A sad fact of aging for many is a lack of companionship as loved ones pass on and children scatter.
Experts report that loneliness can be linked to emotional stress and declines in physical health. Indeed, feeling lonely has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. (More evidence)
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:
Now, research from UCLA scientists suggests that a simple eight-week M.B.S.R. meditation program can help to reduce loneliness in older adults. Moreover, researchers have discovered that mindfulness meditation also reduces the expression of inflammatory genes.
This is an important finding as loneliness is known to activate inflammatory genes which, in turn, are known to promote a variety of diseases.
Senior study author Steve Cole, Ph.D., and colleagues report that the two-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which teaches the mind to simply be attentive to the present and not dwell in the past or project into the future, successfully reduced the feelings of loneliness.
In the study, 40 adults between the ages of 55 and 85 were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness meditation group or a control group that did not meditate.
These MBSR participants self-reported a reduced sense of loneliness, while their blood tests showed a significant decrease in the expression of inflammation-related genes.
“While this was a small sample, the results were very encouraging,” said Dr. Michael Irwin. “It adds to a growing body of research that is showing the positive benefits of a variety of meditative techniques, including tai chi and yoga.”
“These studies begin to move us beyond simply connecting the mind and genome, and identify simple practices that an individual can harness to improve human health,” Irwin said.
When sitting with the breath, sounds could be thought of as a distraction. However, if we consider this a little deeper, the soundscape around us is of course part of our environment. No one ever suggests that you have to lock yourself away in a soundproof room in order to meditate. With practice, you can successfully treat sound as you would thoughts within your meditation. Just hearing them for what they are, not labeling, categorising or judging, just simply being there with it as you would any other sensation that arises throughout the meditation. Clearly this could become more challenging depending on the sound!
At times however, we may wish to make the soundscape around us part of our meditation.
Dr Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman explore the relationship between sound and thought in there classic book, Mindfulness - a practical guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD.
'This constantly fluxing soundscape is just like your thought stream'
'As best you can, be aware of sounds simply as sounds, as raw sensations. Notice the tendency we all have to label sounds as soon as they are received (car, train, voice,radio), and see if it is possible to simply notice this labeling and then refocus, beyond and below the label, on the raw sensations of the sounds themselves (including the sounds within the sounds)'
I am extremely fortunate in that I live within a 10 minute walk of the woodland pictured on the left. At least once a week weather permitting, I am able to complete a sitting meditation in this most tranquil of locations.
Tranquil, but not empty of stimulus. Sensations brush against both body and mind. Colour, sound and temperature compete for attention. The texture of moss, the feel of the woodland floor the smell of damp bark.
Sometimes I stay with the breath, sometimes I observe my thoughts, sometimes I stay with the sounds.
I wanted to try to convey the experience of meditating within this environment. Also I wanted to convey the feeling of meditating whilst focusing on the soundscape and at the same time, be true within the prose, to the concept of not attaching myself to or labeling events, just trying to be there with the raw sensations and noticing them without judgement as they rise and fall.
A sitting meditation – Hayne Valley
“I sit with my back against a spreading Birch. Unusually for me my legs are crossed. My hands rest in my lap. My eyes are softly closed and muted colours swim across my lids in the dappled light of late summer woodland.
The air is cool and fresh as I inhale. I feel it pass my nostrils and in the back of my throat before it warms to the heat of my body. My exhaled breath is warm and soft rising into the leafy canopy above.
One breath in. One breath out.
An age-old dance. One breath in. One breath out.
A ripple of thought, the first of many, bubbles up through my consciousness, random and unbidden it strives to unfold across my mind. To wrap me in its canopy of memory, imaginings, machinations and ruminations.
One breath in. One breath out.
I leave my breath for the dancing rattle of a nearby stream. I allow the sharp pops and clicks of water on the move across twig and stone to settle, simply as sound, without label or visualization. To be alone. Isolated as a jigsaw piece removed from the whole - yet complete.
I hear without listening.
A flying insect hums past in a wave of turbulent sound. Generated by innumerable measured wing beats, the sound swells and then diminishes as it passes by.
I hear inside. I hear without listening.
A sharp yet hollow woody sound. Close. Repeating. I know this familiar woodland jigsaw piece, but I do not name it, do not place it. Instead I open my eyes and see. Observe without the hindrance of my own self, the form, the colour, the movement, the sound.
I do not have to wonder what it is, more so to wonder that it is.
I close my eyes before it flies and hear it go. Now the sound of falling leaves – somehow more regular than before.
Behind my closed lids I perceive a change in the light. I am aware of an increased coolness in the air against my skin.
To my right, far away it seems, a new sound is rising. I struggle not to speculate just to let the sound rise and be. Almost imperceptibly it swells growing in volume. One sound has become many. Almost a clatter - a cacophony on the move. I feel the air, yet cooler still, against my face.
Above me I know branches move as I hear leaves rustle against each other.
I hear without listening.
Rushing through the woodland the sound is upon me. The light is dimmer still and I hear the sound of water drops crashing through the canopy and thudding on the ground.
I feel the splash of water, cool upon my hand and head. Not constant, but a sensation intermittent against the continuum of sound.
There is an intensity in everything. Water falling through the canopy creates its own orchestral sound in an array of tones syncopated within a natural cadence. The utterly unique rhythm of this rain.
And then suddenly the sound rushes away across the wood and slowly I perceive a growing brightness from behind my eyelids. I hear the occasional percussive journey of water droplets from above. It occurs to me they are like guests late to the party. Overlaid with intermittent birdsong, sharp and staccato here or soft and cooing there, the click and pop of the stream comes back into focus. There is a very slight damp, vegetative aroma as I return to the breath.
One breath in. One breath out. A stillness returns.
Gently, I open my eyes”
I thought it would be interesting to gain a different perspective on 'Woodland Meditation' to include it as an audio file.
I am very aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to have easy access to woodland or countryside. This lovely piece of video, one of many that can be found on YouTube, could be used as a tool to help you meditate with sound as your primary focus.
By learning a Walking Meditation, I want to consider the specific idea of, as Larry Rosenberg puts it. “Taking the breath for a walk”.
I was recently introduced to a remarkable book, Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. As the title suggests the book deals with the role of the breath in a meditative context. We all breath. Some of us without effort and some of us with difficulty, nevertheless we all breath. In his forward to the book Jon Kabat-Zin observes:
“Each breath moment is its own universe. In meditation, we come to know something of this terrain in ways that open doors, that bring us back to our senses, that refine our hearts, that help us understand what it is like to be human, right here right now. No two breaths are the same; no two moments are the same. Each one is our life. Each one is infinitely deep and complete in itself”
In meditation we can use the breath as an anchor to help and guide us back when the mind wanders, reminding ourselves that we are here in our present moment. As long as we are alive our breath is always with us and its not something we have to learn to do; it is natural and instinctive.
Let’s just think about learning a Walking Meditation. Most of us take walking for granted. We define a purpose in our consciousness, decide to act and automatically our bodies take us to wherever we need to be. Of course, it was not always so. We all had to learn to walk, and some of us have had to relearn that skill.
Take some time if you can to watch a toddler process the myriad amounts of information that are required to simply take a step or two whilst spinning the cognitive plates of balance, locomotion, muscle control and spatial awareness. It’s an amazing thing to behold. Something that many of us take for granted.
We can choose to walk in a ‘Mindful’ way where we ensure we are aware of our surroundings, allowing all our senses to drink in the experiences; of the air moving against our skin, the scent of the air, the sounds that reach us and all that we see. We can experience all this without judging or becoming attached and creating a story in our minds, a dialogue about how beautiful or ugly or serene or noisy our environment may or may not be.
Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century American who was among other things a poet, philosopher and abolitionist wrote of the importance of Mindfulness when walking.
Henry David Thoreau (1817- 1862
“Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither.
I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would feign forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society, but it still happens sometimes that I cannot easily shake the village. The thought of some work will run through my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking out of the woods”.
I think we can see the point he is making because it is something we all do – being on auto pilot – missing irretrievable moments as we immerse ourselves in the machinations and random ruminations of our helter-skelter minds”.
By learning a Walking Meditation, we can enhance our meditation practice through walking in a formal way where we investigate meditation in motion. Here we are observing the breath and moving with it. The breath sets the pace.
Choose a place where you are going to be unobstructed. You may have to choose a path where you need to turn back on yourself and walk up and down. This is fine you just need to turn mindfully, being fully aware of what you are doing and how your body and mind feels in that moment.
1. So – we can begin walking at a naturally slow pace. Walking slowly, but naturally.
2. It is important to walk with good posture and if it is comfortable for you bring your hands up to around your diaphragm so your forearms parallel to the ground. This will help with stability whilst you
3. Try to match your steps to your breath. Breathe as naturally as you can and pay attention to how many steps you take for each in-breath and each out-breath. Move slowly at first.
4. Count your steps for each in and out breath until you reach a natural rhythm and can let go of the count.
5. Be fully present as you move. When walking, are you just moving your legs forward, one step at a time? Not quite! Walking is what is known as a gross movement, meaning there are multiple subtle movements included within the greater action of walking. Think about our toddler observation.
To begin with the act of walking can be roughly broken down as follows:
Lifting the foot up – Swinging the foot forward – Placing the foot back down
And initially this is really what you should be paying attention to as you follow the length of each complete left step and each complete right step.
You can focus your awareness on the strike of your heels on the ground or the sensation in the balls of your feet with each left step and each right step and the sensations in your foot and leg muscles as you move. Be curious and fully explore how it really feels
As you move, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even sometimes outside distractions will come into focus. It OK, that’s what the mind does. Gently acknowledge them nonjudgmentally, just noticing them, observing them clearly, and then shift your focus back to your breath or you movement.
Check out this video as it might help you with the process but don’t get overly caught up or obsessed thinking about the technique.
Remember the intention with our meditations be they walking, sitting, lying or standing is to train our minds to dwell fully in the present moment.
Like Thoreau, how often have we arrived only to realise that the journey has been lost to us?
Learning a Walking Meditation is taught as part of the Mindful Movement section of our MBSR course.
As human beings we have sought to express ourselves in a myriad of different ways. Through a kaleidoscope of art forms we have, over the millennia, endeavoured to peel back the layers that shroud our perception of life and redefine our experiences, thoughts and emotions in a way that can be made tangible to other people. From the red ochre cave paintings at El Castillo to the modern surrealists such as Ron Golsalves, through the written words of lyrics, poetry and prose, through film, photography and music we have learned to distill the complex mix of human emotions and experiences into a single point of feeling that can be shared across space and time.
This single point of feeling, or awareness of the 'now', is where Mindfulness can take us, helping us to make sense of the babble of ruminations that are the Windmills of our Mind.