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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 59 Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG), the Davidson team has shown that meditators can regulate their cerebral activity to attain more focus and composure. By contrast, untrained subjects focusing on a single task are usu- ally unable to do so for a sustained period. The monks who had practiced the longest showed the greatest brain changes, which may indicate that they’ve effected permanent neural change. The brain changes observed during Davidson’s study of compassion meditation suggest that intensively generating goodwill engenders an extreme state of well-being. Research such as Davidson’s has enormous implications for the field of psychology. For a long time, doctors have relied on neurotransmitter-altering drugs to change the brain’s physical or chemical makeup to improve a patient’s mental well-being. It now seems that one’s mood can be altered by the opposite route as well: changing subjective, qualitative experience can actually have an impact on the brain’s physical or chemical makeup. Researchers coined the term “neuroplasticity” to de- scribe the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections based on experience. But a word of caution: meditation may not be an appropri- ate remedy for every condition. It can worsen schizophrenia, paranoia, and other disorders in which boundaries between self and other blur. Meditation may also be virtually impos- sible for someone in the midst of a depressive episode, since depression compromises concentration. According to Zindel Segal, Ph.D., co-author of The Mind- ful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Un- happiness, meditation could also be detrimental if it stands in the way of people accessing other kinds of care. “If you’re in the middle of a depressive episode, spurning psychotherapy or an antidepressant in favor of meditation might not be a good idea,” he says. “You’d want to access psychotherapy or an anti- depressant early on and then, when you’re feeling better, switch to a meditative practice to help yourself stay well.” Segal has conducted studies on the effects of meditation for people who have had three or more depressive episodes, and the results indicate that the practice does help them prevent depression. Meditation lets people know that even in the midst of distress, they can still feel grounded. Caregiving “We’re so good at the high-tech medical stuff,” says Judy Lief, a workshop leader for caregivers and hospice workers and author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality. “But there is a lot of pressure, a lot of speed, and not a lot of support for people who are caring for the ill and the dying. As a result, there tends to be a lot of burnout.” To combat this problem, a growing number of caregivers are finding that mindfulness practice helps them renew their energies. Instead of getting wrapped up in the intensity of their work and in all of the tasks they must perform, mindfulness allows caregivers to identify their own needs and fulfill them. This is critical because it is impossible for caregivers to look after others when they can’t look after themselves. Anne Cason, a co-founder and director of Dana Home Care and the author of Circles of Care: How to Set Up Quality Home Care for Our Elders, says that self-care begins with the basics: notice when you feel hungry and have a snack; notice when you feel thirsty and have a drink. Mindfulness also helps caregivers stay in the present moment; it helps them let go of protocol when it isn’t appropriate. Imagine you’re caring for an older person, says Cason, and you’ve been told to give her a bath, fix her lunch, and clean the kitchen. “But she’s having a hard day and keeps saying ‘I want to go for a ride.’ You can’t just do what you’ve been told. You have to stop and pay attention to this person and then find out how you can get the job done.” Kim McCoy of Circles of Care with 88-year-old Pearl Ormsbee at an assisted-living facility in Portland, Oregon. ERICCASON SEPT 56-63.indd 59 SEPT 56-63.indd 59 7/3/08 1:32:03 PM 7/3/08 1:32:03 PM