I really like those 15 minutes of silence at breakfast each morning. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if the entire breakfast were done in silence, but I think that would be cruel to all those folks who have so much to talk about. Steel-cut oats, yogurt, granola, fruit, and local eggs are just the ticket to start the day. And happily, as the day wore on, the clouds cleared out and we had sunshine just in time for the afternoon break. So far, the weather has been cooperative, with relatively mild temperatures, but according to the weather forecast, Wednesday will be test for anyone’s capacity for detachment, with effective temperatures around 102 degrees and muggy air.
The program today formed the complement to yesterday’s approach. Where the talks yesterday laid out the contemplative approach to the body, today’s talks focused on the scientific investigation of the relationship between mind and body. George Chrousos, a pediatrician at the University Athens, Greece, is arguably the world authority on the effects of stress, and he gave a comprehensive tour of the body and its myriad reactions to stress. Although most people are aware that stress has an impact on health, it is unlikely that they are aware of just how pervasive that impact is or how many ways it is manifested. The talk was both powerful evidence of the mind-body connection and powerful endorsement for developing a contemplative practice.
Emory University professor Larry Barsalou developed that theme further by laying out a model of how stress develops in the mind. He particularly emphasized that stress is often produced not by an actual stressful event, but by the anticipation or memory of one, thorough mental simulations. And from a neurological point of view, there is no difference between them, in terms of the areas of the brain affected and the degree of impact.
The afternoon session looked at the effects of mindfulness on cancer treatment and weight loss with a tag team from Emory University. Professor of nursing Susan Baer-Wu talked about how the ravages of cancer are not limited to the body, but have massive and multiple impacts on the emotions, pain, and a host of other symptoms. Many of those impacts are impervious to tradition medication or may, in some cases, be exacerbated by them–in the case of treatment for the cancer itself causing nausea, skin problems, pain, etc. And her studies have looked at how mindfulness can reduce the discomfort and introduce peace and well-being even in terminally ill patients.
Psychology professor Linda Craighead presented her work on using mindful eating as a tool for addressing obesity. As she noted, disordered eating is a particularly complex problem that poses an assortment of challenges for the application of mindfulness. She advocates using a modified mindful-eating approach that first gets the patient used to recognizing the body’s responses to food. The question and answer period today was notable for the several participants who were looking for answers to their own eating issues.
After a splendid meal of vegetarian chili and carrot slaw, we were treated to presentations from this year’s four Varela Award winners, whose work focused mostly on measuring brain responses to various stimuli while meditating.
A full day, and a good one.
–Mark Cherrington, Mind and Life communications and event coordination