The Inner Landscape of the Body

Interoceptive Awareness

 “Close your eyes and shift your attention inward and notice the experience you’re having right now in the body. Feel the body as a field of sensations and observe which sensations are most vivid. Now see if you can feel even more deeply into that sensation as if sensing it from the inside out.” 

When guiding meditation I find myself reaching for language to help my clients access a deeper experience of what's referred to as "the internal landscape of the body". These instructions might seem puzzling to the mind when they’re first heard but after a few months of practice, they begin pointing toward something quite tangible. This ability to feel the "inner landscape" is known to scientists as Interoceptive Awareness (AI), which literally means “perceiving within”. Butterflies in the stomach, being choked up with sadness or getting flushing with embarrassment are all common examples of this type of awareness.

Right now as I pause to feel into my own body, the increased heart rate, elevated body temperature, clamminess of my hands and slight sense of pleasant agitation are all signals that let me know that this will definitely be the last cup of coffee for the morning. Thank you interoceptive awareness!

Interoceptive Awareness is caused by nerves that travel from our internal organs to the insula cortex of our brain, where a dynamic representation of our inner physiology is created. Interoception is distinguishable from other forms of awareness such as exteroception and proprioception. While interoception helps us to perceive subtle internal body signals such as tickle, hunger, thirst, itch and heart rate, exteroception is the perception of the external environment, which helps us take social cues from others and recognize familiar places and things. Proprioception in contrast is what orients the body in space and is the reason we can walk around without bumping into people and knocking things over.

When most people think of "paying attention", they automatically think of focusing on something outside of themselves such as people, places, projects or anything shiny and interesting that crosses their path. But it turns out that it is not the external but the internal world that often determines whether we are having a good day or not. Have you ever felt miserable despite looking out at beautiful scenery? Or have you felt surprisingly content despite being surrounded by cars jammed on the freeway? Happiness is just one of the reasons cultivating the interoceptive pathway of attention may hold the key to greater well-being and optimal performance.

Out of Your Head & Into Your Body

Professor and Mindfulness Teacher, Zindel Segal did an interesting study in collaboration with Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto.  The study used fMRI to compare the brains of participants who were instructed to either focus on the sensation of their breath (interoceptive attention) or to focus their attention on words on a screen (exteroceptive attention).  Contrary to the conventional assumption made by neuroscience that all attention relies upon the frontal lobe of the neocortex, the researchers found that this was true of only the exteroceptive attention. Interoception relies on brain regions that link the cortex to the limbic system, an evolutionarily older brain system that we share in common with many other animals. These limbic connections may support more direct access to emotions and physical sensations while the neocortex is more responsible for a conceptual sense of self.  By recruiting “limbic-bridge” areas like the insula and posterior cingulate, a person using interoceptive attention may bypass the pre-frontal neocortex, directly tapping into bodily awareness that is free from judgment or conceptual self-evaluation.

How does this translate into greater happiness? Well, what does your mind do during stressful events? My coaching clients often say things like "I feel stuck inside my head" and “I just can’t seem to shut my mind off”. And it’s true, they are and they can’t. Trying to talk yourself out of thinking, or using thoughts to control thoughts is a fruitless effort. We knew far before the research validated it, that ruminating and mind wandering makes us less happy and even depressed. 

You’ve likely heard this challenge before: sit still for the next 5 minutes and don’t think of a PINK ELEPHANT! The reason you can’t do this is called “ironic process theory”. According to this theory, if I want to control or repress a thought of a pink elephant, first I would distract myself by intentionally thinking about something else. Then the irony, my mind starts an unconscious monitoring process to check if I’m still thinking about the thing I’m not supposed to be thinking about. “Have I thought of a PINK ELEPHANT yet?” “Doe!... Yep.” This is the science behind the phrase “what you resist persists”.

So you can’t control your mind with your mind (or our pre-frontal cortex with the pre-frontal cortex), but with interoceptive awareness, you may be able to shift away from your racing thoughts.  In the mPEAK course we have people ask themselves the question, “Where are my feet?” or we have them take three breaths whenever they’ve been overcome by racing thoughts. Pausing and feeling the feet from the inside out or focusing on the internal sensations of breathing directly taps into our ability to use our interoceptive awareness, shifting us from "thinking mode" to "sensing mode". Give it a try next time you're sitting on a beach in Hawaii worrying about the kids. 

Interceptive Awareness & Sports Performance

Research on the impact of the mPEAK course on the US Olympic BMX team suggest that after mindfulness training, these top athletes "were better able to appropriately anticipate challenges and to remain focused and aware of their performance in the midst of the split-second stressors that arise in a BMX race that can be intense and often lasts for fewer than two minutes with multiple competitors vying for a place at the finish line." 

Reporting in a recent issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience researchers show that the mPEAK course altered the cyclists’ brain activity patterns in two performance-relevant ways:

  1. As measured by fMRI activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula were enhanced during the anticipatory and recovery phases of a stress-provoking exercise. The ACC and insula are believed to play a strong role in interoception, the ability to sense bodily sensations such a heart rate and integrate them with external stimulation and emotional overlay. “Prior to the test, their brains were ramping up for activity,” said first author and mPEAK Director Lori Haase. “We interpret this as meaning the athletes are anticipating the stress and getting ready for it.”
  2. The second measurable change was an apparent reduction in the level of connectivity between posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and both the right medial frontal cortex and ACC, during the stress-evoking test, in which athletes were asked to breathe through a narrow straw that restricted air flow. The PCC is implicated in self-awareness and self-referential thoughts. A reduction in connectivity to this brain area is consistent with the idea that mindfulness training heightens a person’s awareness of bodily sensations, with less of their "Performance Story" being added to what is being experienced physically.  

In my experience, greater Interoceptive Awareness can also help athletes outside the actual sporting event itself. Being more discerning of subtle body signals can help athletes make the decision on when to train light or hard and when to rest. It can help them know the difference between regular soreness from a workout and the first signs of potential injury. Feeling into the energy of the body can inform the athlete that they need better sleep or even more or less of certain foods that may work best for their bodies before training.

I “Feel” Fat

It seems that being more “embodied” is not only good for our mind, bodies and sports performance but it also may help with weight loss and body image disorders. Several researchers have reported links between Interoceptive Awareness and our sense of "self", and with the ability to recognize and process emotions. There is also evidence that it is linked to body mass index, with poorer Introceptive Awareness scores predicting a higher body mass index (BMI). This may suggest that good introceptive awareness is what allows mindful or "intuitive" eaters – those who eat in response to physical stomach hunger rather than emotional or environmental cues– to keep their weight down. However, it's been pointed out that because the dieter must also still act on the body’s signals, Interoception alone may not cause weight loss, but this awareness is an important part of a process.

Growing research also suggests that poor interoception predicts disordered eating and is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image issues. It is thought that women with low Introceptive Awareness show a greater tendency to "self-objectify" or to regard their bodies as "objects", valuing appearance over feeling and function. Because they lack an internal sense of self and feel disconnected with their own bodies, they can perceive their bodies as being large even though they may be average or slender.

Initial research suggested that this self-objectification suppresses Interoceptive Awareness, but more recent research by Professor Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway, University of London suggest the opposite. He believes that low Introceptive Awareness is actually the cause of self-objectification, not the result. Although more research is needed on the topic, the old wisdom to “listen to your body” seems to hold true.

The Body Scan Meditation

Interoceptive awareness is a capacity that can be cultivated through practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, breathing and meditations that bring attention to the relationship between thoughts, emotions and deep body sensations. While some forms of movement can cultivate proprioception and kinesthetic ability, only mindful movement seems to improve interoception. A study by Jocelyn Sze at the University of California Berkeley showed that "meditators have greater interoceptive awareness than dancers who, though they also have trained awareness of their bodies' movements, are perhaps less in tune with their emotional states."

The body scan is a specific practice I use with private coaching clients as well as with participants of MBSR and mPEAK classes. The body scan is typically done lying down and trains the mind to move from a narrow, detailed, laser beam of attention on a specific body part, like the toes of the left foot to a wider and more spacious, flood light of attention through the entire body as a whole.

“If you think of your body as a musical instrument, the body scan is a way of tuning it. If you think of it as a universe, the body scan is a way to come to know it. If you think of your body as a house, the body scan is a way to throw open all the windows and doors and let the fresh air of awareness sweep it clean.” –Jon Kabat-Zinn

This practice is a guided tour of the body, pausing in silence to hold attention on each body part in turn. Participants explore the physical sensations of skin against clothing, muscle, bones, tendons, organs and blood pulsing in veins.  They are encouraged to keep looking even deeper toward sensations that might normally go under the radar, such as moisture, dryness, temperature, itching, and body processes like digestion and elimination. Some but not all respond to the cue, “feel the body from the inside out” by making contact with even more subtle sensations of prickling, tingling, vibrating, buzzing, or humming of “life force energy”. In the body scan practice; all sensations are welcome visitors and objects to be held with kindness and curiosity.

Of course in the beginning nobody makes it very far along their journey from head to toe without running into some resistance or distraction along the way.  A benign sensation of the thigh making contact with the ground could spontaneously trigger a stream of judgments about the body part- wishing it were smaller, stronger or more shapely. Participants report thoughts that spiral unconsciously into planning a new workout routine, ridding the pantry of junk food and planning a trip to Bali next year to show off the future new thighs. By the time awareness catches up with the wandering thoughts and moves back to the body, the guidance of the body scan might have already moved all the way up to the shoulders! With practice, participants are able to start making the distinction between thoughts and emotions about their body and the actual direct experience of body sensations.

Another common challenge people face in the body scan is with falling asleep. Imagine lying on the floor after a long day for an extended period, while being guided by a soothing voice. It’s a perfect recipe for a nap! Participants who regularly snooze through half their body often report feeling like some sort of failure. “I just can’t do the body scan.” They’re comforted to know that I too fell asleep at some point during just about every body scan for a full year. And you know what they say about those people who fall asleep during meditation, right? …They must be tired.  One way to work with this is to simply accept that the sleepiness is here right now and to celebrate the moments we can be present to the body. Another option is to open the eyes during the body scan or choose a posture that invites more wakefulness such as sitting with an erect spine.

But one thing is for sure, you won't cultivate Interoceptive Awareness by reading about it! So are you ready to give it a try yourself? If you don't have the time now, download the free guided meditation and schedule some time to practice it later today.

The Practice of Mindful Eating

Have you ever found yourself standing at the refrigerator in a haze, staring blankly at the shelves of half empty cartons and containers? You have a vague sense that there's something you’re looking for but you don’t know quite what it is. Then in an instant you come-to and realize that even if you could find something satisfying, you weren’t really hungry in the first place. But then despite your realization, you make a snack anyways!

 

Mindless Eating

According to Brian Wansink Ph.D., author of “Mindless Eating”, 80% of food choices are made by factors other than actual physical stomach hunger. The reason he suggests is that most of our eating decisions are automatic, or mindless. When asked how many food-related decisions are made each day, most people in Wansink’s studies guessed an average of 14.4 choices. In reality, when the participants carefully tracked their decisions, the average was 226.7. That’s more than 200 choices that participants were unaware of initially. And without awareness, it is hard to listen to the body’s wisdom or make conscious choices.

So if not hunger, what does influence what we eat and how much? There are both internal and external factors that impact what goes in our mouths.

Internal factors such as:

  • Stress/ anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Avoid/Escape/ Numb
  • Escape painful emotions
  • Re-create positive emotions

External factors include:

  • Norms set by Family & Friends
  • Packaging
  • Plate size
  • Nutrition labels
  • Colors and shapes
  • Time of day

Mindful Eating

In contrast to mindless eating, mindful eating is the practice of paying full attention in the moment to both the internal cues in your body, heart and mind and external cues in your environment –both social & physical.

In both the MBSR and mPEAK classes, mindful eating is introduced with a small, brown, wrinkled and sweet smelling object. Participants are asked to bring a “beginners mind” to the practice, letting go of any preconceived ideas or opinions they have of this object. They’re reminded that even if they’ve had objects similar to this one, they’ve never experienced this particular object before now. We then embark on a deep exploration of our senses, one at a time, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and finally tasting the object that we call a raisin. The participants consistently remark on how they’ve never really experienced a raison before this. Usually they’re just something that comes with the salty nut mix and consumed by the handful while focusing on something else. But by pausing, and intentionally bringing an intimate presence to every detail, the raisin comes alive in a way that inspires gratitude and wonder. Some even claim to feel a sense of connection to the earth that grew the fruit, the farmer who picked and dried it, the company that packaged and transported it and the store that sold it. This is an experience that can only be had when eating mindfully.

Mindfulness of the 7 Hungers

The perception of hunger, when our stomachs aren’t really hungry can be called a “craving”. This can be an overwhelming and confusing sensation that is difficult to manage and is responsible for sabotaging millions of dieter's good intentions. A craving is experienced as a strong desire for something but you're not sure what or why. To help you get a better grasp on what part of you is actually hungry and what you’re really hungry for, Jan Chozen Bays, Zen teacher and author of "Mindful Eating" has created distinctions between 7 different hungers.

1. Eye Hunger

The visual experience of food can be magnificent. Foodies love to post pictures of their exquisitely presented entrees followed by #foodporn. Nutritionists will often give the good advice to “eat the rainbow” which not only looks absolutely radiant on your plate but adds all the necessary vitamins and phyto nutrients from different colored vegetables.  But your eyes can also deceive you. You’ve likely had this experience out to eat: shortly after claiming that you’re stuffed and unbuttoning your trousers the waitress comes by with the tray of deserts. As soon as she waves the selection of mud pies and banana splits in front of your eyes, you’ve forgotten all about your aching, full belly and you’re half way though the atomic butterscotch bliss. It is true that our eyes are bigger than our stomach.

According to research by Brian Wansink, what we see on our plates impacts the amount we eat more than how hungry we really are. Participants with larger containers and access to more food consistently consume a great deal more calories and don’t even know it.

2. Nose Hunger

All I need to say is “Cinnabon” and you know exactly what nose hunger is. You could be walking down the street minding your own business when along comes a big waft of fresh baked bread. Instantly you’re transported to your grandmother’s house at the age of eight.  Smells are more powerful than we give credit and can trigger nostalgic feelings and memories from the past.  In fact what we call taste is almost entirely made up of smell which can easily trick us into thinking we’re hungry the same way that Pavlov's dogs were tricked by hearing the sound of a bell.

3. Mouth Hunger

The mouth has been referred to as “the cavern of desire”. We have a seemingly insatiable desire for the taste and texture of food but even when taste diminishes, we often still continue to eat. For instance, the fourth cookie won’t taste as good as the first because of something called “taste specific satiety”. Basically your taste buds’ get bored of a certain food flavor and you get less pleasure the more of it you eat. But does it matter? Nope, we keep chasing the hope for more pleasure even when it’s no longer available.

Taste preferences can also change over time or with conditioning. As food companies have increased the fat, salt and sugar content of foods over the years, our culture has grown used to and expects what food scientists refer to as “Highly Palatable Foods”.  Fortunately, you can train yourself to crave healthier foods as well. After a cleanse program where participants drink only vegetable juices for periods of 3 days to 90 days, they claim to actually crave vegetables afterward. Their body gets used to it and their mouth starts to like them.  

4. Heart Hunger

Joshua Rosenthal founder of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition makes an important distinction between “primary and secondary foods”. Primary foods he says are what feed our soul and include, intimacy, connection, gratitude, and a sense of life purpose.  Secondary foods are what our body needs for nourishment to sustain us.  Heart hunger is the hunger for this primary nutrition.

When people eat out of heart hunger, it’s typically call it, “emotional eating”. Emotional eaters confuse primary and secondary foods and attempt to fill the hole in their heart with pizza, chocolate or whatever their favorite comfort food. Consuming calories to feed emotional hungers adds insult to injury by stimulating another negative emotion, guilt.

5. Mind Hunger

The nutrition & diet industry have done quite a bit to stimulate mind hunger. With shelves full of books and new research coming out every few months often with conflicting information and a high degree of contradictions, it’s impossible to follow all the rules. Yet many try and are frustrated by it.

Mind hunger is eating based on information including calories, nutrients and cost. If you’re eating is dictated by the rules of the latest fad diet or is even based on research, you’re feeding mind hunger. This kind of hunger is based on concepts and principles and usually comes along with an inner voice of “should’s” and “should not’s”. The experience of mind hunger may sound like you’re living with an inner food critic or meal manager who wants to make sure you’re doing it right. “Get the right amount of protein or your muscles will wither and don’t skip one of your 5 small meals or else your metabolism will crash.” The problem with eating based on rules is that today fats are good, but yesterday fats were bad. Eggs are the perfect protein…nope eggs are allergens. Whole-wheat is good for you because it’s high in fiber… nope, don’t eat gluten, and while you’re at it, cut out the other know allergens, soy and dairy. 

So this may be a good time to mention that none of these 7 hungers are bad or wrong. Some of these rules might actually serve you and you may enjoy indulging in the comfort in tasty food on occasion. They are all communicating something to us and as far as mindful eating is concerned, it’s only important to be aware of the hunger and respond consciously to it rather than mindlessly react. 

6. Stomach Hunger

If there were a hunger to feed with food, it would be stomach hunger.  Stomach hunger is the sensation of feeling empty and in need of sustenance.  When it comes to feeding stomach hunger, it’s a matter of finding the right amount. Remember, the stomach is the size of your fist and it takes 4 signals and about 20 minutes for the stomach to perceive fullness. However, if you’re thinking too much about those facts, you’ll start getting confused with mind hunger! 

The best way to practice mindfulness of stomach hunger is to use a hunger scale by observing physical signals from your stomach and practice rating them from 1-10 before, during and after meals. The idea is to never wait until your famished to eat and never eat until your gorged. Eating when you get to a 3-4, and stopping when you get to a 7-8.

7. Cellular Hunger

In contrast to mental hunger where we think about what we should eat, Cellular or body hunger is what we deeply know we need to eat.

This is often referred to as intuitive eating and is based on “trusting your gut”. This is a way of eating with curiosity and a beginners mind to experiment with different foods to see which resonate with your body and which don’t. Try eliminating certain foods for a while to see how you feel. Then slowly reintroduce foods like gluten, dairy, eggs, and beans during different days to feel how your body responds.  Do they give you energy or do you crash? How did they impact your mood, cravings and digestion? Ultimately, feeding cellular hunger is getting back in touch with your bodies wisdom and trusting that it will tell you what it needs.

Getting Curious About Hunger

Lots of my clients come to Mindfulness Based Health Coaching to make shifts in the way they relate to food.  They want to heal an illness, lose weight, or increase energy and vitality.  Once they become familiar with the 7 hungers, the challenge is to start cultivating greater awareness and taking new actions. Here are some of the ways you can integrate the practice of mindful eating into your life.

The next time you have a craving, reach for seconds, or find yourself standing at the refrigerator late at night, ask yourself, “am I really hungry?” Then check in with your stomach and rate it on the scale from 1-10. If it is indeed hungry, check in with cellular hunger by asking yourself, “what kind of food would be most satisfying to my body right now?”

If you’re stomach is not really hungry, then get curious about the other hungers by asking, “what part of me is hungry?” Pause long enough for an answer. If your mouth is hungry for something tasty, consciously choose to acknowledge the craving and let it go, or see if you can satisfy it with a healthy treat like frozen grapes.  If it’s the heart that is hungry, ask, “what am I really hungry for in my life?” Pause and then make a choice to have a few bites of comfort food or feed the emotional hunger with something other than food. No matter which part of you is hungry, the most important part of the practice is being able to choose your response rather than mindlessly consume.

Mindfulness Eating Practice

These are not hard rules or guidelines but simple suggestions on how to approach mealtime with more mindfulness.

  • Intention: Mindful eating starts with a conscious intention at the beginning of each meal to stay fully present to the experience of your food, one bite at a time.
  • Gratitude: Many religious traditions start meals by saying grace. If you have a formal ritual
  • Savoring: Allow yourself to get completely absorbed in your meal. Acknowledge and let go of thoughts so you can use your senses and turn up the volume on taste, smell and acknowledge the beauty of the colors and presentation of your food.
  • Awareness of Stomach: Your stomach will determine how much to eat so continue to mindfully monitor your level of fullness through out the meal.
  • Awareness of "Taste Specific Satiety": Notice and enjoy all the subtle flavors of your meal and also pay attention as the flavor diminishes.  Choose to stop eating when your food is no longer as pleasurable.

Tips to Savor

In order to get the full experience of your meal and really savor your food, it helps to slow down. Here are some tips from Mindfulness Eating teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:

  • Set your kitchen timer to 20 minutes, and take that time to eat a normal-sized meal.
  • Try eating with your non-dominant hand.
  • Use chopsticks if you don't normally use them- this will both make you focus, slow down and eat less per bite- all great for savoring.
  • Eat silently for five minutes, thinking about what it took to produce that meal, from the sun's rays to the farmer to the grocer to the cook.
  • Put down your fork and spoon between bites.
  • Drink slowly. It will also help fill you up more quickly.
  • Eating sitting down. If you adhere to this practice you will avoid grazing, snacking while preparing food or eating while standing at the refrigerator.
  • Take small bites and chew well. Flecherizeing your food was a popular practice in the early 20th Century Horace Fletcher who gave lectures on losing weight and gaining health by chewing your food. He recommended chewing your food 32 times.
  • Don’t let yourself get to be “starving” before a meal. If you are ravenous, your more likely to throw these tips out the window and engulf your entire meal in one mindless bite.

Growing Up & Waking Up

Who Am I?

It was the first morning of a weeklong meditation retreat here in San Diego in November of 2009. I was a few minutes late so had been eagerly scanning the room for an open chair before realizing one of the last seats was on the isle next to where I was standing. Soon after I sat down, the teacher began to guide us into the first practice.

“Turn to the person next to you and ask their name and where they live. Ask about what they do for work, the car they drive, their favorite food, favorite color and hobbies.” What followed was a common conversation alike to so many I’d had at cocktail parties or networking events. We each took turns casually sharing our preferences and reporting on the superficial facts of our lives. There was a feeling of safety and stability in the exchange.

“What you just shared is not really you”, said the teacher. “Now tell the other about your hopes, dreams and losses”. At first there was hesitation but eventually, one at a time we revealed our stories of where we’d been and where we’d like to go. This was still relatively comfortable but took a bit more vulnerability and had the energy of a first date.

“The stories you just shared are not you”, the teacher said once again in a kind but matter of fact tone. “Now take the other persons hands and stare silently into their eyes until I ring the bell.” This went on for what felt like an eternity. I experienced a range of quickly changing thoughts and emotions from moment to moment.  First there was a layer of self conscious thoughts, “what is she thinking of me?” “Did I brush my teeth?” “I hope I’m not making her uncomfortable”.  Then there was a sense of gratitude, “Lucky choice of seats, I could be gazing into the eyes of an old dude right now. She is pretty cute.” There was also a growing sense of curiosity: “who is this woman?” I began to see a depth to her that I hadn’t noticed in our conversation. “This is someone’s daughter and best friend”. Her presence communicated a certain kind of wisdom and a strength that transcended the need for words. There were also fleeting periods where thought seemed to completely subside into a pure sense of spacious awareness. From this place of presence arose a kind of recognition; a vaguely familiar sense of connection, intimacy and unity.

“This is who you really are,” the teacher finally declared.

This spacious presence of who we really are didn’t last long before the onslaught of “single male-self” thoughts rushed in one after the other. “Am I feeling a spark here? Hmm, I might be able to get a date out of this!” “Hey this retreat is about to get interesting!” And it did get interesting. Lisa and I got married about a year and a half later.

Philosophy, psychology, anthropology and every spiritual tradition throughout time has weighed in on the perennial question, “who are we?” People go on meditation retreats or hire a life coach for all sorts of external reasons but at our core, we’re all asking this very same question. “Who am I, really?”

Growing Up vs. Waking Up

“You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fu@#ing khakis.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Psychology has tackled this question of the “self” by slicing and dicing our identity into neatly packaged parts including Freud’s ego, id, and superego; Jung’s animus, anima, shadow, and persona; Roberto Assagioli’s multiple subpersonalities… and many more. There are dozens of assessments that will tell you exactly who you are -as defined by your personality type, archetype, temperament, style, attitude and character traits. Some of these assessments like the Eneagram and the Values In Action (VIA) Strengths Assessment can be valuable resources for self- discovery.

It’s important to point out that when exploring who we really are, there is a bit of contrast between the conclusion western psychology reached and the Buddhist approach from which contemporary mindfulness is derived. These traditions hold that mindfulness practices evolved as tools not as a means to become a better version of our self, but for deconstructing our usual view of ourselves and the world. Mindfulness practice is for waking up from conventional, socially reinforced fictions about who we are and how to find happiness. It’s about liberation from conditioning, from the past, from ego and from the fixation on self.

In developing the Mindfulness Based Coaching Model I’ve leaned on experience with both coaching psychology and mindfulness practice to help my clients know who they are from both a "relative" and "absolute" perspective. On the relative level of ordinary everyday life, we can make a simple distinction between the “Healthy Ego” and “Unhealthy Ego” which coaching psychology also refer to as “Best Self” and the “Inner Critic”.

The conventional goal of coaching is to support clients in bolstering and fortifying the Healthy Ego while overcoming the challenges of the Unhealthy Ego. This process is important for developing greater self-confidence, living a healthy lifestyle and improving performance as well as overcoming limiting beliefs and harmful habits. But these “Self Improvement” and “Self Management” strategies are not the end game for my long-standing coaching clients. Sitting in meditation eventually reveals that these relative selves we’re trying to improve and manage aren’t so solid or stable and identification with even their Best Self may be contributing to their stress and ultimately limiting their freedom.

Buddhist Psychotherapist, John Welwood refers to these two different tracks of human development as “growing up” and “waking up”, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. “We are not just humans learning to become Buddhas, but also Buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.”

There is much that western psychology and coaching can offer to the mindfulness traditions. John Welwood talks in great length about “Spiritual Bypassing” which he sees as a widespread tendency, especially in Buddhist and Yoga communities, “to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

And of course there is much that mindfulness can offer to deepen traditional therapy or coaching practices. Mark Epstein, another Buddhist Psychotherapist and author of the book, “Thoughts Without a Thinker” regards the realization of “anatta”, or Pali for “no-self”, which is achieved via mindfulness meditation -- to be the crowning contribution of Buddhism to psychotherapy. He says, “when the self is seen to be nonexistent, the human being is freed from narcissistic concerns, which are the source of our suffering.”

Growing Up

Growing up to your Best Self is about being true to your values and ethics. It’s about living with purpose, leveraging your strengths and acting in alignment with your hearts deepest intentions. When coming from your Best Self, there is a sense of resonance, alignment and authenticity. There is an openness to life and relationships and one can function in a way that’s beneficial to society.

As also mentioned, part of the process of becoming your Best Self includes understanding, accepting and healing all of the “other” parts of your self. I’ve already written a blog that covers “The Inner Critical Coach” and “Inner Compassionate Coach” in some depth here.

Here are some of the practices I have my clients do to get familiar with their Best Self:

Peak Experience: I sometimes have my clients recollect a “peak experience”, a time in their past where they felt in the “flow” or were performing at the top of their game. You can even try it now, or come back to it later. Whenever you’re ready, close your eyes and think back to a peak experience. See if you can really go there in your mind --feeling into this experience and feeling it into your heart. When you’re ready, write about this peak experience in as much detail as you can remember. Who were you with? What was your physical environment like? What were you doing a lot of? But most importantly, who were you being? What strengths were you using regularly? What kind of thoughts, emotions and body sensations were present?

The point of the exercise is not about feeding some perfect, idealistic, fantasy version of ourselves or trying to recreate the past but instead, it’s about mining the past for information that might be helpful.

Reflected Best Self: Another way to compose a portrait of your Best Self is to look at your reflection through the eyes of others. This exercise draws on the perceptions of significant others who have unique and valuable insights into the ways you add value and make contribution. The first step to this exercise is to identify a diverse group of 5-10 people who know you well and who would give you honest feedback. These may be colleagues, friends, family members, customers, peers or anyone who has had extended contact with you. The next step is to write an email with a specific request to your respondents asking them to share three stories they recall where you were being your Best Self. Finally the feedback is collected and sifted through for key insights and commonalities across the responses.

Projected Best Self: Often it’s difficult to see your own latent qualities when you look at yourself but it’s easier to see them projected onto others. You can get some clues about your own Best Self by looking at other people who have the traits you respect and admire. Coaching clients are encouraged to think about a role model, a mentor or someone who inspires them. Then we process what specific characteristics and ways of being are most attractive in this person. Most likely these are potential qualities that are held within you.

After clarification of the Best Self through assessment or any of these inquiries above, the next step is for clients to integrate and actually start taking these new understandings of their potential into their life. I’ve partially covered this in another blog “Mindful Use of Strengths” here.

Waking Up

“The brain is like an orchestra without a conductor.” Wolf Singer, Neuroscientist

Understanding and working with this psychological self is the main focus of work in both therapy and coaching. It’s what John Welwood calls “horizontal work” and it forms the foundation for the next level of human development, which is about liberation from the self. Mindfulness practice is what Welwood calls “vertical work”. It’s more like cutting through any state of mind to the essence. In Buddhist terms our essence might be called emptiness, limitlessness, pure awareness or a non-dual awareness. It’s also sometimes referred to as “Buddha mind, Buddha nature”.

This is not an abstract Buddhist concept to believe in, but something that can be directly experienced right now. If you pause for a moment and turn consciousness upon itself as we do in meditation, you will discover soon enough that your mind tends to wander into thought. If you look closely at thoughts themselves, you will notice that they’re continually arising, changing and fading away. But if you were to look for the thinker of these thoughts, the self, you won’t find one. The feeling that we call “I”— the sense of being a subject inside the body — is what it feels like to be thinking without knowing that you are thinking. As meditation deepens, you can begin noticing what consciousness is like in the gap between thoughts. The experience of observing or witnessing as consciousness does not feel like being a subjective self or an “I”, but something more spacious and vast.

And the sense that you might have in this moment — “What are you talking about? What do you mean I don’t have a self? Of course I do, I’m right here!”— is just another thought, arising in consciousness.

What we see through mindfulness practice is that creating a sense of self, healthy or unhealthy is actually an impersonal process constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and factors. We begin to see that this concept of a “central me” at the core of our experience, is actually an ever changing encounter with sensations, perceptions and intentions. Who we are starts to feel more like consciousness experiencing a constellation of tendencies and behaviors, conditioned by believed thoughts, accumulated through past education and experiences.

Being No Self

Ok, so what if the self as we know it is an illusion… “who” cares? Good question. It doesn’t take much convincing for the ego to sign up for being a Best Self, but why would anyone sit through hours and years of mediation to see this cherished self as an illusion?

“The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self” – Sam Harris, Waking Up

Non attachment

According to the mindfulness traditions, attachment to the concept of the self --even your Best Self is the root of our suffering. It follows that if I’m completely identified with being Pete the wise and helpful coach, compassionate friend, committed husband, and fitness buff, what happens when my clients don’t make progress, I forget someone’s birthday, snap at my wife or strain my back? I’ll suffer.

Eventually the roles we love playing come to an end. This is common in high-ranking officials, big shot CEO’s and pro athletes when they retire. Going from an identity of greatness to normal is a hard fall. Losing their sense of importance, they’re prone to depression. But this isn’t limited to stars. Parents who’s kids grow up and move out can suffer from “empty nest” which is a real loss of identity with their role as a good mom or dad. And the hard truth is that we all lose everything, eventually.

So does this mean not to invest in building skills, going to the gym, honing your character and performing at your very best? No. It just means don’t be attached, because as my wife and I were told at the meditation retreat, “that’s not really you.”

Compassion

“Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and everything you do, is for your self. And there isn’t one.” -Wei Wu Wei

By knowing that our own sense of self is constructed via an ever-changing experience of the five senses, narrated by conditioned thoughts, it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails. It explains why humans behave the way we do. Rather than judging someone when they behave unskillfully, we can see that they’re simply reacting to fear. Although we may not like how they’re being, there is an understanding that they’re doing the best they can, given their conditioning and their life circumstances.

To the extent that we can witness both the saint and sinner in ourselves, we’re better able to accept others, warts and all. Our judgments about good and bad, right and wrong tend to lighten, and we can more readily feel compassion toward ourselves and other people when we act in less-than-noble ways.

Sense of Humor

"Happiness consists in realizing it is all a great strange dream."                     - Jack Kerouac

To re-gain perspective when I’m taking myself too seriously, I look up at the stars at night and try to wrap my extremely limited mind around the experience of being on a rather smallish rock, circling a big ball of fire, hurling through infinite space. Then I recall that our fire ball is one of 100 thousand million other fire balls in the Milky Way alone, which in turn is only one of about the same number of galaxies in this thing we call the universe.

Most of the seven billion other little people with whom I share this smallish rock, passionately disagree on where we really came from and where we go when we die. We all have our own cherished beliefs and theories, but ultimately those too are just conditioned thoughts arising in consciousness. As I look out at the stars, my oh so important to-do list starts to not look so daunting or urgent and eventually fades into the mystery of being.

What will become of my to-do lists, my triumphs and failures after I die? Even if I leave a legacy, in a several thousand years, the earth will likely be covered in water and too hot for humans to survive! I actually don’t find any of this morbid at all- in fact, I find this practice of being insignificant rather freeing.

From this perspective, I can watch all of my habits of planning and striving, primping and decorating, trying to impress others, and attempting to control life --and find it all absolutely hilarious! And does this mean I’m going to stop doing all these quirky, human things? Probably not. It means I can keep doing them if I choose, with a sense of lightness and humor. 

“Relax, nothing is under control”

Being Awareness Practice

Waking up to your true nature can be experienced by anyone in this very moment. However for most, fully realizing and continuously living this understanding from moment to moment, in everyday life is a gradual process that comes with dedicated practice over a long period of time.

A relatively simple way to recollect this practice is R.A.I.N:

  • Recognize what is really happening in any moment
  • Allow everything to be just as it is with the perspective of acceptance and lightness
  • Investigate the inner experience of thoughts and emotions with kindness and curiosity
  • Non-identify with thoughts and emotions. Rest in the natural state of awareness knowing that these thoughts and emotions are here right now, but they're not "me" or "mine". Feel into the vast spaciousness in which all of this arises. “That is who you really are."

Follow the links if you'd like to grow up and wake up by engaging in Life Coaching or an 8 week Mindfulness Course.

Mindfulness Performance Enhancing Drugs- Part 2

History of Psychedelics & Meditation

“Sacred medicine is a part of spiritual paths on every continent. In spiritual communities, we need an honest exploration of this delicate and sometimes taboo topic. Let us approach the use of these drugs consciously. In my view, whatever leads to opening the heart and mind and letting go is beneficial.”                            –Jack Kornfield, Dharma Teacher, Spirit Rock

The use of psychedelics in meditation communities has a long and controversial history and much has already been written on the subject chronicling the co-arising of meditation, yoga and psychedelics during the wild and experimental hippy movement of the 60s and 70s. Of the first wave of traditional Asian teachers to come to the west, Trungpa Rinpoche, founder Shambala and Suzuki Roshi, founder of The San Francisco Zen Center were tolerant and even expressed that the psychedelic experience could have value. Others were not as open.

Regardless, there is no denying the significant impact that psychedelics had on many of the most well know first-generation western mindfulness teachers of today including, Lama Surya Das, Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield and Stephen Batchelor. And whether it’s discussed openly or not, it seems the majority of mindfulness practitioners have at least sampled the medicine at some point along their path. According to a poll conducted by a major Buddhist magazine "Tricycle", 83% of the 1,454 respondents had some firsthand experience with psychedelics.

Recently major universities have started reopening their doors to researching the potential benefits of psychedelics for the first time since 1968.  Studies are currently under way at N.Y.U, Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich, using “psychedelic therapy” to treat a host of conditions including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and “existential distress” in hospice patients.

The Science of Psychedelics & Meditation

Although the science of both psychedelics and meditation are still in their infancy, the new research seems to only validate what shamans have been practicing for centuries and many meditation teachers and students have been experiencing for decades. 

Decreased cerebral blood flow (CBF) after psilocybin imaged by fMRI

Decreased cerebral blood flow (CBF) after psilocybin imaged by fMRI

Neuroscientists at N.Y.U have recently studied the effects of psilocybin from “magic mushrooms” on the brain activity of healthy, thoroughly screened participants. Through functional brain imaging, they found that psilocybin caused changes in activity across the entire cerebral cortex but were especially pronounced in areas of the cerebral cortex that make up the “default-mode network”. The default-mode network is a group of brain areas that are most active when we are not engaged in doing tasks. This region is thought to be important for aspects of cognition such as introspection, mind wandering, and self-referential thought. It’s said to be the brain’s “orchestra conductor” or “corporate executive”, charged with managing and “holding the entire system together.” It is also thought to be the physical counterpart of the autobiographical self, or ego.

What the studies found was that psilocybin significantly decreased activity in default-mode areas like the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is an area that, when overactive, is linked with rumination, obsessive thinking and depression. 

"This is your brain on drugs, any questions?" -Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1987

As students of mPEAK and MBSR know, these default-mode areas are the same regions that become less active during meditation according to mindfulness meditation research by Jud Brewer of Yale. With less of their own ego stories, thoughts and fears in the way, participants of mPEAK are able to more easily access a state of presence, flow, creativity and focus. But performing better is really just a fraction of what is available when the default mode network really starts to quite down. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, begin to dissolve. These are the hallmarks of satori or the classic mystical experience.

In both studies of advanced meditators and those using psychedelics, participants use similar language to describe their experiences. These include a sense of depersonalization (less me, me, me), frequently verbalized in terms of “ego dissolution,” “boundlessness,” or that all things are intimately connected as “one”.

To test this further, Rolland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine did a study of thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken psychedelics. They each received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (Ritalin). When administered under supportive conditions, his paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences using the "Hood Mysticism Scale" as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.

A Question of Ethics

The recent scientific findings and shifting cultural perspective on psychedelics brings up important points of consideration for mindfulness practitioners. Should intentional use of psychedelics be used as an integrative part of a mindfulness practice? Or are these just “drugs” that are unethical, cheating or even dangerous? If one does choose to explore, what are the safest and best practices to bring forth the greatest benefits?

Although people now come to mindfulness practice from many different spiritual beliefs and backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists, most comfortably recognize that the original experts on this capacity of heart/mind are the Buddhists. Along with lengthy instructions on mindfulness meditation, the Buddha laid out a code of ethics, known as the five precepts. The last precept is to “refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness”. It doesn’t say not to use them, which makes the wording of this precept interesting and open to broader interpretation. Ultimately it is left up to the individuals own moral compass, as are all of the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.

The main ethical questions to contemplate, according to Zen Priest Kokyo Henkel are: "Does psychedelic use lead to harming others? Does it lead to carelessness, heedlessness or loss of awareness? Do we start disrespecting others through having altered our mind in this way?" So really it all comes back to the first precept of non-harming. No harm, no foul. But are they beneficial? 

When asked his perspective on using psychedelics as part of mindfulness practice, teacher Jack Kornfield answered, “So, yes, LSD, mushrooms, ecstasy, or ayahuasca can bring healing and can grant us access to visionary and mystical realms, realms of tremendous, transcendent understanding. They can bring a perception of unity, the reality of our connection with everything. Any methods that open the heart in this way and show us that we are not separate, that touch the realms of universal loving, kindness, and compassion, can be valuable.” The last sentence is worth re-reading.

An Inspiration for Mindfulness Practice

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to it's old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Psychedelics have been the seed of insight, a right of passage and the initial inspiration to practice for many modern day meditation teachers. The spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra and the “mindfulness atheist”, Sam Harris come from very different spiritual ideations but both say their first “spiritual experience” was on psychedelics. Would we still have the many books, lectures and courses of these wise teachers if they hadn’t used psychedelics?

In a series of interviews by Roger Walsh M.D. people reported that their psychedelic experiences had resulted in “an increased interest in depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and consciousness, as well as related disciplines and practices such as meditation.” Kokyo Henkel a Zen Buddhist priest for 18 years in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, said that psychedelic experiences created a significant condition for giving his whole life over to Buddhist practice.

Although the tour into these deeper states of being is temporary, psychedelics are able to demonstrate what is possible. However only long term, committed practice will show you the way back. Andrew Weil, medical doctor and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine as well as the owner of True Foods Kitchen used a personal anecdote to highlight just this aspect of psychedelics. In an interview, he recounted a past frustration with an extremely difficulty yoga pose. Having worked on it for two months with little progress, he was close to giving up on his attempts altogether. Then one day after taking LSD with some friends, he noted feeling very happy and like his body was elastic.  He decided to try the difficult pose and to his amazement, he was able to enter into the pose without any of the discomfort he had previously experienced.

The following day, he tried the same pose again, but was unable. The pain was back, but his mindset had changed. He had seen that his body had the potential to do it, and that gave him the motivation to continue practicing. The LSD had shown him what was possible, but had not given him easy access to get there again — that would require his own effort and discipline.

Even though many mindfulness professionals will be quick to point out that in a true practice, "there's no place to get", the psychedelic experience can inspire or strengthen a commitment to meditation. Taking up a meditative practice requires a certain trust in the existence of mind states one has not yet experienced, including the understanding that "there's no place to get". But a psychedelic session in which one experiences a state of one-pointed focus, equanimity, compassion or even the power of centering one’s attention on the breath can have the same effect that doing yoga on LSD did for Dr. Weil. It temporarily demonstrates what is possible, and can be motivating to continue doing the real work long after the the session.

No Free Rides

"There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane." –Sam Harris

The psychedelic experience is not always love and light and some of the deepest "opportunities" can actually come during what some might consider a “bad trip”. The Ayahuasca Ceremony is popularly compared to being like "seven years of therapy”. This traditional Peruvian Shamanic psychedelic intentionally causes many to purge and voluntarily face their “inner demons”.

This deeply uncomfortable, yet oh so rewarding shadow work can also be looked at through the lens of neuroscience.  N.Y.U neuroscientist Carhart-Harris has found evidence in scans of brain waves that, when the default-mode network shuts down, other brain regions “are let off the leash.” Mental contents such as memories, repressed emotions along with subconscious hopes and fears that are normally hidden can come to the surface. Regions of the brain that don’t ordinarily communicate directly with one another strike up conversations or “crosstalk”, with often “bizarre results”.

It is during these moments of suffering that mindfulness practice can help make the psychedelic experience easier to navigate. As Zen Priest Vanja Palmers comments in an article for MAPS (Multi Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), “It is quite obvious that skills in meditation, the practice of being at peace within one’s body and mind, even in uncomfortable places, can be of great help in the course of a psychedelic session.” Learning to focus on one’s breath as an anchor to return to the present can also be of assistance. In a psychedelic session, having these skills in your toolkit can be the difference between losing your ground when challenging material arises, and being able to remain present and receive the experience in its full intensity and richness.

N.Y.U’s Psychedelic Therapists are trained to point participants deeper into their experience with curiosity and kindness. “If you feel like you’re dying, melting, dissolving, exploding, going crazy etc.—go ahead, embrace it.” And if you confront anything frightening, “look the monster in the eye and move towards it... Dig in your heels; ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’ Look for the darkest corner in the basement, and shine your light there.” This mindful facilitation may help explain why some of the dark and scary experiences that sometimes accompany the recreational use of psychedelics have not surfaced after nearly five hundred guided sessions at N.Y.U.

It is this practice of meeting difficult experience with openness and acceptance that also helps explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated. They had looked death in the eye and come to know something about it, in a kind of dry run. “A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice,” Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins psychologist, said. “You’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying.” And yet you don’t die; in fact, some volunteers become convinced by the experience that consciousness may somehow survive the death of their bodies.

Mindful Use of Psychedelics

When Zen Master Soeng Sahn was asked what he thought about using drugs to help in the quest for self knowledge he said: "Yes, there are special medicines, which, if taken with the proper attitude, can facilitate self-realization." Then he added: "But if you have the proper attitude, you can take anything - take a walk, or a bath."

Psychedelics are not for everyone. Some will find there way through living an ethical life, practicing meditation and yoga and won't feel the need. Most will flat out never consider the experience an option. But there are others who may just be wired for a certain kind of adventure. For those curious, eccentric, edge-pushing psychonauts, here are a few specific ways to stay safe and benefit the most from your journeys:

Work With a Guide

All of the reported therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psychedelics come from studies combining a substance with guidance from a specially trained therapist. Besides the rare exceptions of those who are chosen for a research study, travel to South America, or happen to know a local modern day shaman, millions of people each year will go outside the context of supervision and explore these unfamiliar terrains on their own. For these poeople, MAPS offers free training manuals on psychedelic harm reduction for how to be a guide or “sitter” for a friend as well as how to hold space for them through difficult experiences.

Mind Set

Subjects in all psychedelic studies are extensively screened and prepare with their therapists often for months before their session. When preparations are being made for any personal journey of this sort, the importance of “set and setting” should be strongly taken into account. “Set” refers to ones “mindset” where “setting” refers to the physical environment.  Both will significantly impact the experience. Anchoring into a mindset of trust, acceptance and letting go will be of greatest benefit throughout the journey. To trust that you’re safe and you’re going to be OK, no matter what you experience. To accept and say, “yes” to whatever arises in your experience and to let go of the need to resist or control the experience. Setting a specific intention ahead of time can also help to focus your mindset during the psychedelic experience.

Setting

Many recreational users take psychedelics at concerts, festivals and parties. These environments will not likely create conducive conditions for a deep experience of healing and transformation. The setting should ideally feel ceremonial, perhaps in a comfortable room of one’s home or even out in nature. Incense, flowers, pre-selected music and the use of eyeshades can all help support a rich inner journey.

Right Medicine

When taken mindfully, psychedelics are not a party drug to get high, but rather a medicine or sacrament taken to explore and expand consciousness. There are many different types of psychedelics with varying degrees intensity. Do your homework first and choose the medicine wisely. Also, start off with a small dose. You can always choose to take more… but once you’ve started, you can’t go back and choose to take less.

Integration

Religious scholar, Huston Smith points out, “A spiritual experience does not by itself make a spiritual life.” There is an important distinction between a temporary “state of consciousness” (waking, dreaming, deep sleep, as well as peak states such as flow, insight, creativity etc.) and the more stable “stage of consciousness”. The stage refers to ones level of development, which slowly progresses through a lifetime. Psychedelics cause a guaranteed and automatic “state” of consciousness shift, but it takes real work over months and years to integrate insights or lessons before evolving to the next “stage”.  Journal writing, meditation or working with a professional therapist, coach or shaman can help extract the gems from your experience and assimilate them into your life…which is the entire point.

More on Buddhism & Psychedelics: 

http://hopkinsmeditation.com

Mindfulness Performance Enhancing Drugs?

As fast as mindfulness meditation is gaining traction in the mainstream, I still highly doubt it will end up being an Olympic sport with anti doping regulations anytime soon. But as new populations are seeking out courses like mPEAK for the performance enhancing benefits of mindfulness, I’m being asked more and more about supplements that might work synergistically with a mindfulness meditation practice to reduce stress and promote states of calm, creatively and flow.

“You can’t learn to swim when you’re drowning”

Beginning a meditation practice can be a fragile procedure. Unwanted thoughts can get louder and emotions that have been repressed can start coming to the surface. By the time my clients hire me as their coach, they're often already in a state of burnout: they're working too many hours and not sleeping enough, they're eating poorly and overusing caffeine to wake up and alcohol to calm down. Some clients are in the middle of a major life transition when they try meditation for the first time. In this state, it can be nearly impossible to relax for even a few breaths. “I want less stress, not more! This present moment sucks, why would I ever just sit here with this?” They complain that the practice can feel like it takes forever to start “seeing results” and some lose hope and abandon it altogether without ever experiencing a real moment of peace.  However, if they can get over this initial hump and taste a few moments of true ease, it can generate enough momentum to keep them going. So part of my role as their coach is to meet them where they’re at and help create conducive conditions, both internally and externally, to stabilize their practice. One powerful tool that can be used to stack the decks in their favor are "mindfulness performance enhancing supplements".

Kava- The Drink of Peace

Imagine gulping down a vente coffee and then trying to sit completely still and do nothing for thirty minutes. Caffeine is a substance that positively impacts performance during work related tasks and gives an edge in sports that requiring energy and endurance. But this same supplement would cause only agitation if taken before meditating- trust me. That is because caffeine is a central nervous system and metabolic stimulant that increases neural activity in the brain, which leads to a temporary increase in mental alertness and thought processing. Not exactly the state of mental calm you’re trying to reach during a meditation.

Kava on the other hand may be the drug of choice for a consistent peaceful experience during meditation and is one of my personal favorites for evening practice. Kava is an anxiolytic and is primarily consumed to relax muscles without disrupting mental clarity or slowing down reaction time. On islands like Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, and the Samoas, where Kava grows, the earthy tasting drink has been used for centuries both ceremonially and socially. Kavalactones are the active chemical ingredients of the kava root and research shows that they can affect brain chemistry in ways similar to prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Drinking Kava before meditation encourages a deep and pleasant practice, offering a beginner (or the occasionally lazy practitioner) the experience of peace that can be found usually only after years of meditation.

Kava is prepared in tinctures, teas, and also comes in pill and powder forms. My preference is the traditional extraction with ground kava root, water and a cheese cloth but it can also be found from reputable sources as an extract that can be mixed with juice or coconut water. Although there is some disagreement about kava’s effects on the liver, if it is prepared correctly it has shown to be safe when consumed in moderation.

Adaptogenic Herbs

Adaptogens are a unique group of herbal supplements used to improve the function of your adrenal system, which is in charge of managing your body’s hormonal response to stress. They help promote homeostasis by strengthening the body’s cellular sensitivity to stress and enhance its ability to cope with anxiety and burnout. They’re called adaptogens because of their unique ability to “adapt” their function according to your body’s specific needs.

Have you ever found yourself wide-awake at 3am with a racing heart?  When you’re chronically stressed or exhausted this causes the fatigued adrenal glands to squirt cortisol at times that are out of balance with your circadian rhythms, causing cortisol levels to spike in the middle of the night and then crash during the day when you need your energy the most. Adaptogens help heal adrenal fatigue and can get your cortisol back in rhythm when you’re compromised, by raising or lowering cortisol as needed.

Although they have only become popular in holistic health circles over the last decade or so, these same herbs have been used in Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, to boost energy and resilience in the face of stress. Here is a list of some popular adaptogens that I've researched and personally experimented with during stressful times:

Rhodiola Rosea is a Traditional Chinese Medicine and Scandinavian herb touted to increase attention span and promote physical and cognitive vitality. It appears to be proven for reducing fatigue, irritability and exhaustion in prolonged stressful situations. This herb helps the body adapt to stress by affecting the levels and activity of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters found in different structures in the brain and influencing the central nervous system. It appears that rhodiola inhibits the breakdown of these chemicals and facilitates the neurotransmitter transport within the brain. In addition to its impact on the central nervous system, rhodiola can increase the chemicals that provide energy to the muscle of the heart and prevent the depletion of adrenal hormones induced by acute stress.

Bacopa Monnieri is an important medicinal herb used in Ayurveda, where it is also known as "Brahmi," after Brahmā, the creator God of the Hindu pantheon. Bacopa Monnieri is a Nootropic herb that has been used for longevity and cognitive enhancement. Supplementation can reduce anxiety and improve memory formation. Bacopa monnieri interacts with the dopamine and serotonergic systems, but its main mechanism concerns promoting neuron communication. It does this by enhancing the rate at which the nervous system can communicate by increasing the growth of nerve endings, also called dendrites.

Ashwagandha, one of the most powerful Ayurvedic herbs, means “the smell of a horse,” indicating that the herb imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion, and has traditionally been prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness. It is now popularly supplemented primarily for its ability to prevent anxiety but has also shown promise for relieving insomnia and stress-induced depression. Ashwagandha can significantly reduce cortisol concentrations and the immunosuppressive effect of stress. Beyond reducing stress levels, ashwagandha can improve physical performance in both sedentary people and athletes, as well as reduce Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Ashwagandha can improve the formation of memories, and may be able to treat Alzheimer’s disease, though more human evidence is needed. 

Amino Acid Chill Pills

Phosphatidylserine (PS) is an amino acid derivative compound that is fat-soluble and found in high amounts in the brain, where it contributes to cognitive functioning. This supplement works on the human body in three ways: by stimulating overall brain metabolism and by regenerating and restoring damaged nerve networks. It spurs the production and release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood and the perception of pleasure and pain. PS has also been found to blunt the effects of physical stress by decreasing blood levels of ACTH and cortisol as well as two other stress hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine.

L-Theanine is a nondietary amino acid found in Green Tea. The properties of L-theanine can be summed up as being a relaxing agent without sedation and is also implicated in reducing the perception of stress and slightly improving attention. L-theanine has shown to promote relaxation by increasing alpha brain waves and decreasing beta brain waves. Alpha brain waves are associated with a meditative, relaxed, yet alert and focused brain activity. Beta brain waves, on the other hand, are markers of a more excited and non-focused state.

5-HTP is a form of the amino acid tryptophan which gets converted into serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the principal neurotransmitters involved in happiness and anti-depression and also regulates sleep and raises pain threshold. 5-HTP has been used with success to restore serotonin levels in those that may suffer from decreased serotonin levels, such as the depressed and those with high levels of body inflammation.

Use Mindfully

Unlike Kava where a pleasant, relaxing intoxication may be felt immediately after consumption, the effects of adaptogenic herbs and Amino Acids may initially be subtle and accumulate over time. The benefits are revealed as the over taxed adrenal glands eventually heal and the bodies chemistry rebalances. Some people feel a real and undeniable shift after a few weeks and others never notice how much the adaptogens were helping until they stop taking them.

All of these supplements have been well researched and are readily available at health food stores or online vitamin shops. As with all supplements, they will not do all the hard work for you. Supplements are only additional support for your practice similar to using guided audio meditation recordings rather than silence or choosing a comfortable chair rather than a cushion to ease tension in the back. To create a long lasting shift in your relationship to stress, supplements must be taken in conjunction with a healthy diet and a regular meditation practice