Friday, May 31, 2013

More on Meditation

OK, so maybe you have decided it's time to try meditation.  Multiple health benefits come from meditation.  Cognitive benefits are plentiful.  And, the joy that becomes possible is hard to resist.

Now that you've decided, what exactly do you do?  Good question.  There are hundreds of ways to meditate and no right or wrong method.  Although, some methods will say there is a right way -their way and always do the same each and every day forever.  I don't follow this way of thinking, perhaps because I am so very aware of how different people can be and in order to get these folks to commit, I want to find a good fit.  Also, different types of meditation can have differing benefits.  We can pick and choose to fit what is needed.  However, there is something to be said of sticking with one type of meditation through thick and thin.  There is a depth of practice, understanding that can be achieved just by suffering through difficult days or days when you are tired of the same practice.  There's the joy of a ritual and knowing what to expect.  So, you decide. You try.  You experiment.  Maybe, like me, you will practice various types of meditation through your lifetime (my practice can vary day to day or week to week).  Or, you will find the practice that best suits you and stick with it.

Here are a few to get you started:
The most basic form of meditation is mindfulness.  This simply means to focus on whatever is in the present.  Mindful breathing is sitting and focusing on the breath.  Mindful eating is focusing on the sights, sounds, smells, and textures involved in eating.  Mindful walking is a slow deliberate pace, focusing the mind on each and every step.  Mindful meditation practices are well studied and researched.  The benefits are many - physical and mental.

My favorite form of meditation is loving-kindness or meta meditation.  There are 4-5 specific phrases involved with meta meditation meant to create a sense of compassion for self and others.  It can be a challenge, because it does involve someone who is difficult for you and it does involve self (sometimes the most challenging person to love!).  However, the benefits are a deep sense of trust, understanding and yes, love for self and for everyone else.  Minor differences and irritations with other people fall away and it gradually helps us to work through major difficulties that we have with others as well.

Mantra meditation involves a specific word, phrase or even a prayer that is repeated either out loud or silently.  It can be chanted as well.  Some meditation teachers give a mantra specific to the student who then uses that for meditation.  However, you can choose whatever fits best and practice on your own.  The mantra does not need to be a Sanskrit word or a Buddhist prayer.  It just needs to be something meaningful to you.

Visualization is a form of meditation using the imagination.  Oftentimes, it follows a general pattern of walking into a tunnel or an elevator which then can transport you somewhere, a garden, safe space, mountaintop, etc.  Once there, the senses take over.  Visually see the space, hear the sounds, feel, taste, etc.  This gets the part of the brain most often involved with the senses engaged.  Then, be purposeful with the rest of the meditation.  If you are working through a problem, bring aspects of the problem to the visualization.  If you are trying to feel a certain feeling like confidence in preparation for a job interview or other performance, that can be brought in.  If you are seeking faith or trust, that can be brought in.  Next time you meditate, the process can be exactly the same or there can be some differences or a completely new visual.

I have only touched on a few here and already you have your work cut out for you.  Start for just 5 minutes, if that's all you can manage.  Set a gentle timer or a piece of quiet flowing music that is about 5 minutes long and sit.  Don't worry, you will have thoughts coming in, sounds interfering, worries rearing their ugly heads.  And, that is what meditation is!  It is the process of learning to focus, of learning to ignore the external and internal disruptions.

Yes, sometimes it is really hard and other times it just flows and seems magical.  In the beginning, mostly it will be hard.  It's like training a muscle.  If I want to bench press 100 lbs., I can't start with the 100, I have to build up to that.  On some days the 20 lbs. is easy and other days it is hard.  Then, I feel ready to move up to 30 lbs.  it just keeps going like this until on most days I try, 100 lbs. feels pretty darn good!  All along the way, the benefits start to become more and more obvious, but they are gradual and they are profound.  Some you will notice and others you won't until the day or 2 when you don't meditate and you know it's serving you really, really well!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Meditation for Your Health

I recently saw the Dalai Lama which, for me, was an inspiring experience on many levels.  However, what strikes me about this visit (the Dalai Lama has been here 9 times) is what I am reading and hearing about the visit.  Yes, this is about Buddhism - he is the spiritual leader of his people after all.  But, it is a lot about science. 

I read in Dr. Richard Davidson's book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, that the Dalai Lama once asked Dr. Davidson why there are so few scientists studying the positives of how the brain works.  In an article in Madison Magazine, Dr. Davidson says that the Dalai Lama has made it his mission to get involved with scientists.  He knows first hand that his meditation practices and his regular spiritual studies make him a happier, more compassionate man.  He knows from seeing his peers in the practice as well.  He wants science to show the rest of us, so we will join in on this healthy habit.

I have covered much of the benefits to meditation in previous blogs and yet, it seems people aren't really seeing it, believing it, or finding it accessible to them.  Is it some foreign practice that only monks or spiritual types get into?  There are literally hundreds of meditation practices and they can follow any or no religious teaching you prefer.  All it takes is sitting and learning to focus, then quiet the mind for a period of time.  You choose your focus.

One purpose of Dr. Davidson's work is to show that it is not the case that only dedicated hour long practitioners benefit from meditation.  A recent study he did involved folks that have never before meditated.  He looked at their brains before the study practice and after 2 weeks began to see changes.  This is after just 2 weeks of daily 30 minute meditation!  We now KNOW without a doubt that meditation changes your brain.

What else?  A not yet published study will show that meditation changes the expression of your genes!  This is going to revolutionize our medical futures.  The days of Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy might be over.  If we can find out how exactly to change gene expression through meditation in those whose genes show a proclivity toward breast cancer or colon cancer or others....., then the need for such painful, invasive preventative measures becomes completely unnecessary.

If the effects of meditation range from changing the brain to the depths of changing our genes, why not start now?  In June, start my meditation challenge and get in your daily dose of good mental, physical, and spiritual health!

Friday, May 10, 2013

What to Plant?

With limited space and resources we all go through the process of trying to decide what to plant now that the gardening season is upon us.  Inevitably, most novice up to expert gardeners put in tomatoes, whether in pots or gardens.  After that, it seems there are many choices being made.  How do we decide what to plant or what not to plant?

Here's the process I follow:  The number one deciding factor is what I like to eat.  Pretty obvious, of course.  But, it may be more complicated than simply I like it, therefore I shall plant it.  For example, tomatoes freshly grown, picked right off the plant in your own back yard are so much more tasty than anything you will ever buy.  Same with herbs of any kind.  The flavors are unsullied by transportation, washing, or early harvesting.  The freshest of flavors possible!

The second deciding factor goes along with the first.  I like to eat it, but how much of it can I actually plant?  How much room have I got?  If you really love the taste of a nice fresh tomato right off the vine, but you only have room for a plant or 2, then a high yield producing tasty cherry tomato is your best bet.  But, if you are going to make big batches of salsa, you'll need more plants that yield often and take more space.  If you haven't got the space, then it's best to find yourself a good outside source of tasty tomatoes.  Or, maybe you have pots and can put in some tomatoes or even peppers?  Look into the kinds of plants that like pots and be sure to check soil requirements for each.

Next, I go with nutritional value.  I can plant a row of kale and get more nutrients from that row than most others.  Peppers are another super food that is worth the effort.  Consider taste and your nutritional bang for the buck!

The next factor is ease in growing and yield.  I love edamame or soy beans, but have a terrible time growing them, because someone else (someone short and hairy who steals from gardens at night!) eats my plants before I get a chance to harvest.  Tomatoes can be tricky for some of us - blight or fungi take over before we get to enjoy much of our efforts.  I say let someone else do it and find something else to plant in that case.  Green beans are yummy, plentiful and easy to grow.  Same with chard and kale. All three will yield multiple times throughout the season, so once you harvest, the plant produces more - sometimes up to 3 and 4 times!

That then speaks to investment vs. yield cost ratio, another deciding factor.  If I can throw in a seed, and harvest multiple times from the plant that comes up, that's a great ratio!  If, on the other hand, I am buying a plant, then what will make it worthwhile as far as the harvest to cost of plant ratio?  Then, what if the plant dies or doesn't produce much?  What are the chances of me getting my money back and then some?

Let's go back to that outside source.  It could be a farmers market, CSA, or other resource.  I can buy from the local co-op here for less than the same farmer will sell at the farmer's market.  So, oftentimes I watch for a sale and get things I don't grow then.  a good example is garlic.  Now, a lot of people like to plant garlic.  To me, it is a waste of space.  It is easy to buy year 'round, because it stores well.  I can literally buy it for pennies.  It requires some knowledge and some investment as far as when and how to plant, the cloves, the straw or mulch, etc.  To me, not worth the effort.  Potatoes and corn are others.  Very tricky to grow and other farmers are really good at it.  I let them do the work for me.

My final deciding factor is the curb appeal of the plant itself.  I grew Brussels sprouts one year and while those little guys were tasty, the plant was really pretty ugly.  Broccoli is kind of the same to me.  I don't want to look at it.  Herbs and greens and vines are really beautiful and can be part of my landscape with some planning.

I hope this helps you to expand your ideas and your garden planning!