain immobile for long durations.

Yoga Asanas

The Sanskrit word “yuj,” means to bind together or to yoke.  Yuj is often translated to mean the word “union,” and it is the origin of our word “yoga.”  Yoga is a form of a relationship between body and self.  Asanas, or postures in yoga are a reminder to us that nothing stands on its own.  There is always more.

A very common practice in the west is Hatha yoga, which is a physically challenging form of yoga that is intended to align bones, muscles, and skin.  The word “hatha” means forceful, and this assertive form of yoga asanas is designed to realign the body so that energy is no longer stuck.  It focuses on breath & energy and is designed to create a sort of flow that will soothe and strengthen you while redirecting the mind to feel soothed and be quiet.

Yoga seeks to reach a form of balance which is noticeable by the end of a practice.  When people feel this balance they become more aware while remaining relaxed.  This potentially explains the popularity of yoga in the West where everything constantly seems out of balance.

Whether the mind or the body becomes clear first is immaterial.  The focus is on the process and the experience rather than the end goal.  By focusing on process, which is a moving target, we end up finding our end goal of balance without ever having pursued or reached for it.

Yoga provides us with specific techniques to ground ourselves to the earth.  Asana means “ground,” or “seat” and it refers to how we are connected to the earth at all times.  An alternative translation of “asana” can be “to sit with” – as in the meditation practice of “sitting with one’s self.”  This refers to the idea that one can be aware of what is happening at an emotional and physical level without engaging with it.  By observing our physical body, we then begin to see how the body reflects the mind.  We may notice, for example, tightness in a shoulder, or an uncomfortableness with being still.

Interconnectedness of
Buddhism, Meditation, and Yoga

Buddhism, meditation, and yoga are very closely intertwined.  Certainly you can practice yoga or meditation without subscribing to the philosophy of Buddhism.  However, in order to practice either of the two, you also exercise many parts of the philosophy of Buddhism.

Hatha Yoga vs Vinyasa Yoga

Hatha Yoga vs Vinyasa Yoga

Yoga has taken America by storm in the last couple of decades.  Two very popular forms of yoga, Vinyasa and Hatha, dominate most yoga studios.  While the two practices are aimed at the same goal, which is to prepare the body for meditation, they each approach it in a different way.  While technically, Vinyasa yoga is derived from Hatha yoga, the practices are quite different.

Vinyasa Yoga

The form of yoga called “vinyasa” is a sequence of flowing movements and postures combined with rhythmic breathing.  Vinyasa is best practiced with focus on the body’s alignment to ensure that you do not injure yourself and so that you can make the most out of your practice.

To fully experience vinyasa yoga, you should become observant of your mental and physical habits – and learn to recognize them.  You should also practice releasing your mind from the focus on thought as you move through and then remain in the asanas.  By doing so, you allow vipassana, which means ‘clear seeing.’  The process of flow, precision, and mindfulness of yoga brings you into this state of vipassana.

These principles are founded on the Buddhist philosophy called maitri (loving-kindness) and the yogic philosophy of ahimsa (non-harming).  The idea is that you transition into a receiving state with your heart  and your lungs.  Both give and receive with each pulse and breath.

The idea behind mindfulness is to become aware that we are impulsive beings that act before thinking.  By implementing mindfulness, we create a buffer zone between our impulses and our actions.  This buffer gives us time to refine our actions and temper them with kindness.

The interaction between our body and our minds is a type of conversation and it is representative of the things that occur in all other types of relationships – fondness, apathy, annoyance, and dissatisfaction.  Because most of us tend to use our appearance and health of our physical body to identify our “selves,” being able to observe this conversation in a way that is both maitri (loving-kindness) and ahimsa (non-harming) gives us a good footing for whatever turns up as we focus inward.

As we face our reactions to holding an asana, or pose, we see clearly that we have habits – we are either too tense or too relaxed, too meticulous or too lax in our attention to posture.  These habits mirror our state of mind, body, and speech.  When we recognize our habits, it is known as “right action,” which is comprised of cadence, movement, direction, energy, and intention.  It is important to note that right action should never include aggression.

Buddhists find that meditation is helped tremendously through yoga because their bodies become stronger, more fluid, more functional.  Instead of feeling one’s back or knees ache while seated for meditation, the Buddhist yogi is able to focus on being mindful and compassionate.

Yogis who wish to draw from the Buddhist teachings can learn to become more aware, less negatively biased towards themselves and others, and more connected to all things.  They also learn mastery over the physical body because they feel this connection in whatever asana they find themselves – and they come to understand the transient nature of all things.

Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga is another form of yoga that helps to bring inner focus.  It is commonly referred to as “forceful” yoga because it ‘forces’ the body to reconcile both masculine and feminine.  These are Eastern concepts of masculine and feminine, not Western ones.

Masculine aspects, known also as ‘hot’, ‘active’, or ‘sun’, commonly referred to as ‘yang’ forces are one side of two polar opposites.  The other side of that is ‘yin,’ which is feminine, meaning ‘cool’, ‘receptive’, or ‘moon.’  Literally, the term “hatha” is from two ancient Sanskrit words – “ha”, which means ‘sun,’ and “tha,” which means ‘moon.’

Like Vinyasa yoga, Hatha yoga is a preparation for comfortable meditation.  Hatha yoga is focused primarily on asanas, or poses, rather than flowing movements like one finds in Vinyasa.  Hatha yoga is often taught as ‘beginner yoga’ in the west, because there are no complicated transitions between poses.  It is a more relaxed form of yoga.

Hatha Yoga vs Vinyasa Yoga –
Which one is better for you?

Some people consider Vinyasa yoga to be a more ‘advanced’ form of yoga because it requires a good deal of concentration and strength to move in and out of poses.  Other people believe that Hatha yoga is more ‘advanced’ because when you pay attention to each and every pose which may be held for longer periods, you tend to find mental challenges arise – an intended bringing forth of personal struggle, if you will.

Regardless of which form of yoga that you choose, if you practice regularly, you will find that it relaxes your body and your mind, and brings you into the present rather than focusing on everything going on around you.

 

 

How To: Meditation Tips for Beginners

How To: Meditation Tips for Beginners

In order to have a successful meditation practice, it is not necessary to worry about the traffic noises we hear outside or the ache in our knees as we sit in silence.  It is about exploring the internal environment of your mind.  Someone once compared the mind to the weather.  They said that it is always changing and it is also inescapable.  The mind is there, whether we want it to be or not.  It is part of our evolution into what we are today.  It is fundamental to our being.

The problem is that today, the mind has become what we perceive as our being, when it is actually only a small part.  It was very helpful when we were chased by animals intent on making us their dinner.  When faced with such a situation, it was the mind that would help us to figure out whether the best course of action would be to climb a tree or squeeze into a crevice in the rocks to evade our attacker.

Today, however, the mind has a lot of extra time on its hands.  In order to keep itself busy in the present when there is no immediate danger, it tries to figure out the future.  Surely there must be some problem to be solved there.  If there isn’t it makes a problem to solve.  This is what we know as worry.  We fixate on something that has not happened, nor may it ever come to be.

Many people, therefore, ask how to meditate to relax.  It is very hard to relax the mind when the body is fidgety, so meditation is often combined with yoga to address working out the physical effects of stress on our bodies in order to prepare us for meditation.

Yoga help us return our focus to the present instead of wondering what our next door neighbor will do next that will upset us.  It provides us with a grounding that helps to keep us composed.  Meditation becomes far simpler for us when we have practiced yoga and our minds have become reunited with our bodies and both have become quiet.

The Four Noble Truths

In Buddhism there are Four Noble Truths.  The First Noble Truth states that suffering exists.  Simply that.  It is here no matter what we do, what we think, or how we act.  If we focus on worrying about suffering, then we miss out on life itself.  It is like we take a very long car trip through the Alps, but don’t notice them at all because the entire time we have our eyes fixed to our phones where we are reading texts from people that upset us and there is nothing we can do to change the situation.

The Second Noble Truth is that we create our own suffering.  Things are constantly changing.  Everything about life is dynamic.  By nature, we like things to remain the same because we find comfort in familiarity.  By resisting change – in whatever form it may take – we cause ourselves to suffer.

This is like standing in the ocean at low tide and trying with a great amount of effort to stop the tide from coming back in.  Regardless of what we do, it is going to happen.  We may either choose to acknowledge that the tide will come in, or we can try to resist that acceptance and mentally struggle with the fact that we cannot change the tides.

The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can become free of suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth tells us the means for how to become free of suffering.  The beginning of the path outlined in the Fourth Noble Truth is shamatha, or calm abiding, which is developed through the practice of mindful meditation.

Shamatha

A good technique for trying to stay centered while the craziness of the world goes on around us is shamatha.  It is about recognizing the emotions that come and go throughout each day, but not becoming attached to them or being drawn into them.  It is about being present and being aware, but it is not about trying to enter some sort of detached euphoric state.

Much of our suffering comes from wanting things to be different than the way they are.  We can only reach a state of equilibrium, or santosha, when we learn to be content, unconditionally, with what is.  If you practice yoga, you are familiar with this state, even if you have not reached it.

When you are in an asana, or pose, and you wish that you could go further into the pose but your body does not let you, this is a form of suffering.  When you accept that where you are in your pose is simply where you are at that moment and that it is neither good nor bad, then you have experienced santosha.

How to Do Shamatha

Begin by sitting.  In sitting, we are reconnecting ourselves to the earth.  Instead of doing our best to pretend we are elsewhere, we start by recognizing first where we are.

If you are uncomfortable sitting with your legs crossed, grab pillows to support yourself so that you are as comfortable as possible.  Even comfortable positions tend to get uncomfortable over time, so it is best to start out as comfortable as possible.

When you have found your position, ground your sit bones to the earth, stretch your spine, and float the crown of your head to the sky.  Relax.  Close your eyes.  Place your palms on your knees, face down.  This position of the hands, known as a mudra, is called the “resting mind” and it helps to calm you and any excess energy you may have at this moment.

Allow yourself to notice the weight of your arms on your legs, and allow your legs and pelvis to settle further toward the earth.  At the same time, keep your chest lifted and open, as this will help you to feel lighter and uplifted.

Now begin to take notice of your spine, starting at the base.  Gently elongate your spine one vertebrae at a time until you reach your skull.  A little movement here is ok as you take notice of each part of your spine.  Keep your belly soft.  Relax your jaw and your tongue.  Many people unknowingly store their tension here, so be sure to be aware of it.

Focus on Your Breath

Focusing on your breath is one of the most effective ways to stay focused in the present moment.  We all have “monkey mind” which is where your mind swings by a vine from one tree (thought) to the next.  This is a normal occurrence when you begin meditating, so don’t beat yourself up over it when you are trying to relax and you find yourself making a mental list of what you need to pick up at the grocery store on your way home.

By focusing on your breath, you give your mind something with which to occupy itself.  It feels content because it now has a “purpose.”  Don’t give up when you start thinking about problems at work or what your significant other said or did to you.  Remind yourself that they are just thoughts and return to focusing on your breath.

It is important not to try to change your breath as you focus on it.  If you do, then that becomes another occupation of the mind.  Instead, observe your breath as it is – it’s rhythm and it’s depth.  Each time you exhale, allow your mind to let go and soften.

There are alternative meditation techniques which involve envisioning things like ocean waves, but they often open the door to create storylines.

Becoming Aware of Your Mind

Have you ever had an ache or pain that wasn’t horrible, but was annoying?  You suffer with it day in and day out until it kind of blends into the background, as it were.  It is only when you get that pain fixed – by, say, going to the dentist – that you realize how it was constantly there.  When we sit for meditation and try to stop our mind from thinking, we realize just how much processing is going on.

Normally, we are not aware of all this mental activity, because it has blended into the background.  It is only when we try to turn it off that it becomes somewhat overwhelming.  Stillness and absence of stimulation is the key factor to identifying what your mind is up to and learning to put it on pause for a while.

As you meditate, you will have thoughts come to you.  Do not analyze them.  Simply label them as “thought,” and push them away.  You might think of attaching a balloon to them and let them float away.

Many people believe that meditation is trying to rid yourself of all thought and by having a blank mind.  This is not the case.  What you are trying to do is simply become aware that you are having thoughts, and instead of allowing your mind to process them, you put them aside for the time being.

It is tempting to try to push away unwanted thoughts and let the pleasant ones remain – like about the cute new person at work and how you received attention from them earlier that day.  Then you wonder if they will ask you out, and what you would wear, and where you would go to eat, and if you went to see a movie which one would it be, and do they want kids, do they want to live in the city or the suburbs – or perhaps life on a farm would be great an you could both telecommute, and would you have cats or dogs – or both?  If you had a farm then there could be all kinds of animals, but would you guys ever go into town to see movies or maybe visit the restaurant where you had your first date…Don’t do that.

That is called a storyline and it happens in a matter of seconds.  Nip it in the bud when you first recognize you are doing it.  You may recognize it when you remembered the cute new person from the office – and, then again, you might not realize it until you were planning on moving together to a farmhouse.  Whenever you realize you are having a thought or creating a storyline, label it and float it away with a balloon.  The storyline may be pleasant, but you are not achieving your goal by allowing your mind to daydream.

Just remember that each time you have a thought, label it, tie a balloon to it, then watch it float away.  When you are able, return your attention to your breath.  Rinse, repeat.  It does get easier with practice, so don’t be discouraged if you feel that you have floated enough balloons to fill a football stadium in the time you have been sitting.  Forgive yourself and try again.

Don’t Pass Judgement on Yourself

One of the most important things to do when meditating is to make a promise to yourself that you will not judge yourself when you find yourself lost in a storyline.  Why is this so important?  Well, not only is it bad to think negatively about yourself, but more importantly is that it creates another storyline.  It goes something like this:

…and we will move into a farmhouse away from the city and have lots of all kinds of animals…oh, crap.  I’m thinking again.  Why do I always do that?  I’ve only been at this for 5 minutes and already I have lost my focus completely.  I am no good at this.  I bet all the other people in the meditation class are doing so much better than me.  I wonder how long it took them to get to where they are.  I wonder if I will ever get there – or perhaps I should just give up trying this at all…

Boom.  One storyline just led straight into another one.  So, when you find your thoughts wandering, label them, float them away, and redirect your attention to your breath.  Should you feel judgment coming on – remember it is also a thought.  Label it, float it away, and return to your breath.  The longer you do it, the easier it will become.  Everyone finds it challenging and no one is perfect at it.  It’s called meditation practice for a reason.

Creating the Right Environment for Meditation

In as much as possible, it is best if you can limit the number of distractions during the time you have set aside to meditate. It is never possible to stop all noises, such as loud trucks passing by outside or the sound of jets zooming by overhead.  Learning to recognize these noises and label them as “noises” when you meditate is part of the practice.  In fact, one technique is to use them as cues to go deeper into meditation when you hear them.  The idea being, that if they distract you, realize that your focus is not inward – it is outward – and redirect it deeper into yourself.

That being said, you do want to make as many arrangements as you can to limit your distractions.  Turn your phone completely off – not to vibrate.  Try to find a time when you are not surrounded by family – either by scheduling your meditation when the kids are at school and the significant other is at work or shopping, or by going to a meditation class at a yoga studio or spiritual center.

Many Buddhist organizations offer times for people to gather for mediation.  It generally does not matter if you are Buddhist or not.  Buddhist spiritual centers are great places to meet other meditators and pick up some good tips on how to meditate effectively.  Even if you aren’t Buddhist, you may still find that you have a great deal in common with the people who attend classes there because you are all on a similar inward journey.

Set a Duration of Time

Meditation works best when you have a fixed amount of time set aside for it.  There is no “correct” amount of time, but the longer you can do it, the better the outcome.  Don’t be all gung-ho and try to do an hour at a time when you first begin – maybe try 5-10 minutes.  Work your way up to half an hour – or maybe even an hour.  Do it slowly.

One of the biggest distractors while trying to meditate is wondering how much time is left.  Invest in a small, silent digital kitchen timer and set it for the desired amount of time plus one minute.  Use the first minute to settle yourself and focus on the timer to ensure that the first minute has ticked by.

This way you won’t worry if you remembered to hit ‘start’ or not.  Sometimes time flies by in meditation and at other time it crawls.  It tends to crawl on the days in which you are having trouble focusing.  When you are having a good day, you won’t believe that you just sat in silence for an hour.

Practice Regularly

Regular practice is what helps to improve your meditative skills.  Make the time that you can, and stick to it.  If that only means once a week when the meditation class meets, because the rest or the time you are surrounded by kids, dogs, and chaos of daily life, then that is good enough.  Then, if you get the opportunity at another point during the week take advantage of it and consider it a bonus.

Expect at first to feel very frustrated, but stick with it.  You will find great reward in the time you have committed for this practice.    While there are tips for meditation beginners, there is no such thing as “basic meditation for beginners.”  Whether you are new to meditation or you have been doing it for years, the practice is the same.  You just get better at it.  Periodically re-read this “How To: Meditation Tips for Beginners” article to remind yourself about the techniques that will make for successful meditation.

The Therapeutic Benefits of Hugging

The Therapeutic Benefits of Hugging

Hugging has become a therapeutic tool.  It may sound strange, but this form of therapy is profoundly effective.

Hugging has such a profound effect on us, because ever since conception we are surrounded by touch.  As babies in the womb, we felt the sensation of the amniotic fluid in which we floated for 9 months.  When we were born, we were greeted by the embrace of our mother.  We come to know our world first through the sensation of touch.

Research has shown that infants require hugging.  Sadly, around the beginning of the 20th century many infants in underserved institutions died from a condition known as “marasmus,” which meant “wasting away.”  It was believed at the time that children became spoiled if they were picked up and coddled by their mothers when they cried.

As a result, the children in these institutions were cared for only in the most basic terms.  Their diapers were changed and they were fed, but they were allowed to lie crying in their cribs.  Devoid from the sensation of touch, many of them wasted away and died.  Current knowledge of infants supports touch.  It is even utilized as a therapy in hospitalized infants because it lowers their mortality rate.

Culture and Hugging

Whether or not people hug one another is greatly influenced by the culture in which they live.  Some cultures, such as the Bush people of the Kalahari and the Arapesh of New Guinea hug their children so much that American parents appear to be neglecting their children by comparison.  In many cultures around the world, babies and infants are swaddled in a wrap that binds them to the mother’s body.  This practice allows infants to be in constant contact with their mothers as they go about their day.

Not only do Americans not touch their children as much as many other cultures touch theirs, but they also discourage children from touching anything.  It stands to reason, as American adults do not touch each other very much.  It is no wonder, therefore, that when these children become adults that they do not know how to express affection well, because they were told constantly as children to deny their impulse to touch.

The Medical Benefits of Hugging

It has been proven that hugging can help relieve chronic pain.  Decades ago, Dr. David Bresler, Ph.D. was well known for prescribing hugs to relieve pain.  He would literally write prescriptions for four hugs a day, and his patients reported that it worked.  Today, we recognize this modality of treatment as “therapeutic touch.”

Another benefit of hugging is that it can raise hemoglobin levels in the blood.  Studies comparing the hemoglobin levels of patients who were touched versus those who were not touched clearly showed a marked increase in hemoglobin for those patients who were touched.

Hugging Improves Feelings of Self-Worth

Hugging also can improve our feelings of self-worth and help alleviate symptoms of depression.  The simple act of hugging conveys a sense of reassurance of acceptance by another person.  Especially for people, such as the elderly or the disenfranchised, who do not often feel the touch of another human being, a hug provides a sense of acceptance and belonging – something that many of them live without for very long periods.

In a recent news spot, a lady by the name of Elizabeth Laird who was known by many, many soldiers at Fort Hood as “The Hug Lady” passed away.  She greeted soldiers being deployed and returning from duty.  She gave each and every one of them a hug.  Soldiers who posted on her Facebook page after her passing reported that receiving a hug from her made all the difference.  For a person who gave hugs to receive several minutes of prime time news broadcast, there is obviously something to it.

We Don’t Get Enough Hugs

By and large, Americans tend to reserve hugs for special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, or holiday gatherings.  Most of us do not hug daily.  As a result we become islands unto ourselves, devoid of human contact.

By reintroducing hugging to your life, you can experience a multitude of benefits, emotional and physical.  If you are in need of a hug, ask for one!

Enhancing Mind, Body, and Spirit Connectionfor Better Health

Enhancing Mind, Body, and Spirit Connection Can Lead to Better Health

In a Western society, what is tangible and what is quantifiable often take precedence over things that are elusive or ephemeral.  However, many disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, nutrition, genomics, and so forth have begun recognizing the mind, body, and spirit connection.  In order to experience better health and improve the body’s ability to heal itself, conventional scientific disciplines are now exploring ancient concepts such as meditation, yoga, and prayer.

By acknowledging, or considering the existence of things such as the spirit, or soul and combining those ideas with what is currently known about the mind and body, we are able to improve our state of well-being.

The Spirit

What is spirit? Spirit is a a form of intelligent power. Regardless of what kind of being, whether animal, human, or plant, it has a spirit. Some people believe that God is capable of individualizing the spirit.

The Soul

Similar to the spirit, the soul is the embodiment of spirit in an individual being. Some people believe that animals also have souls. Fewer people believe that plants have souls, but there are some people who insist it is true.

The Mind

The mind is viewed by some people as the central part of the soul. Others view it as part of our most basic human functions. It was developed to keep us constantly alert and aware of our surroundings.

Many meditation teachers talk of calming the mind, which in today’s world has almost no practical use to keep us safe outside of keeping us away from bad situations. Meanwhile, it creates many things to think about to keep itself busy and this leads to anxiety.

When our minds are filled with thoughts that are worrisome, our bodies physically suffer as a result. Psychosomatic problems develop and we are no longer as healthy as we could be. Therefore, it is critical to nurture the mind in order to bring about wellness of our whole beings.

When we care for ourselves, it must include care for our physical bodies, our emotional selves, as well as our spirit.

Caring for the Body

Physical care is often equated with physical health. This means that we should pay close attention to what our bodies are telling us and respond accordingly. If your knee hurts, for example, find out why. Don’t just wait for it to go away on its own. Pain is there as a warning to us that something is wrong and needs attention.

Likewise, when we catch colds and take long periods to recover, our immune systems are struggling to keep up and we need to aid them by providing ourselves with better quality nutrition and supplements. Hopefully we are doing this already, but in today’s busy world, we often get sidetracked and do not give our bodies the proper are they deserve.

Caring for the Spirit and Soul

Emotional well being is another area in which we should focus our attention. Without emotional well being, we cannot be in good health physically. Stress, in particular, causes our bodies to act in overdrive and become run down which leaves us more susceptible to disease – both chronic and acute.

Spiritual well being, whether as part of a religion, a philosophy, a practice such as yoga, or a state of awareness of being is important to physical health. Some people feel spiritually enlightened only when at religious houses, while others who may shun religion feel similarly spiritually enlightened when in nature.

However you wish to define spiritual enlightenment, it provides a sense of ‘connectedness’ that gives a sense of comfort and belonging to something – a church, to God, to the Universe, or just to the physical energy proved to exist by science that is quantifiable and constant.

The Mind, Body, and Spirit Connection

Some people may be more sensitive to the link among mind, body, and spirit. They pick up on the smallest changes in the people and animals around them. These people are known as empaths, or people who are able to empathize easily. In our modern world empathy is quickly taking a backseat to the selfish, narcissistic focus on the outer-self – which should be differentiated from the healthy focus on the inner-self.

If you are like most people, enhancing mind, body, and spirit requires some effort.  It doesn’t come to you naturally.  But, don’t worry, it can be done.

Bringing the Mind, Body, and Spirit into Balance

In order to bring the mind, body, and spirit into balance, be sure to get enough exercise. Be sure to pick an exercise that is comfortable for you so that you are encouraged to do it frequently.

Choose organic fruits and vegetables for your diet. Even if you eat processed food, make sure they have organic products in them. This far in life you have already been exposed to tons of pesticides. You are exposed to them every day. You are most vulnerable to them when you ingest them, so buy organic!

Go vegan! No, really. It isn’t all about tofu. By going vegan you not only spare the lives of hundreds or thousands of innocent animals, you also help the environment by conserving important resources like water. The best way to learn to be vegan is find a vegan that knows how to cook. Learn some good recipes instead of eating processed vegan foods off the shelf. They are not nearly as good as what you can make yourself.

Remember to breathe the right way – sitting or standing tall and using your belly to pull the air deeply into your lungs. You clear toxins from your body and your muscles relax.

A good way to learn proper breathing technique is through yoga. Yoga stretches your muscles, improves your posture, and teaches you to focus by directing your attention to your breathing.

Always get enough sleep. Without sleep, your brain cannot process properly and it makes every day more difficult. With adequate sleep you are better prepared to handle the challenges that face you each day.

Be happy. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but try it. Even on your worst days, fake it. It makes a difference in how people respond to you. They will smile at you and your fake smile will turn into a real one.

Live for the now. Pursue your dreams. Don’t wait for the perfect time – just go do it! You only regret what you never got around to doing.

Don’t forget to be grateful for what you have. Most people have far less.

Enhancing mind, body, and spirit for better health is worth your time.  You will get back so much more than you put into it.  If you are looking for more information on Mind, Body, and Spirit rejuvenation, visit the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University.

Can Stress Affect Your Body?

Can Stress Affect Your Body?

When the mind feels stress, it affects everything in your body.  Your muscles and your nervous system are two of the most affected areas.  Also strongly affected by stress are your hormones.

Oftentimes, our minds make mountains out of mole hills and things that were not really super stressful become magnified by our imaginations.  Panic attacks are usually triggered by this type of over-exaggeration of stress in our minds.

What Causes Stress?

It is believed that the mind is often bored and in order to keep itself busy, it creates problems for itself to solve.  Whether we are focused on it or not, our minds stay busy working out problems that often are not real problems – and for some people, this can escalate into high levels of stress and mental fatigue.

Many people do not realize that their stress levels actually cause a change to take place in the brain which affects our overall brain chemistry.  The field of study that looks into these changes is known as psychoneuroimmunology.

When we are consistently overstimulated with stress, it results in our bodies producing too many stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline.  Also the levels of serotonin and beta-endorphins are negatively affected, meaning that we have much less of them when we are stressed.

Stress Can Cause Depression

When you don’t have enough serotonin, you feel down or depressed.  Likewise, beta-endorphins are what give us self-esteem and without enough of them, we begin to doubt ourselves.  When both serotonin and beta-endorphins are low, we tend to avoid people and places where we might run into people.  We just want to stay in our homes and avoid the world altogether.

When stress levels are high for long periods of time and our serotonin and beta-endorphins are low, we begin to show personality changes.  We also experience depression.  When we think of depression, we often think of it as a state that exists in and of itself.  Not many people link the existence of stress to the cause of depression.

Stress Can Cause Inflammation

How else can stress affect your body?  Through inflammation. When stressful thoughts are allowed to continue in your mind, your cortisol levels are kept artificially high.  Cortisol is a fight or flight response hormone and our bodies are not supposed to experience it for long periods of time.

If you were being chased by a mountain lion, cortisol will give you the strength to hopefully outrun or fight the mountain lion.  In every day situations, though, high levels of cortisol cause very high levels of inflammation.

Stress Can Cause Heart Disease and Diabetes

This same inflammation can lead to heart disease and diabetes.  High cortisol levels also drive us to eat – especially carbohydrates and fat.  We find ourselves craving carbs and fats even though we may be full.  Not only does this increase our daily consumption of calories, but these specific foods then serve to inhibit our fat metabolism.

Diet is not always the sole cause of weight gain and the development of unhealthy conditions of the body.  In cases like these, we need to first look to reducing our levels of mental stress and anxiety in order to get our bodies healthy.

So, can stress affect your body?

Yes.  Stress is a silent killer.  Do whatever you must to reduce your stress levels today.  You won’t believe what a relief it is to be out from under all of the stress.  You will feel like a new person – one with a new lease on life.

Benefits of Meditation

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation could be the key to help us deal with the demands placed on us by modern life.  In order to stay healthy and meet the challenges and responsibilities we face each day, we must learn methods to undo the devastating effects of stress on our bodies.

Meditation can improve both our health and well being.  Regular meditation – about 20 minutes per day – can improve the quality of your life mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.  It can also lead to greater productivity and success at work and in the home.  These positive changes can improve the quality of your personal relationships as well as your family life.

The Benefits of Meditation

By committing to on 20 minutes each day to meditation, you can experience powerful positive mental, emotional and spiritual benefits.

Our minds were developed initially to identify constant threats to our survival.  Today, we no longer need this ability 24 x 7 and as a result our minds have a lot of free time.  It is part of our programming for our minds to be active, but without naturally occurring stressors, our minds find things to think about.  It is this hyperactivity of the mind focusing on our responsibilities to our work and families that causes us great stress in the form of anxiety and worry.

Stress and the Body

Stress causes the production of cortisol and adrenaline which are stress hormones.  When constantly exposed to stress hormones, our bodies become more prone to disease, premature aging, and weakened immune systems.

When we are under this constant stress caused by the mind, focus and clarity of thought become clouded and our ability to function effectively in everyday life is reduced. We no longer are able to experience life as a positive experience because our perception of the world around us is distorted by the lens of stress through which we see it.

We become impatient and intolerant of others when under extreme stress, because we interpret their intentions through the lens of stress.  Our actions become less productive and more destructive.

Instead of finding solutions to relatively simple problems, we over-analyze them and make them out to be more of a problem than they really are.  We become irritable and fly off the handle when dealing with people at work and those close to us instead of responding in a considerate and attentive manner.  This affects our relationship with those people and can negatively impact their own senses of well-being.

Because our state of being affects the people we care about, it is critical for us to gain control of our minds in order to that we do not pass on our negative emotion and energy to the people around us. Through meditation, we pull our mind back out of “survival mode” and bring it into a lower state of calmness that is no longer full of worry and frustration.  Frequent meditation  – about 20 minutes a day – trains our minds to be in this relaxed state by showing the mind it is possible.

Meditation as Healing

Meditation is a healing experience.  Our focus is redirected from looking at what is around us to paying attention to what is inside us.  People often refer to the experience as “grounding” because they no longer feel so scatterbrained.  They become rooted within themselves and are ready to deal with life’s daily hassles.

Meditation also temporarily stops the productions of stress hormones because the body and brain sense that we have become physically and mentally relaxed.  In fact, meditation elevates our production of melatonin, serotonin, DHEA, and human growth hormone (HGH).  These are commonly referred to as “happiness hormones” and make us feel clear-headed and optimistic.  Studies have demonstrated that not only are people who meditate more optimistic, but they are also healthier and more successful than people who do not meditate.

It is difficult to describe to people who have not experienced a clear mind exactly what it is like.  It is as if trying to explain what stars look like to someone who has only lived under an overcast sky.  When you live a problematic life that is full of trouble and confusion, it is challenging to imagine a life that is happy and healthy because the mind is no longer focused on the stress.

Materialism

We live in a world which focuses primarily on material things and shuns the energy/life force that makes us what we are.  Some people may refer to this as spirituality.  Whatever we choose to call it, the more we ignore it and focus on material prosperity, the more our quality of life diminishes.

Depression

When we allow our mind to become overwhelmed with outside stress and do not give it a break to be quiet and focus inward, we often become depressed.  Depression is commonplace these days in all socio-economic groups and in all age groups.  It is now being diagnosed in young children who learn to focus outwards by their parents, teachers, and other adults.

Often people turn to medication to treat the depression that develops as a result of our outward focus.  Ultimately, they are only treating the symptoms and not the underlying cause.

One of the major benefits of meditation is that it addresses the cause of depression.  When our minds are clear, we are able to focus well and deal with problems in a more effective manner, with less stress.  We are happier and more confident.  As a result, our personal relationships are much stronger and we are better able to succeed in our endeavors.