when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
~ Ellen Bass
Ryan helped introduce a bill that would support bringing integrative health to Veterans Affairs and mindfulness techniques into the military as part of basic training, making members of the military "more proficient in how to deal with trauma"—a concept investigated recently by research on Marines and mindfulness.
"It's really important to be able to come back to the present moment. This is where change can happen. This is not just adaptive capacity for individuals, but it resonates out to collective adaptive capacity: more resilient organizations, more resilient communities, more dynamic, flexible institutions. These are the capcities that can face any possible future. We don't have to be able to predict, because we can't. Humans can't. But then we can really show up and meet any experience."
Excerpt from "Meditation Fit for a Marine," by Vanessa Gregory, Men's Journal, Nov. 11, 2010:
[A 2008 research study, partly funded by the Department of Defense, tested a group of] Marines for something called “working memory capacity,” a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.
The results of the Marines’ experiences, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion, showed that the men who embraced meditation walked out of pre-deployment training with minds that were more agile than those who didn’t. They also reported improved athletic performance, relief from anxiety, better sleep, and stronger memory. “I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,” says Major Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old infantry officer. “I had no problem concentrating when I was upset.”
Meditation, of course, has made headlines for years for a range of health benefits, from reducing symptoms of depression to lowering blood pressure and speeding healing. One UCLA study found that meditation slows the progression of HIV by reducing stress that hurts immune function. But many of those studies involved experienced practitioners; some of these Marines had never meditated before but still made mental strides, suggesting the practice is more accessible to first-timers and faster-acting than commonly thought.
The Marines engaged in a form of secular meditation called mindfulness, which is characterized by paying attention to the present. A beginner exercise, for example, involved concentrating on an area of contact between the body and whatever it’s touching, like a chair, for about five minutes. Whenever their minds wandered, the Marines were instructed to refocus. “It doesn’t take you to some transcendental state,” Davis says. “It’s not as foofy as that.” Some of the men, accustomed to excelling at everything they did, were surprised at how much focus they had to muster. As the weeks passed, Elizabeth Stanley introduced more complicated exercises. The Marines practiced “shuttling” their attention between contact points and sounds like wind or the hum of electricity. That may seem remedial, but consciously switching between focal points exacerbates the mind’s natural tendency to wander, and focus can easily drift to a dozen thoughts instead of two.
Near the end of training, the Marines attended a mindfulness retreat at the mansion of John Kluge, a former television mogul whose foundation also partially funded the study. The men spent an entire day in silence, trying to be mindful about every move they made. But some men, like Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the unit, still weren’t buying it. “We’re barefoot on this guy’s lawn doing yoga, and we’re supposed to be silent,” he says. “We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
However, once Oliva was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province as the sole medic for 60 Marines and 200 Iraqi soldiers, he “did a 180.” He remembered Stanley’s lectures about how mindfulness could cultivate an ability to more easily endure racing thoughts and the body’s primal fight-or-flight responses — those physical manifestations of stress that include shaking and a knotted stomach. “In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. “It would help me recognize the symptoms in my body before they got out of control.”
It doesn’t take a situation as intense as Iraq to trap people in unhealthy stress cycles. Everyday life has the potential to weaken the immune system and diminish psychological resilience, especially in the age of e-mail, text messaging, and nonstop multitasking. Davis, who remains on active duty in Quantico, continues to meditate every day. “I can’t think of any aspect of my life that this hasn’t helped me in — academically, as a dad,” he says. He compared mindfulness to a physical workout like running: At first it seems impossible to fit in your schedule, but after a while it becomes normal. What’s the minimum to get results? Scientists aren’t certain, but none of the Marines in the Emotion study actually stuck to the full 30-minutes-daily regimen — the high-practice group saw benefits with an average meditation time of just 15 minutes a day. What’s important, notes Stanley, is to be consistent on a day-to-day basis.
How You Can Benefit From Marine-Style Mindfulness
Meditation improves concentration, zaps stress, increases memory, and promotes restful sleep. Here are a few exercises to get you started.
Boost concentration (5 minutes)
While sitting, use your hands to find tension in your brow, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Spend half a minute or so trying to release it by rubbing the tension with your hands and relaxing the tightness with your mind. Then focus on the contact points between your body and the chair. Focus on the point where the pressure is greatest. Whenever your attention wanders, refocus it on that contact point, thinking about nothing else.
Relieve stress (10 minutes)
Again, start by focusing on a contact point between your body and the chair. Then switch your attention to a single sound. It could be the traffic outside or even something quiet like the hum of a computer. Alternate between the contact point and sound at a slow, steady pace. This will free your mind from stress. End the exercise by returning to the contact point, and then slowly widen your focus outward to the rest of your body.
Induce sleep (15 minutes)
This exercise should be done right before bedtime, either in a chair or lying down. Wiggle and flex your toes. Focus on the sensations in your feet. Pause and continue to observe any feeling in your feet. Continue this pattern of flexing and resting sequentially throughout your body: ankles, knees, hips, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, and eye sockets. Soldiers found this exercise to greatly improve sleep.
Excerpt from "Tired of Feeling Bad? The New Science of Feelings Can Help," by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, Newsweek, February 20, 2012:
When it comes to your Emotional Style, we know that changes to the neural structure of the brain are possible. We don’t know exactly how much plasticity the brain has, but we do know that some neurally inspired interventions—forms of mental training that target patterns of brain activity—can work. Mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, can help you develop a broader awareness of social signals, a deeper sensitivity to your own feelings and bodily sensations, a more consistently positive outlook, and a greater capacity for Resilience. Do you feel yourself to be too negative in outlook? Pay heightened attention to the ways in which you can be more generous and upbeat, through processes therapists call “well-being therapy.” Are you very Self-Aware, so much so that your internal chatter threatens to take over your day-to-day life? Practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations nonjudgmentally moment by moment.
This practice, known as “mindfulness meditation,” is one of the most effective tools for changing our Emotional Style. In patients with depression—whom we call “Slow to Recover” on the Resilience scale—every disappointment and setback is shattering. These patients need to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex (especially on the left side), to strengthen the neuronal highways between it and the amygdala, or both. Mindfulness meditation cultivates greater Resilience and faster recovery from setbacks by weakening the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback. It strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, promoting an equanimity that will help keep you from spiraling down. As soon as your thoughts begin to leap from one catastrophe to the next in this chain of woe, you have the mental wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind does this, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss.
"It is human nature to look at someone like me and assume I have lost some of my marbles. People talk loudly and slowly to me. Sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people who don't want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness. We don't enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.
That's why writing on the Internet has become a life-saver for me. My ability to think and write have not been affected. And on the Web, my real voice finds expression. I have also met many other disabled people who communicate this way. One of my Twitter friends can type only with his toes. One of the funniest blogs on the Web is written by a friend of mine named Smartass Cripple. Google him and he will make you laugh.
All of these people are saying, in one way or another, that what you see is not all you get."
Through his experience in working with brain trauma, Daniel Siegel, M.D., author The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration, and others found that the prefrontal cortex hosts nine critical functions that happen to associate with outcomes in mindfulness research and healthy attachment in children.
1. Response Flexibility — Here is a trait that lies at the cornerstone of Viktor Frankl ’s quote. “In between stimulus and response there’s a space…” and when we become aware of that space, there are choices. This is where we can break out of the auto-pilot of past conditionings and become aware of more options and be more flexible. We don’t have to pick up the bottle, or go back to the abusive partner, or walk around the block without noticing the flowers. Having this as a trait allows us to automatically recognize that there are choices and options.
2. Fear Modulation — While a little fear can be helpful (“I’m afraid of driving too close to the car in front of me”), more often it seeps into the intricacies of our lives and keeps us stuck in old patterns. For example, “I’m afraid to open up to him because I don’t want to be hurt.” I always give the analogy that if babies were afraid to learn how to walk because of the multitude of times they fell, they’d never learn to walk. Learning how to turn the volume down on our fear can help drop our anxieties over our imperfections and come back into a playful adventuring of daily life.
3. Body Regulation — In moments of overwhelm it’s easy for the heart to start beating faster, muscles to tense, the breath to become more rapid, getting the body ready for fight, flee or freeze. The activation of fighting or fleeing is a result of our sympathetic nervous system getting revved up. Stopping, resting or freezing is an activation of our parasympathetic nervous system. The ability to regulate our bodies means that we have a natural balance of these two nervous systems reliably telling us when to go and when to rest.
4. Attuned Communication — If a stressful day is upon us, it’s likely that we’re primed to not attune to others around us. At work, this leads to miscommunications and frustration, at home this leads to thoughts of not being cared about and distance in a relationship. Being able to naturally feel the internal state of another persona and reflect that back to them breeds security and feeling connected. The man on his deathbed said, “It’s about who you love and how you love them, and the rest of it never mattered.” You don’t get that experience in life without being able to attune to others.
5. Emotional Resiliency — It’s easy to get swept up on auto-pilot, being taken for a ride and not knowing how we suddenly ended up depressed, anxious or with a hot temper tantrum. Have the ability to be emotionally resilient means being better able to monitor our mood and lifting ourselves up when we’re down and down when we’re too up. This doesn’t mean living a neutral existence, just a more balanced one. We still experience the myriad of emotions that are out there, they just less often take us for rides into unhealthy emotional spirals.
6. Improved Insight — People often ask, “Do you think it’s important to look at what happened to me in the past or is all that matters in the here and now?” My response is always, “All your experiences of the past make up who you are today. So your past lives in the present. In order to find true self-acceptance we have to understand where our reactivity comes from and then turn to it with a sense of compassion and caring.” We can also intentionally pay attention to the future as we do with any of our aspirations. Through insight we get to know and befriend our auto-pilot so we can work in concert rather than in conflict.
7. Empathy — Empathy allows us to connect and feel love for others. We are putting ourselves in their shoes and being able to discern where they are coming from, what they are thinking and feeling. The way we’re defining empathy here is also with a lens of kindness and compassion and with an eye on the greater good.
8. Morality — This is defined as having your eye on the greater good in concert with your actions. Moral thoughts alone are not enough to cultivate morality, we need to be walking the talk.
9. Reliable Intuition — One of the follies of western culture at this point is the Descartian split of thinking and feeling. An overemphasis on the intellect without an appreciation for the wisdom of the body. After all, we now know that we have neural networks in our hearts and intestines. Reliable intuition is a reliable auto-pilot. We may not be aware in the moment of the underlying reasoning, we just get a sense for something. It is cultivated when we’re able to connect with the sensory world of the body that may tune us in to sensing when something or someone is safe or unsafe. Without experience and practice this intuition is more likely to be less reliable breeding misperceptions and unhealthy actions influenced by mood or prior trauma.
“The support, the privilege, really comes from having two parents that said and believed that I could do anything. That support didn't come in the form of a check. That support came in the form of love and nurturing and respect for us finding our way, falling down, figuring out how to get up ourselves…I learned more in those [difficult] times about myself and my resiliency than I ever would have if I'd had a pile of money and I could have glided through life. I honestly feel that it is an act of love to say, 'I believe in you as my child, and you don't need my help.' "
"Being a prisoner really focuses on what's essential in life and there are a lot of things we can do without and still be happy. The key lessons from Bob Shumaker's story are that inside almost all of us is the capacity to overcome the most horrific of stress in our life and even ultimately learn from that stress and thrive and grow as a person."
More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and
over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the
light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs—
all this resinous, unretractable earth.