MF 27 – Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Researcher at UCSF

MF 27 – Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Researcher at UCSF

Interview with Amanda Gilbert – Meditation and Mindfulness Research

Amanda Gilbert is the Executive Director for the Sugar Stress Environment and Weight Center and a Clinical Research Coordinator for the Aging Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University California, San Francisco. Her work focuses on conducting and implementing clinical research in meditation, mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction, as well as examining how these restorative health behaviors affect our minds and biology.

As a long-term meditation practitioner, she draws on years of personal meditation experience and training to advocate for the life-changing effects of a daily meditation practice.

In addition to conducting clinical research on meditation, she is a meditation teacher to those looking to learn and start a daily meditation practice through one-on-one individualized sessions where she connects contemplative science to daily practice. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.

Note: This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview. Listen to the audio above to get the full interview. 

How did you get started with meditation?

Many start a meditation practice for health reasons, or dealing with stress, or getting curious. And some start to meditate from a religious point of view. And also it is for some about cultivating meaning.

For Amanda it was about healing, physically, mentally, and spiritually from challenges she went through as a young adult. She’s been in the health and wellness field for a long time.

Perhaps there is something more. She wants to connect with herself, her intuition, her inner knowledge, her heart, and higher self. The path for Amanda has been cultivating a meditation and mindfulness practice.

Was there something, an event or moment that triggered this?

Amanda has had her moments to that were beautiful opportunities to shift, to have a breakthrough. To set yourself on a different path. For her it was more of a life path. Many books on self growth, meditation and self development. And really all the information was pointing her to meditation path.

Also, Amanda was exposed to great teachers in the medical world. One of her first teachers was Deepak Chopra. He has a book called, “Quantum Healing”. She was given that book during a breakdown leading to breakthrough period in her life.

When you approach it through biology, it really speaks to the effects and power, and outcomes of a meditation practice. So she started reading a lot of literature on what a meditation practice can do for us physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. All this reading led her down a path of a meditation practice.

What particular practice did you start with?

Amanda started with mantra based practice in 2009. Earlier she was exposed to many other meditation and mindfulness practices, her undergraduate degree was in holistic health and wellness. But she got serious about doing a daily practice. That is when it clicked for her.

The mantra practice is powerful practice for a novice. Reason is that the mantra is a way for our minds to focus on. Translates as mind-vehicle. It’s a word, similar to in and out, in breathing techniques. By combining with Sanskrit it can be meaningful.

The mantra based practices are a way for beginners to develop a strong practice. She can see that through her research and teaching meditation position.

Would you say that the mantra practice is an attention practice just like paying attention to your breath practice?

Yes, we are focusing on an object of attention. So that object of attention is the breath, or the mantra. It is intentionally placing the focus on that object.

Saying from the Buddha: You can place your attention on the object of focus, just like you focus your attention gently on a flower.

In meditation we are growing our attention/focus muscles. We are cultivating those muscles.

Did you notice any particular benefit that stood out from this mantra practice that was trans-formative, and encouraged you to continue practicing after that?

It allowed my mind to focus on something, something for it to chew on during her 30 minute morning and evening meditation. It allowed me to meditate. All of the fruits of meditation happen in those moments between the thoughts. In that space, that stillness, silence between thoughts. Between the ego having it’s way, having it’s ability to be behind the wheel, running the show.

So the benefits and outcomes are in the moments between our thoughts.

She have a tendency of an overactive mind, which was one her first barriers, or obstacles in a meditation practice. I’m just thinking, thinking. A huge string of thoughts, huge mind wanderings.

Having a mantra to focus on having my mind focus on, was the key to allowing her the freedom to move beyond thought. To move in the space and stillness of meditation.

And a way to anchor you into the present..A lot of us have mind-wanderings, like 50% of the day the average person is mentally wandering. 

Yes, very much so. One of the top outcomes that we’re seeing through the lens of research, is a decrease in rumination and decrease mind wandering. And an increase in focus and attention. This can be seen through measuring the participants subjective, psychological experience of a meditation training, as well as seeing this in the areas of the brain.

We’re seeing areas of the brain light up, that are more focused on attention, and executive functioning. We’re seeing better neuroplasticity in the brain due to meditation and mindfulness practice.

Explain neuroplasticity a little bit more.

Yes, that is the ability for your brain to change, and to start new behaviors, patterns, new ways of decision making. Cultivating new neural network pathways in your brain in order to have different behaviors and different experiences in your life.

This can be really helpful with destructive mind and habit patterns, such as depression or other destructive thought patterns right?

Very much so. That’s really what we’re seeing. The beauty of mindfulness research is that it allows you to see the changes in the brain and in the body. Past research has been focused on the brain. Those who are in the diagnosis of depression or PTSD, or any neurologically and psychologically based depression oriented diagnosis. We are able to see a shift in the brain and cognitive functioning. Also we’re seeing in the last 5 or 10 years or so a big change in the body. More recent research is focused on the body and biology.

What that looks like is:

The effects of mindfulness and meditation on inflammation, gene expression, heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, sleeping, eating habits. And of course your cell health, and cell aging. which is getting down into the minutiae of the mitochondria in the cells of your bodies.

What particular aspect of that research excites you the most right now?

Amanda’s favorite study was conducted by the center for investigating healthy minds with Richard Davidson in Madison, Wisconsin. Did anything change from an inflammatory marker standpoint, from just 8 hours of mindfulness training. They found that yes! You have a decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes from just one day of meditation and mindfulness.

Amanda and colleagues at UCSF, have just published and presenting a study of theirs. They found that a highly stressed population of maternal caregivers  mothers of autistic children who went through 12 weeks of mindfulness training, increased their total sleep time by 34 minutes by the end of the 12 week mindfulness based intervention.

And as we all know, sleep is one of the top pillars of health and resilience. Your days will be substantially better with sleep. So mindfulness and meditation do affect our biological circadian rhythms as well. Very exiting findings.

Can you measure quality of sleep as well?

Sleep disruption is how we measure quality of sleep. But it was really the total amount of sleep time. This group actually started to go to bed earlier as well. And how often do we tell ourselves we’re going to bed earlier, but then we don’t follow through it. But this group was able to shift their bed time to earlier, thus benefiting their sleep as well. What we’re able to say then, is that having a meditation or mindfulness practice is able to encourage better health behaviors. 

Any meditation tips for those listening who have sleep problems?

Yes, part of our population we’re able to see through our mindfulness mobile app, were doing some practices, body scans, loving kindness meditations and mindfulness practices. Ranging from 3-20 minutes. What we can think about is how can we reduce our stress before going to sleep? Is that sitting and breathing for 3 minutes, or guided meditation for 20 minutes. Or just having a moment of consciousness around how am I able reduce my stress, to turn off the executive functioning. That drive for the day. How am I able to settle the body?

My own practice is actually able to slow down. Amanda loves breathing meditations in the evening. Primarily morning meditation practice. But at night it is great to just slow down, or switch it up, like with a guided meditation. Whatever it takes to get a more restful and de-stressing experience.

You mention morning meditation and the importance of it. This affects the evenings as well. So this sets the pace for the rest of the day right?

Yes, when she goes to sleep at night, Amanda looks forward to the next morning practice. Meditation has changed her life, since she started meditating in 2009. Now the practice is second nature for me in the morning. I get up, have a sip of tea, or lemon water. Then she’s goes into practice minimally for 20 minutes, and more on other days. And then again in the evenings I actually look forward to this morning routine. It’s another sign that a consistent meditation practice can affect all other areas of life.

Has there been research to explore what the optimal times are for the most fruits of meditation?

That is Amanda’s own personal research interest. In the Vedanta ancient text they recommend at least 20 minutes each morning. And in primordial sound meditation they recommend 30 minutes, because it takes the body 15 minutes to biologically and physically settle down. Then you are actually able to meditate, once your body is in a rhythm of the breath. So these ancient practices figured it out a long time ago, without the hard nosed sciences.

TM also recommends a twice a day practice of 20 minutes as well. There was also studies where they found it through heart rate after 25 minutes. This is where the meditation research field is going. Her hope is to see the field honing in on the types of practice, the amounts of minutes of practice to see the shift in well-being. And to have individual tailoring to see what works best for each individual. We all have our own stories on what brought us to meditation. So there is that individual tailoring that scientists can hone in and take a look at.

And what about the benefits to mini-meditation?

Yes, that is mindfulness. Amanda likes to differentiate between formal practice (20 or 30 minutes of sitting), and moments of mindfulness. Being able to connect to our breaths, those are to her moments of mindfulness. And also outcomes of our formal meditation practice. You can actually cultivate a stronger connection to these mindful moments. During our meditation practice, we hone in on our home energy. That’s the feeling of our hearts, essentially we’re going home to our Self. You getting to know yourself so much better during those moments of contemplative reflection.

That shows up in moments during the day, where you have choice of how you respond to situations. You end up avoiding stress reactions.

So it benefits each other, and mutually reinforces each other then. 

You also a study about vacation vs retreat. Because a retreat is really going home, settling even deeper than a 25 minute meditation. 

Yes, I love this study. That study showed us a number of things, which can be applied to our own practices. 2 out of 3 of the study groups were new meditators, with zero meditation practice. We randomized half the group in a vacation group, and the other half as a meditation retreat at the Chopra center of well-being.

What we found was that novice meditators who went through the meditation retreat, 10 months later showed greater psychological well-being. Decrease of negative affect, decrease in overall negative experiences during that day.

Instead of just going on vacation, but if you go in and learn the life affirming tools of a meditation practice, then you see more long-term effects in your life. The vacation effect wears off. It’s just like buying a new car, within 2 months the joy has worn off.

The second finding was that we had a 3rd group who already had 6 months or more experience with meditation. This group was already more healthy psychologically and physically, so what we find is that the power is in the practice. We see that with experienced long-term meditators, that you will be able to  see the effects and outcomes of a daily meditation practice.

So you could say a retreat is more trans-formative, as compared to a vacation, which is more of a recharge. 

Yes, exactly. That is one of my favorite studies to reference.

Amanda’s hope is to get as many people as possible to meditate as possible. Her mission is to support as many people as possible in experiencing optimum daily well-being through meditation and mindfulness.

Resources

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MF 15 – Interview with Michel Dion – Headspace Meditation Practitioner and Leadership Expert

MF 15 – Interview with Michel Dion – Headspace Meditation Practitioner and Leadership Expert

Michel Dion is a CPA and PMP who spent his life in the business world.  He has developed a website on project management, called Project-Aria.  The name of the website is a mix between his interest for music and project management.  He likes to live life fully and passionately.  Yet, someone he discovered meditation and the power of the discipline in all dimensions of his life.

Michel also recently published a book called Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers.  In the book, he has included the importance of self-awareness and development of the leader as a person as part of leadership skills.
This is a summary (not a full transcript) of the interview

In this podcast we have a conversation about how Michel Dion:

  • Got started meditating because of too many thoughts and not sleeping much anymore at night.
  • Michel became an “accidental meditator“.
  • He is great at solving problems, but it started affecting his family life. He started seeing his friends get burned out by overwork, as well as develop depression. Now in his early 40’s, he couldn’t bounce back from the lack of sleep as much as when he was young.
  • He was attracted to start meditating after watching a BBC documentaryMichael Mosley’s Horizon: The Truth About Personality (BBC Two) in which  Mosley tries mindfulness meditation based on scientific findings about our personalities. And see if he could influence his more pessimistic and insomnia prone personality. He wanted to see if he could change his brain less anxious. They found that the right side of his brain was more active than the left side, which also created an imbalance. A combination of cognitive training and mindfulness training was used to help him change his brain. See, “Can Science Explain Why I’m a Pessimist?
  • Michel was inspired by these findings, and also wanted to learn this meditation, so he got the Headspace app by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk.
  • He needed to start with guided meditation. Very useful, otherwise he would have felt lost. He doesn’t consider himself spiritual.
  • He also noticed more and more projects as he grew in his career, and he was never in the moment any longer. He’d be at work, as well as with his wife, and always thinking either about work or other things. He couldn’t be present any longer. Starting to lose focus.

As a result of a regular meditation practice:

  • He found that the meditation helped him be more productive at work.
  • Better and more real connection with his wife and kids.
  • He found this important enough, that he mentioned meditation, requirement for self-awareness as a leader in the beginning of his book on Business, Project Management, and Leadership, rather than an afterthought. Taking care of yourself.

At the time of this interview..

He still practices regularly using head-space, listens to podcasts (this one, and Tara Brach’s Podcast), and reads about meditation.

  • Michel is learning how to meditate without the assistance of guided meditation, or apps. He plans on adding unguided meditation to his practice.
  • Michel had to unlearn some preconceived notions and pressures about what meditation is supposed to be like. Typical misconceptions propagated:
    • “You can stop all thoughts!”
    • “Real meditators are always 100% peaceful and happy!” (as though they are no longer human!)

“Multi-Tasking”

Michel was a great “multi-tasker” at one time, but learned that this wasn’t working very well.

  • He would do other tasks while “listening” to his wife. After realizing this error, he now has a deeper connection and conversation.
  • Another challenge he has is with long-distance running. At some point his mind is, “no longer in the moment”. It’s not physical pain that’s the problem after 2 hours of running, but his mind. He is going to read the book by “conscious runner” Lisa Hamilton (former guest on this podcast).

How his meditation affects his work, and leadership role?

Very much, as a leader you can be agitated, “do, do, do, more, more!” But people are more likely to follow a leader that is calm. Then a leader that is helps give their team confidence of success. Comfort zone does not mean it’s easy. You get greater results with a team with greater self-awareness.

Authenticity and honesty are often lacking in leadership.

In business you can master something. Michel studied classical music when he was younger and you can master that as well. He feels it’s different with meditation, you can’t say you have 100% self awareness. You can do this for 30 years and you will still discover something, so it’s never completed. There is a level of being comfortable in the unknown.

Michel talks about developing more knowledge of the self, which is part of executive leadership development program. Meditation and modern science is bringing it to the western world from a different angle.

We discuss how meditation is sexy or trendy, and the potential issue if the leadership and executives don’t practice meditation themselves, and use it to squeeze more productivity out of employees, or put them into smaller cubicles to save money, without thinking of the triple bottom line.

Michel talks about the blind spot of leadership, the privilege and rank of leadership, and the problem if you just have false relationships around you.  It’s his job to create a relationship where the employees feel comfortable talking with him.

  • Why it’s a problem to be over identified with your job (and Michel sees this more in older generations).
  • It’s better to have a life also outside of work.
  • Why it’s not always the best if someone is 100 % dedicated to their work life, doing 60-80 hours a week. You don’t have as much motivation to be efficient, if you’re just making work for yourself, “looking busy”.
  • The mind needs some break
  • If you invest all your thoughts into one thing, the day it succeeds, you’re extremely happy, if it does not succeed, everything is crashing.
  • The intensity of reactions at work, are like for a nuclear plant, small problems are turned into big dramas. It’s not like your two kids are dead!
  • It’s rare that someone will crash their career over an intellectual issue, it’s more the emotional side of life.
  • If you want to maximize you need to have an authentic holistic view of human.
  • We talk about too much drama when there is an issue at work, taking our titles and roles too seriously.
  • Michel talks about an example of a stressed out employee who was thinking she needed to spend the night fixing things, and he just told her to go home and watch a movie, and sleep on it. Sure enough, the next day, the employee came in refreshed and was able to solve the problem easily.

When do you have your sitting meditation during the day?

  • He seems to meditate best when his mind is tired.
  • He also likes long distance hiking, he likes how nature calms him. We talk a little bit about nature-deficit disorder.
  • He puts his device on airplane mode to keep from getting distracted. When it’s on, the mind stops checking. He finds that better than a technology fast or rejection.

His book is for folks leadership, the most powerful powerful part of leadership is to lead yourself first, before leading others.

Never have only your career as defining who you are.

Michel would feel more lonely without technology, to find other like-minded persons. That is an example of where technology supports personal growth.

Resources

These are the bighorn sheep mentioned. I’m still uploading the video, will be here tomorrow.

BigHorn family on Indianhead 013 Small

White Noise: Relaxation And Restful Sleep

White Noise: Relaxation And Restful Sleep

In today’s modern age of anxiety and always being in a hurry, it makes it difficult to stop and smell the roses sometimes. The search for true relaxation and a break from the constant stress of society is something that we can all identify with. However, there is now a way to block out the stress and the fuss of the world; white noise.

White Noise Sounds can help with sleep and tinnitus

White Noise Sounds can help with sleep and tinnitus

White noise works by combining a broad spectrum of sound waves to produce the end result of a steady, repeated noise series. These frequencies can then be used to help the listener block out the rest of the world, as all they hear is the same generic noise. Eventually the brain naturally blocks the rest of the frequencies out leaving you with a much more clear mind. Many find this to be one of the most important aspects of relaxation and really being able to focus on your thoughts. It is because of this that white noise is often combined with mediation or worked into one’s meditation music.

Many people who struggle with sleep problems related to outside noise can also find solace in white noise. A very common example of this is the pre-loaded sounds that come with many alarm clocks such as the sound of a river, ocean, or forest. All of these are white noises and work essentially the same. This calming example of white noise is responsible for helping millions of Americans sleep by drowning out the unwanted and stressful noises of the outside and allowing them to receded into their own personal state of relaxation.

Stress is another major issue that many people struggle with. It is very difficult to not get caught up in the worry of deadlines, dates, and appointments that all of us must deal with on a regular basis. Recovering from this stress seems to be harder than the activities that caused the stress in the first place. One of the key steps in reducing generalized anxiety is to remove all other distractions and only focus on what is truly important. White noise helps many people do this in a fantastic way that was never thought possible before. When listening to white noise, you are more focused on the single task that you are currently doing. This can not only make you much more productive than before, but also reduce stress on an astronomical level.

Everyone can identify with having too much clutter on your mind to deal with at one time. This is a very normal response due to the sheer amount of things that we are responsible for everyday. One of the beautiful things about white noise is it’s ability to help you remove this clutter and leave you with a much enjoyed quiet mind. White noise manages to do this while at the same time not overstimulating your mind and making it difficult to think. This invaluable effect of white noise has attributed greatly to it’s rise in popularity in recent years as more and more people are discovering the health benefits of it.

The medical field could also see some use of white noise in the future. As more research is done on the effects of white noise, it’s effectiveness in the use of ADD and ADHD treatment is becoming much more visible. This makes sense, as white noise tends to cancel out unnecessary thought clutter and help listeners focus. Some medical studies are even making the claim that white noise may be as effective for prescription drugs for the treatment of these disorders. If this proves to be true, dangerous drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin could greatly reduce in their use and vastly improve the health of Americans.

Overall, white noise is certainly something that should be considered by those seeking to reduce their level stress or improve their sleep. Listening to a simple noise could have the potential to solve many problems for you that appeared to be more complicated than they were. The potential medical use of white noise also seems very promising as not only has it proven to be effective in the treatment of several disorders, such as tinnitus (see research here), but also no drug could ever be safer than simply listening to a noise.

Here are some white noise sounds that might help.

Bathtub filling with water

Ocean Sounds