Mindfulness Meditation And The Great Outdoors: A Winning Combination For Mental Health
If you have already booked your freediving or yoga course in Bali, chances are, you are well aware of the immense benefits the Great Outdoors can bring. One well-known study by the Loyola University Health System found that nature has a powerful effect on our physical and mental health. “When we walk in a forest or park, our levels of white blood cells increase and it also lowers our pulse rate, blood pressure and level of the stress hormone cortisol,” noted Dr. Aaron Michelfelder, researcher. However, when we include mindfulness-based practices such as yoga and meditation into the experience, the results are all the more beneficial.
Mindfulness meditation vs anxiety and depression
Depression and anxiety are the two most common mental conditions faced by human beings on a global scale. A study published inJAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness meditation improves symptoms of anxiety, depression, and pain. It also reduces levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and boosts quality of life. The scientists concluded that doctors “should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program can have in addressing psychological stress.” Mindfulness meditation, like other spiritual practices, boosts mental health by keeping the mind in the present moment. During a session, practitioners are encouraged to recognise and feel all emotions, even the difficult ones, yet understand that these emotions are impermanent and do not define who they are.
Mindfulness meditation and brain function
A study by scientists at Massachusetts University showed that taking part in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program fostered measurable changes in the parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. The study showed that among meditators, grey matter density was increased in the hippocampus, which is vital for learning and memory, as well as in structures that play a role in self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Meanwhile, those who meditated had decreased grey matter in the amygdala, which is involved in anxiety and stress. The scientists said that their results demonstrate “that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on (meditation’s) potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The vital role that nature plays
There is a reason why the world’s most highly solicited yoga and meditation retreats take place by majestic natural settings such as mountains, lakes, forests, or seas. Nature boosts the effects of meditation because simply visiting a green area or seaside setting lowers levels of stress hormone, cortisol. Various studies have been carried out on this subject, with amazing results. For instance, one study found that people who exercised by looking at natural scenery enjoyed their workout much more. Another found that when offices were filled with plants, employees improved their performance. Still, other studies have focused on the role that time in nature can help children with ADD/ADHD.
Mindfulness meditation and other types of meditation, including transcendental meditation, wields countless benefits, including greater vitality, better mood, a heightened sense of empathy, and more. However, nature experiences have similar effects. Imagine the combined power of joining these two activities. Most interestingly of all, the benefits you will receive will last for years after intensive meditation training. Of course, because meditation is so beneficial, it is a practice we should keep up for our lifetime.
Post written by Cassie Steele
‘When the doors of perception are cleansed man shall see things as they truly are, infinite’ William Blake
Why learn Vipassanna ?
In the past month 2 more of our freediving instructors have challenged themselves with the practice of Vipassana. There are different approaches to vipassana, both of them enrolled for the SN Goenka course, a particularly full on and difficult introduction.
Both of our instructors are pretty adventurous people; but what follows it is an explanation of why a ‘normal’ person might subject himself to a vipassana course.
Lets start with looking at two Buddhist practices, Mindfulness and Vipassana. Aside from Tantric Buddhism, elements of both are a part of most streams of buddhism, yet they are not religous rite or ritual.
Being in the now; mindfulness is concentrated awareness of the moment to moment.
It is a process of constant redirection of the attention, bringing awareness repeatedly back to the present moment.
We become aware of what we are thinking, feeling or doing or become aware of how mind perceives and experiences the world around us.
It is cultivation of the silent witness, acknowledgement of the present moment without judgement, letting go as the present moment changes. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime. Indeed it should be practised as much as possible. It requires little formal instruction but takes a lifetime to master.
Through mindfulness we become less of a slave to unconscious processes and patterns of behaviour. It can positively affect everything from motor skills to deep seated psychological issues. It is also the beginning of single pointed concentration, which is necessary for the development of insight meditation (Vipassana).
Normally practice starts with single pointed focus on the breath in the nostrils or the rise and fall of the belly, (depending on tradition). This single pointed mindfulness practice is the gateway to Vipassana.
Being in the now, deeper and deeper.
Vipassana is considered by many Buddhists to be the single most important teaching of the Historical Buddha, his other teachings essentially just support for this one practice.
This is the practice that explores at the experiential level, ‘impermanence’, ‘suffering’ and ‘non-self’, three main concepts of Buddhism. It is a technique that provides insight into the true nature of reality, freedom from suffering and according to Buddhist teaching liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Vipassana is deep mindfulness practice, such an intense entering into the present moment that over time our perception deepens and becomes more subtle and the present moment expands into something infinite.
This is NOT something that should be strived for, it is something that happens with the correct practice under guidance over time, naturally.
It is not a transcendental meditation practice, the experience is always firmly rooted in the body and the present moment. With time the body is so deeply felt that you become aware of the body as energy in flux, subtler and grosser forms of energy in flux. This energetic sheath is responsive to thought and emotions and likewise influences the thoughts and emotions.
Vipassana is direct experience of the mind/body connection as an energetic field and how the mind/body interacts with the present moment.
This experience of the mind/body as an energetic field is NOT something to seek or push for it will happen by itself with time and correct practice.
Karma in the body(samkara)
During practice the meditator may experience how most of our behaviour is unconscious, simply a response to the subtler currents of the mind/body.
In this way you realise that it is less important what is happening outside you than the patterns of energy within, which influence your response to external events.
Warm feelings when you see something that reminds you of something good from your past, etc.Patterns might be of fear, anger, craving, desire etc. These patterns have been laid down by previous interactions of behaviour and events.
This is the insight, the body and ultimately all reality as constant flux and flow (impermanence) and that our mental/physical/emotional behaviour influences the flux which then influence future behaviour.
But our everyday personality doesn’t recognise this impermanence and leads to much misguided thought and action. Craving leading to more craving, fear to further fear etc. (suffering).
By accessing deeper levels of awareness below the everyday personality(non-self)
we develop more independence from the subterranean currents of the mind/body.
With correct practice we lessen our attachment to the everyday self, leading to a lighter and more intense living of life.
Why the need to learn Vipassana in silence?
We don’t observe silence for the idea of ‘holiness’ or ‘tradition’
silence is the necessary starting point for the practice of vipassana.
With Vipassana we are going deeper than the everyday limited personality and below the language based part of the brain. We experience the body and broader reality in a deeper and more subtle way, our perception changes becoming more unified and less bound by the rational mind’s limitations.
Language based thought is based on separation and distinction. It applies values, good, bad and it defines the everyday self ‘I don’t like rap music, etc”
While we speak we continue to stay on the surface of the mind, caught up in the thought games that the personality uses to define itself.
Meditation is a challenge for the everyday mind, which is like an animal that has free run of the house and resists losing any of it’s freedom.
The mind can resist the practice of single pointed concentration and can come up with many distractions. If we are in deep practice but then start to converse, then the everyday mind can leap back to re-establish itself strongly, making subsequent practice shallower for some time.
There is nothing wrong with the ‘ego’ or the ‘everyday self’, they are necessary functions for survival and thriving in a social world. The only issue is they make accessing deeper aspects of the human experience very difficult, at least at the beginning.
All of the rules on a vipassana course are designed to minimize opportunities for the everyday mind to distract and define itself. There is no talking or interaction with others, reading, music, dancing or body adornment. There is nothing wrong with these natural human activities, just not while learning deep meditation.
Vipassana is a very intense purification of the mind and absolutely not something to enter into lightly, a silent retreat might sound relaxing but in reality for many people it is the hardest things they ever do.
(Interestingly enough as soon as they finish they forget how hard it was at times. I have experienced this repeatedly.)
The most important rule…
If start you must finish or it can leave you feeling pretty messy for some time. Don’t leave midway, talk to an assistant teacher about your difficulties and stick it out.
I recommend all people of stable mental health and certain level of willpower to try it, especially freedivers and yogis. Actually this is one of the main goals of yoga, to develop insight. On a more mundane level it can also transform your experience of freediving.
I normally recommend doing the 10 day Goenka course as an intro because the explanation is excellent and in 10 days you can go very deep.But it is also one of the more austere approaches with sitting meditation 10 hours a day, very much focused on purification of the mind. Other approaches are less intense, therefore maybe less traumatic but also taking more time to get deep. Most other traditions use walking meditation between sits.Goenkas approach involves considerable pain in the legs through so much sitting. That said the pain is a very useful tool for learning impermanence.
Here’s a few words for the lovely and very dedicated Sarah Winick, the organiser of the local Bali courses.
Just on a side note, so perhaps others aren’t discouraged when thinking about sitting for 10 hours each day, every individual is subject to their own unique experience, here’s a public webpage that may assist some with their questions.
FYI for your readers: We hold 10-Day Vipassana meditation courses, as taught by SN Goenka in Bali, please note our next course with availability (October is currently wait listed) is November 5th-16th, 2014 interested applicants may review the website as listed in your blog, and register online directly through our Indonesian site www.java.dhamma.org
Feel free to join the Bali Vipassana FB group to meet other practicing Old Students on island, and to stay up to date with all of our happenings, there will be five 10-Day Goenka courses held in Bangli (near Kintamani) in 2015, the dates will be available soon.
Check http://www.dhamma.org/ for international Goenka style courses.
Check http://www.hdamm.de/buddha/mdtctr12.htm for a guide to Thai monasteries, though some of the info may be out of date it’s a good place to start researching traditional Thai Vipassanna.
Disclaimer…. this blog is personal opinion. I’m not a meditation master, just someone has been trying to learn and practice it on and off(with more off than on) for 20 years.
Our new training space is sitting right on the beach in Jemaluk Bay, Amed. Due to it’s deep walls, warm water and lack of currents, not to mention stunning natural beauty, this bay is fast becoming recognised as the best place in Bali for recreational free-diving. But free-diving is only half of what we do here. In our beach-side Yoga sala we also offer daily classes of Asana and regular classes of Pranayama and Meditation. Here are some pics taken over the last few days by the wonderful Mr Caine Delacy.
Weather has picked up very nicely the last few days. The peak of Agung has been clear, the sun shining and the water warm and clear. The last few days have seen some very pleasant free-diving. All hail the return of sunny days…
Onsite, things here have been plodding on, as fast as they ever do in Amed, Bali.
These will probably be the last pics before the place is all shiny, bright and ready to be filled with stuff…
This space will be used for free-diving theory, yoga and meditation practice and then for hanging out later on…
This will be the funkiest little free-diving gear storage space anywhere…
At the moment, we have the ugliest front in Bali. But in one month (or ten) this ugly place will be the first purpose built free-diving/yoga space in Bali…watch this space.
In the modern world silence is a luxury, more precious than gold. More than that, it is an experience that for many people is so alien that they even seem to fear it, filling every moment with chatter, TV, facebook and any one of the million media we now have to fill the space between conversations. That is why I love the Balinese holy-day of Nyepi so much.
Nyepi is the day of silence, a day when the whole island takes a big breath and becomes quiet. Observed from 6 a.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning, Nyepi is a day reserved for self- reflection and meditation, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The whole island closes down. Even the international airport closes, on an island whose lifeblood is tourism…There are no lighting fires, no working; no entertainment or pleasure; no travelling; and for some, no talking or eating at all.
Even tourists must observe Nyepi; although free to do as they wish inside their hotels, no one is allowed onto the beaches or streets. The only exceptions granted are for emergency vehicles carrying those with life-threatening conditions and women about to give birth. Even Kuta with it’s carnival of touts and taxis becomes an oasis of calm.
The Nyepi day is only one part of a lovely series of rituals that culminates the day after Nyepi in the Balinese New Year, a day when people get together and forgive each other any insults or injuries from the previous year.
Today is Melasti. Later, instead of free-diving, we will be joining a 1000 plus people in the village to walk to the beach, in a glorious procession of music and colour to make offerings to Sany yang widi, the supreme deity, Lord of Land and Ocean. This is part of the Balinese path of Yoga, using ritual to achieve union and balance with forces of Nature, in this case, appropriately enough,
this takes place on the beach. Holy water will be taken from the sea and used to bless ceremonial objects. As free-divers, how could we miss it?