Monthly Archives: November 2014

Harvard MRI Study Proving Meditation Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks

Harvard Medical study on the benefits of Mindfulness


Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds The Brain’s Gray Matter In 8 Weeks

BY • NOVEMBER 19, 2014 •

Test subjects taking part in an 8-week program of mindfulness meditation showed results that astonished even the most experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University.  The study was led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s gray matter.  “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Sue McGreevey of MGH writes: “Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.”  Until now, that is.  The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  McGreevey adds: “Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. 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, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. You can read more about the remarkable study by visiting

Irish Times Article: Mindfulness and rumination

Irish Times Mindfulness and Rumination Article 
Padraig O’Morain
Irish Times Life & Style Health & Family
Tue, Nov 4, 2014, 01:00

Sitting in a traffic jam the other day I glanced at the car to the right. The driver was hunched over the steering wheel as if he were speeding along. He wasn’t actually going anywhere, but his posture said otherwise.
It seems reasonable to assume that the hold-up threatened to make him late for some important appointment. As I watched discreetly, he began to talk to himself. Then the god of traffic jams went off to annoy somebody else in some other city and we got going again.
The tension in that man’s face stayed with me, though, because this little scene illustrated how the components of a stress reaction can work together to make an experience worse than it needs to be.
I think of a stress reaction as having three components. First there’s a physical reaction, which was pretty obvious in this man’s case. Next is the emotional reaction, which is usually connected with fear or anxiety. The third reaction is rumination. In other words, we recycle the same thoughts and stories about the situation again and again.
So our driver might have been recirculating images of the disapproval with which he might expect to be greeted by whoever he was going to see; or he could have been going over and over the negative consequences of being late.
These three components amplify each other in a vicious circle. If you can drop, or significantly reduce, the intensity of one of them, then you get to reduce your overall stress level.
Now, if you tell people who are highly stressed that they should relax they will want to hit you, so that really isn’t going to do a lot of good. Similarly, you cannot tell people to stop feeling anxiety because we have little direct control over our feelings.
The biggest intervention we can make is to cut out rumination. But how? Here are a few ways.

First, recognise that rumination is harmful. It is not the same thing as calmly analysing a situation and working out what, if anything, you can do next.
It’s going over and over the same distressing and scary thoughts and images again and again, and it’s associated with depression as well as stress.
Simply recognising and believing that rumination is bad for you is a huge step towards stepping out of it whenever you find yourself doing it.
A second way to get out of rumination is to turn your attention to absorbing, unstressful activities.
Walking, running, going to the gym, cleaning the house, reading a book or newspaper or cooking a meal can all take you out of your ruminating mind and into a positive and pleasant engagement with the present.
The third way to come out of rumination is to get into contact with your present-moment experience. That’s probably the method that was most available to the man in the car.
But what in your present moment experience can you come back to? Awareness of breathing is one approach: just awareness, without forcing it. Another is to bring your awareness to how you feel physically – pretty tense in this case – but to do so silently, in other words without commenting on it in your head. A third way is to focus your attention on what you see or hear in your environment.
The key idea is this: if you think you have too much stress in your life, watch out for rumination.
And remember that the way to get out of rumination is to keep bringing your attention back to your present-moment experience or to get into absorbing, unstressful activities.
Absorbing activities
This approach has been tried out in schools in Canada on children with high levels of stress: the method has been to get them to engage in absorbing activities. The result has been to lower their stress levels and increase learning, because when your stress reaches a certain level your learning function switches off.
For more about the Canadian initiative, see
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited to the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email

What is There Beyond Knowing – Mary Oliver

What is there beyond knowing that keeps

calling to me? I can’t

turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same — what shall I say —

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.

~ Mary Oliver ~

(New and Selected Poems Volume Two)

Everything is Waiting for You – David Whyte

(After Derek Mahon)
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.  As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions.  To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings.  Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.  You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation.  The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last.  All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves.  Everything is waiting for you.
~ David Whyte ~
(Everything is Waiting for You)

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the Attitude of Acceptance in Mindfulness

“Acceptance is a very active process, there is nothing passive about it, it’s not passive resignation but an act of recognition that things are the way they are… Acceptance doesn’t mean we cant work to change the world, or circumstances, but it means that unless we accept things as they are, we will try to force things to be as they are not and that can create an enormous amount of difficulty”

“If we recognise the actuality of things, then we have the potential to apply wisdom to the situation and shift our own relationship to what is occurring in ways that can be profoundly healing and transformative… Without acceptance of a situation is is very difficult to know where to stand and to take a first step”

Mindfulness on the Agenda in Schools in Ireland

Irish Examiner Saturday, October 11, 2014

Just a moment: Ena Morley, Principal at St Ultan's Primary School, Cherry Orchard, Dublinpictured teaching Mindfulness classes.

Just a moment: Ena Morley, Principal at St Ultan’s Primary School, Cherry Orchard, Dublin pictured teaching Mindfulness classes.

Adults have been introduced to Mindfulness for some time, but the relaxation practice is now being taught in schools, says Helen O’Callaghan

CHILDREN in a classroom near you may not just be learning their seven times tables or their English reading — they may well be embracing the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness invites us to focus on the present moment — to bring mindful attention to our experience as it is happening right now. It’s an approach that helps us become calm and feel good about ourselves. It helps us build inner resources for dealing with daily stressors.

Teachers are training up for two reasons, says Ann Caulfield of Mayo-based Mindfulness Matters. They want to enable their pupils be aware of themselves and to problem-solve. “And they want to create a nice calmness in the classroom, helping children learn better.”

Caulfield and her colleague, Derval Dunford, have worked with a few thousand teachers nationwide since 2011, who want to bring mindfulness into their classrooms. This year, 1,500 teachers signed up for the company’s online course. Meanwhile, the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project (MISP) has trained approximately 90 teachers in Ireland and is running another course here this month.

Learning mindfulness gives children a toolkit of practices they can use whenever they need, says Claire Kelly, operations director with MISP, which has two curricula in which teachers train — paws.b is for seven to 11-year-olds, while .b (Stop, Breathe, Be!) is for older children. Set up eight years ago, MISP will have trained almost 1,000 teachers internationally by end of 2014.

Kelly says it’s clear that anxieties and difficulties facing young people have increased beyond anyone’s prediction. “Even at primary level, children are worrying about friendships, fitting in, being popular, doing well at school. They’re tested much more and are constantly comparing themselves — what they look like, how they behave, what they should be aspiring to.”

With parents caught up in rigours of the daily routine, with social media pressures for instant communication and worries about money, Kelly believes children aren’t seeing good role models at home for how to deal with stress. “Mindfulness gives skills to deal with the difficult stuff in life but also to notice the good stuff,” she says.

You don’t just do mindfulness while sitting on a cushion in a quiet room with sounds of bells ringing. Teachers are doing it in very ordinary classrooms — at the beginning of the day and at other transition points during the school-day, such as before or after break and before key events— class tests or sporting contests.

Children’s first introduction to learning mindfulness involves training their attention not to wander off — to stay in the present moment. A simple exercise, done standing up, has them focusing on their breathing, shifting attention to the lower half of their body, exploring physical sensations in ankles, feet and knees and realising how they’re centred and can do whatever lies ahead.

“If a child’s feeling upset, shifting attention to the lower half of the body helps their sympathetic nervous system calm them down emotionally,” explains Kelly.

Children are also asked to practice mindfulness at home. One exercise — mindful mouthful — has them really paying attention to what a mouthful of food tastes and feels like, in their mouth, as well as to notice any thoughts, urges or memories that come up during this process.

Research backs up mindfulness teaching for children. A US-based study of six to eight-year-old children, who took a 12-week programme of breath awareness and yoga, showed their attention and social skills improved, while test anxiety decreased. In another six-week study with anxious children, teachers reported an improvement in academic function and decrease in anxiety symptoms. And two pilot studies by UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre showed improvement in self-regulatory abilities among preschoolers and elementary schoolchildren after they’d done eight weeks of mindfulness training.

“Mindfulness enables children to know they feel out of kilter emotionally and to find a way to respond to difficult emotions,” says Ann Caulfield.

Children may be small but the chaos and busyness of their lives is big — it’s good to know we can do something to help them find their inner oasis of calm.


ENA MORLEY, principal of St Ultan’s Primary School, Dublin, trained earlier this year with British-based MISP. She immediately introduced mindfulness to fourth class pupils and is now doing it with fifth class.

“As a teacher calling the roll in the morning, children would answer ‘anseo’ — ‘here’ — and I’d wonder with some of them if they were present in spirit.

“In the school environment you can easily get sucked into ‘let’s get onto the next thing’.

“I felt it would be good if there was a time in the week when children could stop, breathe and be, when they could be present for themselves. It would be a check-in for their body — how am I in my body today? Are my mind, emotions and heart in tune or are they all disconnected?

“I was really delighted with how receptive the children were to the paws.b programme. It easily links into the SPHE (Social, Personal & Health Education) weekly lesson. I do 12 half-hour mindfulness sessions with 25 children in one of the fifth class groups.

“I introduce them to the idea of training their ‘puppy’ mind — that their mind is like a puppy, jumping all over the place.

“Another exercise I do is to ask them to stand up. They shift their weight from heel to toe until their heel lifts up. They come back onto their heels and then slowly shift their weight from the right foot to the left. I then ask them to take their weight completely on one foot and see if they wobble.

“This helps them explore the idea of grounding ourselves when we wobble. Sometimes our bodies wobble and so our minds wobble too with thoughts and anxieties. It could be worries about tests or losing a match.

“Doing this helps them become more alert to the signs in their body that they’re anxious.

“I’ve seen children able to use mindfulness in the playground. When they see a child annoyed, they tell them to stop and take deep breaths. When you ask how they reacted to a disagreement in the playground, they say ‘I took my deep breaths’. It becomes their default mechanism to take deep breaths and calm themselves.”


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It was May before my
attention came
to spring and
my word I said
to the southern slopes
missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:
don’t worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if
you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain
it’s not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone
~ A. R. Ammons ~