Saturday, June 26, 2010

A note on mindfulness meditation


Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively simple practice and yet very useful.
Neuroscientists and behaviorists(google MBSR, MBCT to know more) find it greatly helps people who are stressed out and also people suffering from anxiety based disorders (OCD, etc). I personally overcame OCD through mindfulness meditation 7 years back.

Mindfulness meditation can also help people in general manage their stress levels and keep them grounded. Mindfulness meditation is definitely helping me with managing stress in grad school.
Ofcourse, meditation in general(of any kind) is a very useful thing to do on a daily basis. However, mindfulness meditation is especially useful for people who find it difficult to concentrate.

Here's a simple practice:

1) Sit down some place - On the chair or on the ground.
2) Gently scan your body from head to toe and as you do this mental scan, feel your body relax - You can also say the word 'Relax' in your mind as you do the scan.
3) Now, keep your eyes open and just observe the sensations going around you
- These sensations could be the sound of a car outside, the groaning of the refrigerator, your own THOUGHTS, itching sensations in the body - The whole idea is to passively observe these sensations. As far as possible, observe these sensations without making any judgements in your mind. Think of yourself as a passive spectator observing these sensations around you.
Don't try to curb your thoughts or even guide them. Let them run through. You are just a passive spectator.
4) If you are comfortable with this process of passive observation, you can begin doing it with your eyes closed.

Some Comments:
You will slowly notice that as you are going on with this passive observation, you become more relaxed and grounded. Your passive observation process will bring to light the restless nature of the mind!!! Your thoughts might be flying high in your mind, yet you feel more relaxed than before. With practice, the thoughts will also start to settle down.

When I began this practice 2 years back - My thoughts were going zip,zap,zoom. But the interesting thing was, my thoughts would settle down slowly as I became regular at my practice.
As the days went by, I found that my mind was starting to calm down quicker.
A few months later, I had a meditation session, where my mind settled down quickly and the peace thereafter was wonderful. There was a sea of change from the mind I began with and the mind I was experiencing a few months later. However, to sustain this calmness, I found that a regular practice is essential. For me a daily meditation practice is indispensable in keeping me grounded through the rigors of graduate school. The feeling of release of stress when I meditate before going to bed is wonderful. If you are reading this sentence, I highly recommend this meditation practice(or any suitable meditation practice that you are attracted to).

You can begin with 10 minutes. And as you progress, you can increase the duration depending on your comfort levels. I have time for about 30 minutes of meditation everyday morning and night.

Monday, June 21, 2010

OCD and Mindfulness meditation

1) Introduction

Obsessive Compulsive disorder is a disorder caused due to a stuck circuit in the brain.
More specifically, the neuronal circuit between: orbital frontal cortex, caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate cortex is on overdrive.

The orbital frontal cortex is the part of frontal cortex that is associated with detecting errors or 'something is wrong' in the environment. This area is on overdrive in people with OCD and hence there is always a feeling that something is wrong. The circuit moves onto the cingulate cortex which is associated with compulsion, which makes the people with OCD act compulsively whenever they have a feeling of 'something is wrong'.

In Neuroscience, there is a classical phrase: 'Neurons that fire together wire together'.
When the feeling of 'something is wrong' is followed by a compulsion to do something (e.g. twitch the hand or some other action)... This sequence gets hard wired in the brain (stronger neural connection).

However, through mindful response... E.g. following 'something is wrong' by a relaxing activity instead of the compulsive action, the circuit is remodeled into something that is more benign.
Ofcourse in the beginning, this mindful action is difficult because of the hard-wiring of the circuit.
But with practice, the circuit weakens and stops bothering the person as much.

2) My experience

I had OCD during my senior high school and first two years of college. In the beginning(first 6 months), it was a gruelling experience. I didn't know why I had these obsessive thoughts that were so troublesome. Ofcourse, I didn't know at that point that it was a stuck circuit. My only respite from these 'something is wrong' thoughts was sleep. A psychiatrist prescribed a tranquilizing drug(fludac) - I think it had an affect on my visual cortex area or the areas related to imagination - Because, since then I have had trouble visualizing(in my mind) objects clearly. Ofcourse, the drug did help make the thoughts less menacing. I think these drugs fall under the class of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). Sertonin is a natural biochemical that has a calming influence on the brain.

In my second year of college, I attended a 3 day workshop on mindfulness meditation and other breath based techniques.
I remember clearly, the instructions was to observe my thoughts passively without any commentary or reaction. It was hard, these thoughts had given me a lot of trouble - But I tried anyway. I soon found (a few days later), that my condition was getting better.
I continued my practice of mindfulness meditation and also took up running everyday.
Within 6 months, I was a different person. The obsessive thoughts no longer bothered me (circuit had weakened quite a bit) and I was out of depression (which was also a problem during that time). Further more, running gave me a lot of energy and enthusiasm for life.
It was quite a recovery!! There were small relapses(whose frequency began to diminish), but I knew what to do - be responsive (instead of being compulsive or reactive), mindfully.

3) Neuro-plasticity

It is quite a remarkable thing that a person can change the neuronal circuits in the brain merely through a different mental/physical response. This phenomenon of changeability of neuronal circuits in the brain is known as neuro-plasticity. Neuro-plasticity is supposed to be at its peak during childhood(where the brain is very mouldable and adaptable). This ability does continue with age (although to a lesser degree).

I was reading a book on The mind and the brain: Neuroplasiticity and the power of mental force by Jefferey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. The detailed description of what happens in a OCD patient as given in the book is fascinating. I can put together what I experienced with what happens chemically in the brain as described in the book for a better picture of what was going on with me.

Neuroplasticity as a concept is very fascinating as it puts the responsibility for a good life squarely on oneself(ones mind and brain). Don't like your life? - Change your brain by changing your actions and thoughts and voila, neuronal circuits change and you act more responsibly. Ofcourse these changes in actions and thoughts have to be made consistently, so that benign circuits are preferred over malign circuits. Are you very emotional and worried? Perhaps your amygdala is on overdrive or your basal gangila is on overdrive. Solution: Either drugs(with side-effects) or mindfulness meditation(also a host of other alternatives). The latter has no side effects and can help bring in neuronal circuits that are conducive for a more peaceful and clear mind.

4) Questions, questions and more questions!

A very fundamental question that arises (also asked in the book mentioned above) is this:
Is the mind different from the brain? This question arises easily in the case of OCD.
In the case of a mindful response, it was as if my mind was willing a different response to my obsessive thoughts that was followed up by the brain so that the brain was beginning to rewire accordingly. If the mind is indeed different from the brain - Where is the seat of the mind?
Is it a phenomenon of the brain - Is it a higher level abstraction of the brain functions? Or is it something that is fundamentally immaterial - not made up of matter. This is also a question of fundamental physics - String theory claims that the fundamental essence of matter is energy - Which is immaterial. So is mind some abstract form of energy that is immaterial. If so, can it function independently of the body-brain framework? If it can, then we can begin to ask questions on what happens to this mind after death? And thus, we enter a whole new realm that science hasn't dared to enter yet.