Monday, April 30, 2012

Mindfulness and Brain Health

I preached this weekend about mindfulness and brain health. In specific, how mindfulness has been proven as a treatment for things like anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other forms of mental illness. It is works for chronic pain, eating disorders, and many other illnesses. Mindfulness is something we all can use in order to help our mental state, and it is part of the Dr. Andrew Weil's  regimen in his book Spontaneous Happiness.

Mindfulness means we are fully in the present moment, we do not judge the moment as good or bad, we accept it as it is. We are not looking to the future, worrying about the past, or multitasking. The way we cultivate mindfulness is through meditation which can be done in a variety of ways. You can meditate in the Zen style, sitting still, counting each breath up to ten and when thoughts invade your mind, bring yourself back to breathing and start over at number one again. You can do object mediation where you focus on something like a candle flame. You can practice art meditation such as Zentangles which helps focus the mind.

Here are a few excerpts from my sermon, On Purpose from April 29, 2012. I hope you will find ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.

Much of the research that has been done showing how mindfulness and meditation affects the brain has been done with the Dali Lama and his monks. Over the years, monks with between five and fifty five years of mediation experience have been tested by neuroscientists. Even occasional home based Buddhists, the ones like you and I who might meditate at home and go to a few retreats have been tested. They were hooked up to brain imaging machines and studied in many different ways. Overall, they have found that people who are mindful have the ability to focus their brains so well they can change their moods, feelings, and outlook on life. You can physically see the difference in their brains through brain imaging. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the non-meditating participants in one study. Also, larger areas of the monks brains were active, especially in the left prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions... (research found in Buddha on the Brain by John Geirland)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that is very hard to treat. For years, and still now, many doctors use a method called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. This is when a doctor exposes their patient to their deepest fears in order to show them that they are not really scary. For someone who believes the world is full of germs, the doctor would make the patient touch doorknobs and public restrooms but not allow the person to wash their hands afterwards. While some people improve, ERP is so traumatic that most people can’t finish the process. Finally in the late 1980’s Dr. Schwartz from UCLA came along and said, not only does this not work, but it is cruelty. Instead, he decided to research if mindfulness could be an effective form of treatment for OCD. 

Technically, OCD is a misfiring of the wiring in your brain. Your brain tells you there is some extremely terrifying thing that really does not exist. Dr. Schwartz believed training people to be mindful would allow them to observe the misfire in the wiring, the sensation and thoughts of fear, but to let those thoughts pass, seeing them as a glitch in their mind that is not real. This switches the thinking from “The world is full of germs and I need to wash my hands until they bleed” to “That is a brain-wiring problem, I don’t actually need to wash my hands.”

Meditation cushions. Photo by Jeff Norris
Dr. Shwartz set up a study of mindfulness and OCD and used positron-emission tomograhy, or PET scans, to measure what was going on inside people’s brains. The PET scans showed that the people who practiced mindfulness were able to calm their brain. With OCD, there is an over activity in the orbital frontal cortex of the brain. The PET scans found readings in that area of the brain decreased with mindfulness training, people were rewiring the faulty circuiting, altering their brain chemistry. Not only did this show up on the scans, but the people with OCD actually got better and stayed well, with no medication used. (OCD research found in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley)

Now mindfulness is used for treating anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. The science is able to see the faulty brain chemistry through different types of scans, so it proves there is a medical problem, but the mindfulness practice then proves that there are other things, besides medication, which can change that chemistry. Our brains have the ability to heal themselves. Some people with severe mental illness have been able to decrease their medications to the point that they can go back to work because adding mindfulness to their treatment meant they rewired enough of their brain to need less medication. As you know many of these medications make you shake, sleepy, almost comatose, and severely impair cognitive functioning. Mindfulness has enabled people to not only manage their illness, like the medication does, but get their life back, which often the medication takes away... Management does not mean cure, but it does mean a better quality of life, which everyone deserves. 

Here are some of my favorite resources about mindfulness and meditation:
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, MD
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Buddha Mom by Jacqueline Kramer 
Baby Buddhas: A Guide to Teaching Meditation to Children by Lisa Desmond


Rev. Katie


  1. Nice blog! Thanks for sharing this information. Job Kabat Zinn, scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, also discussed the differences in the brains of people who've been meditating for some time versus those that don't. Being as present in each moment as much as possible and showing up for our lives are critical to living more enriched and meaningful lives.

  2. This article comes at a very good time for me as my psychologist recently suggested that I start meditating. On the same day my DH brought home a meditation, and now this post. I love how a plan falls together. I'm your newest subscriber. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Now excuse me while I go poke around at your other posts.

    1. Hi Jan,
      The Universe really does align for us sometimes. Thanks for subscribing and I hope you find the blog helpful. Let me know how the meditation goes! I look forward to hearing more from you.

      Rev. Katie

  3. I have heard so many times that meditation can actually help us to overcome all kinds of anxieties and negative things around us... you have shared an amazing piece of work which i think would appeal to so many people!!