It’s been a ridiculously intense week; both here and so tragically around the world. It’s so much so that I’ve lost (or gained) a day already. Yesterday I was confused because I thought it was Tuesday, today I’ve been thinking it must be Wednesday. It was a jolt to the system to realise that the paid working week ends tomorrow and I feel like I’ve really not done any work at all.
Of course it looks like I’m busy and things have been done, hopefully as they should have been. But inside? No, no actual work has been done at all. I realise that I am at that point in my life where my purpose and my work are more and more enmeshed. Maybe that is what they call a vocation. It’s sounds horribly pompous; it’s not meant to. It’s actually more a source of confusion. How can I be so busy doing things that are in the diary, teaching, writing, trying to plan but not actually feeling like it’s work. Work, to me, is that thing you leave when you walk out of the door at that place called work. I suppose it’s partly a by-product of working out on the community, seeing your learners on the street, doing a lot of keyboard-based work after the school run, or before I leave the house in the morning. I suppose it’s because my interest is not confined to a professional one. People, how they tick, how they learn, the stories about their lives… is there anything more engaging? For me, it seems not.
Given that seems now to be the case, it is even more necessary to carve out time where I am not actively thinking which brings me to the title of the post. I was describing my recent experience on a street corner in Chicago, where I had to just sit for over an hour to get my life back together. I was explaining how in that hour, I experienced myself and the world in a very different way. She said that is like the story of the Aboriginal man who, after his first ever trip in a car, got out and sat on the ground. When asked what he was doing, he replied, ‘I am waiting for my soul to catch up.’
Now, after everything I’ve experienced, I get that. And I am sure there are many other people out there who do too. I also now get the idea that the self we create and come to know is deeply rooted in a sense of place. I learned by accident today that there is a name for that: embodied situated cognition. Of course, that is just a fancy name for things indigenous tribes practised long before we came along with our jargon. I know I am not describing anything new or controversial, I am just experiencing something ancient for myself. The sit spot is a place you pick out to go, out in your part of the world, in nature and go to sit and just be every day. Like meditation, or learning, this is not a passive process, or vegging out in the cabbage patch; it is an active intention to get to know every aspect of your sit spot in all the seasons, in all weathers. Which way the sun catches it, depending on the day. Whether lichen grows on the stones and where. The stones themselves, for they all have a name, even if you don’t speak their language. If there is water nearby, the songs it sings, drop by drop. Birds: resident and tourists. Insects, grass, flowers. The trees’ conversation through the leaves or the short snap of brittle branches. All of it and everything, under any circumstances.
The sit spot and the the soul catch up.
Off to find mine…
Just in case anyone thinks I’m totally loco now: I’m not.
Here’s the neuroscience bit.
Mindfulness Meditation Changes Brain Structure
For this current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.
A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.
Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.
The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. Although no change was seen in a self-awareness-associated structure called the insula, which had been identified in earlier studies, the authors suggest that longer-term meditation practice might be needed to produce changes in that area. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany.
“Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
Reference: Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011