The Irresistible Invitation of Fall

We're quickly nearing the official start of the fall season, and already here the weather has started to shift.  Today, as I look out my office window, I see a cool grey sky and tree tops being blown by a strong wind.  The leaves have entered the next phase of their life cycle...their movement toward death.  Soon they'll start falling to the ground in a sort of potter's field of red and yellow and orange. And all of this reminds me of why I love this time of year, though, for many, it can also be challenging.

For me, fall has always been a welcome change to summer's heat and intensity.  The outward expansion of summer is met by the colder, more inward, energy of fall.  I love summer - doors and windows open, we're out exploring the world, meeting friends, traveling, and are often more active than at other times.  But the contrast that fall offers is irresistible to me. (Not to mention the tapestry of color the trees provide!)

It was a blazing hot summer, years ago, when a dear friend said, "I'm sick of these sunny days." She was in the midst of a breakup when we had a two-week heat streak with temperatures in the upper 90s and nothing but sun, sun, sun.  "I just want one rainy day," she sighed.  And I knew what she meant.  The heat and sun left her feeling she had to go out and "enjoy" the day, but one rainy day would give her the excuse she felt she needed to stay home and do what every cell in her body longed to do.  Grieve.

Grieve the death of her relationship.  She didn't want to be "sunny" about it, she wanted to have a good cry, and she longed for a rainy day to complement her mood and the grieving process.  She wanted to contemplate this transition in her life.

Of course not everyone needs a rainy day to be their excuse to stay home and be contemplative, but it helps.  And, for me, that's what fall represents.  It presents the contrast to all that we typically hold up as our "ideal" - sun, hot, light, expansion - and (re)introduces us to that which we often try and avoid - cold, dark, contraction.  Fall often symbolizes aging, death, and the silence that accompanies them.  

Fall represents the end of nature's life cycle.  All around us we find evidence of the reality that we know all things face.  But, more symbolically, we sense the energy of things slowing down, and if we welcome this change, this can be a time of retrospection and reflection for us.  If you're anything like me, then you welcome the opportunity to simply "be" that fall seems to invite.  And the insight and clarity that slowness and silence make possible.  You may even choose to reflect on the impermanence of all things - this moment, this day, this time in our lives, relationships, and, ultimately, this life. 

This is not meant to be depressing.  In fact, if you've ever allowed the natural life cycle of a moment, a period of time, a relationship, a person, to be as it is - impermanent - you may know the sense of reverence that grows out of that awareness.  You likely know the deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for life that this acceptance of "how things are" engenders.  You may have had your moments, upon this type of reflection, infused with a profound sense of meaning and a love of life that you'd not known before. 

I once heard a radio program on NPR (that's National Public Radio in the U.S.) lament the end of summer and the start of fall.  Gone, it said, were the hot summer days full of fun and friends.  In, they said, was the return of the darkness and the cold (read: death, both real and symbolic).   But perhaps they've missed fall's greatest invitation - to go in, to "be with", and to contemplate and deeply know this life in the process.

Do you love fall?  If so, what do you love about it? 

The Body Cannot Lie

Did you know that your body cannot lie?  If you don't know what I mean, then observe a guileless child when you ask them if something they've just told you is the truth. 

"J, did you brush your teeth?" I asked (again). 

My little man's lips pursed and his nose crinkled and his shoulders raised up high.  His eyes averted mine and he took several loud, deep breaths before responding with a stilted, "yes, I did." 

I love that the body cannot lie.  We big people have whetted and polished tools over many years that enable us to silence the truths that the body speaks.  All addictions are some manifestation of this suppressed voice.  We silence it with drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol.  We shove it down into the depths of our bowels with food.  We spend our money and depend at times on our money to distract us (temporarily).  We create drama around people and situations, create stories about why we're right and they're wrong - all in the interest of shutting out what we don't want to feel. 

I know what it's like to deny the body its truth.  To allow the mind to create narratives in order to avoid certain, painful, truths.  For many people this manifests in a state of detachment from our emotions, or an over-sentimentality and emotionality that comes out over the smallest things having nothing to do with what we're avoiding. What is happening in our minds, and what is happening in our bodies can become grossly out of synch.

This is what we learn to do in meditation - we learn to connect with our embodied experience.  That means, the experience we're having OUTSIDE the incessant flurry of thoughts that are generated about our experience - This is good. This is bad.  This person is awful.  This moment is awful, etc. We drop our attention out of our heads and hang out for a while in the body.  Doing this is a fascinating experiment that you have to experience for yourself - though I'll explore the idea in more depth in another post. 

I once observed that when my daughter is bored, she stomps around the house, flailing her arms, and with her head tilted back a little, makes these moany, kind of whiny sounds. For her, boredom is a totally embodied experience. This was before she had words, which likely meant that she did not yet have the ability to formulate thoughts about her experience, she just felt it and then moved on. And I realized, that's EXACTLY how I felt when bored, but for me it just remained this unrealized mass that usually came out as a funky mood. I promised myself that the next time, I was going to try putting my whole body into the experience and see what happens!  I was going to connect with the experience of being bored. 

Are you curious to know what happens when you do that?  Next time you feel agitated, try this:  sit down comfortably somewhere, relax as much as possible, and close your eyes.  You may notice how agitated the body feels and you may want to just get up and distract yourself again.  That's ok - see if you can stay with it.  Now, focus on the full inhale and exhale of 3 breaths.  Make them as steady and as deep as you can (but don't stress about it).  Follow the breath as it enters your nose, travels down into the lungs, and the mechanics breathing cause the belly to rise and fall.  Follow it as it rolls out again.  Once you're finished reflect on what you experienced? 

Were you still bored in those moments?

"I know you didn't brush your teeth," I told J.  He took a deep breath and stomped his foot.  "Do you know how I know?", I asked him. 

"How?"

"Your body.  It can't lie.  And that's a good thing - it means your head and your body are still working together. It means they're still in synch."

He didn't get it and he didn't care.  But I do.  

How our grief transforms through mindfulness

How our grief transforms through mindfulness

Mindfulness is a way of relating to our experience that opens us to the totality of it - that is, we learn to embrace it all, the joy and the heartache. But some experiences are harder to be with.  It’s difficult to be with physical or emotional pain, and we often retreat to the mind in search of distractions.  But when we are able to fully be with our experience, something that feels like magic happens.

Are you focused on the doing or the achieving in meditation?

Are you focused on the doing or the achieving in meditation?

Whenever we pursue a new activity, we’re often focused on the goal that activity is set to achieve.  For example, in the case of meditation, we often come to the practice with the hope, expectation or goal that it will achieve a desired outcome; less stress, more joy, overall improved health, etc.  That’s normal.  However, two researchers from the University of Chicago, Fishbach and Choi, were able to demonstrate how our motivation to pursue and to stick with an activity is impacted by how we attend to the activity. 

 

The Science Scoop: Meditation, emotions, stress and our genetic inheritance: the fascinating link between the practice of meditation and gene expression

In what is one of the most exciting new subfields in the study of gene expression - behavioral epigenetics - the intersection of our brain's plasticity - the ability of our brain to change and adapt - and genetic expression is becoming better known. 

You know, once upon a time, science believed that the brain ceased development in childhood. The brain you had - with all its hard wiring - was the brain you would have forever.  Here's a Ted talk from 2004 that discusses this theory of plasticity. In it, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich says, "Your brain can do things tomorrow that it can't do today."  By way of acquired skills, it adapts.  

And his take home message to you is: you, YOU have a great deal of influence on what habits and patterns are reinforced in the brain. 

So, what is behavioral epigenetics, and why is it so fascinating? Behavioral epigenetics says that the experiences of our ancestors can impact upon gene expression in our bodies and brain and affect the way we experience the world.  This fascinating article on the topic refers to it as the 'molecular residue' from the emotional patterns of our ancestors.  

That means that the anxiety and stress, or the resilience and resourcefulness, of your grandparents and great-grandparents may be alive and well within you.  It's like an inherited pattern of gene expression. 

Recent research has also revealed a link between disturbed emotional states - like depression, anxiety and PTSD - and gene expression in the brain.  One article discussed some of that research, the gist being that our emotions (or in this case "disturbed emotions") have the ability to turn on and off the expression of certain genes in our brains.  And, according to my reading, particular focus was paid to "emotional disturbances." 

This is important to note, because the "disturbed emotional states" mentioned above often related to strong unexpressed emotions (like grief) or were the result of a sort of truncation in the process of emotional expression; like PTSD, a situation in which an event is so overwhelmingly stressful that we are unable to process it; we are 'stuck' in the energy of the event in a 'fight or flight' response. 

I'd then ask the question:  Can a distinction be made between fully expressed emotion and emotions that are denied full expression, or are buried deep within us?  That's an important distinction, I would imagine, from the standpoint of gene expression.  

This is just scratching the surface of what is now believed to be tangible evidence regarding our thoughts and emotions and how they come to impact our bodies and minds.  At first glance, and if you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, this can feel disheartening.  

Speaking for myself, I have always fought against any idea or theory that "essentialized" human experience. In other words, any explanation that took control of my experience out of my hands. If my negative emotional states and behavior are all genetically determined then I am destined to suffer.  My mom would blame all of her struggles - both physical and mental - on genetics.  And as a young child, she would constantly remind me about what I was possibly inheriting and how it could effect my life (never positive things).

I understand now that the old 'nature vs nurture' picture is far more complex than that, and I can embrace the idea of some genetic inheritance now. 

And this is where contemplative practices, like mindfulness meditation, play an important role.

Science has come to embrace the theory of plasticity; the theory that our brains' wiring - at least with respect to emotion, thought, and behavior - can be altered based on our practices and habits. If we always react with anger every time our mother in law says something we take offense to, we reinforce that reaction within us. We reinforce our anger. So that even the thought of our MIL can be enough to crank up our adrenal glands, alter our breathing patterns, and ignite a flurry of thoughts around how disrespected and misunderstood we feel.  

The most exciting idea to come out of the plasticity model is that if our brains are alterable then there must be practices we can do to direct our thought and emotion into more helpful patterns.

Indeed, a recent study out of Wisconsin, France and Spain, revealed that meditation altered certain molecules that impacted gene expression.  In this study, they found meditation to effect gene expression along inflammatory pathways.

That means that that our 20 minutes a day of mindfulness meditation could be impacting inflammation levels in the body.

It is now widely accepted that there is a link between depression (at least some forms) and chronic, low-grade inflammation.  One of the highest ranking science and medical journals in the world, Nature, published a review that discussed this link.  The research now shows a link between low-grade inflammation and the development of depression over an extended period of time. 

This has exciting implications for us!  It's likely that the mechanism through which meditation alleviates many of the physical and emotional conditions related to stress is in its ability to calm the nervous system and the excessive, chronic output of cortisol (an important hormone in our stress response).  

The link between stress and inflammation is clear.  If meditation has been shown to impact inflammatory pathways, and the reduced inflammation has an impact on depression, then we have a very real and tangible tool that enables to us engage with our epigenetic inheritance and legacy. 

This is one of the more empowering aspects of contemplative practices - they empower us to influence the health of our brains and bodies - despite our genetic profile and possibly breaking inherited patterns for future generations.