More Meditation, More Mindfulness

Dr. Mark Pirtle

I read an article published in the NY Times in the Life@Work section by Tony Schwartz titled: More Mindfulness, Less Meditation. Mr. Schwartz argues that mindfulness, not meditation is what brings about personal transformation. His take on meditation is that it is “learning to do one thing at a time… quiet the mind… relax the body… and, quiet the emotions.” Next, he goes on to say: “What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.”

I must contend with Mr Schwartz. Tony is not doing his research. Meditation is a key element is helping millions of people learn critical skills of emotional and behavioral self-management. Meditation helps foster the capacity for attention, self-regulation, compassion, and increases positive emotional states including joy and happiness.

Sure, being mindful in life is the purpose, but formal sitting practice is how one learns to be mindful, which means skillfully managing the fast paced flow of triggers, thoughts and sensations. As my readers know, mind-body networks run by themselves. You’ve heard me say: “No one is growing fingernails or beating hearts.” Your network is reading and understanding English right now. Look at these words and understanding takes place, all by itself. Patterns of “self” (who you thing you are) emerge out of this unimaginably complex flow of subtle mind-body processes. Once a pattern stabilizes itself, it tends to continue to make itself. For example, if left alone, chronically depressed people stay depressed.

Such entrenched patterns are called “attractor states.” Attractor states are states that attract themselves through reinforcing feedback. If one is not taught how to peer skillfully into the mind-body, and the subtle stream of self-making actions (the purpose and practice of insight meditation), one has very little chance of self-management, let alone transformation. Formal sitting practice slows things down. It helps one see clearly how triggers, thoughts and sensations create the cause and effect loops, that then form the attractor state of “self.”

Once one learns to watch the flow of triggers, thoughts and sensations skillfully, mindfulness in life becomes the goal. Mindfulness in life is enabled by formal sitting practice. How else would one learn to be mindful? Basketball players don’t practice free throws because that is an end in itself. A basketball player only practices free throws so he or she can make them in the game. That’s the purpose of practice: to learn a skill, keep it sharp, and then apply the skill practically. This is why I say “more meditation, more mindfulness!”

If you’d like support starting your own sitting practice, I’m here to support you.



If You’re Gonna Be Dumb, You’ve Gotta Be Tough

Mark Scuba Diving in Mexico

Over 25 years ago I worked on a dive boat in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before one particular dive, my friend Steve dropped the anchor overboard and to all our amazement, the line and chain paid-out completely and disappeared beneath the waves.Mark Scuba Diving in Mexico Unfortunately, Steve had forgotten to secure the line to the bow cleat before he let go the anchor. Our captain watched the entire escapade and uttered words that I found both wise and apropos. “Steve”, he said, “if you’re gonna to be dumb, you gotta be tough.” Steve spent the rest of the day fishing the anchor, chain, and 150 feet of line off the bottom. Absentmindedness and inexperience caused Steve a bit of trouble that day. Similarly, and without intending to do so, many of us make trouble for ourselves.

So what does Steve’s story have to do with stress related illnesses? A new idea in the field is that many people unwittingly, through their own thoughts, emotions and actions, play a big part in prolonging and intensifying their own condition. The sad irony is that the harder a person tries to get better, often the worse the condition gets. By no means am I implying the condition is the fault of the person. Rather, what I’m saying is that illnesses related to stress are complicated, and therefore, it takes knowledge, attention and skill to heal it. Getting better starts by first not making the condition worse, and that’s hard to do! Let me explain.

Every event (positive, negative or neutral) in a person’s life generates corresponding reactions in the form of emotions, thoughts and behavior. Such reactions reflect that person’s reading of the event. Psychologists call these interpretations, “appraisals.” Appraisals are gut level, pre-verbal judgments. Evidence suggests that when a person experiences overwhelming distress, he or she is likely to appraise the situation in one or a combination of the following three ways:

  1. The situation represents a loss
  2. The situation represents a threat
  3. The situation represents an injustice

Appraisals then set the thematic tone of a person’s internal dialogue. A loss appraisal makes a person think that he or she has been damaged. The story of loss then leads to the emotion of sadness. If the story of loss persists, it will lead to depression. A threat appraisal causes a person to think that he of she will not be able to cope. Stories of threat cause the emotion of fear to arise, and can eventually lead to anxiety or panic. An injustice appraisal raises issues of fairness, which spurs anger and resentment. When an event is highly positive or negative, an emotional story gets going in a person’s head. These stories then draw the person’s full attention, which results in the emotion lasting long after the event has passed. Appraisals and their subsequent stories therefore prolong the above-mentioned negative emotions. With these negative emotions come “fight or flight” stress responses. Long-lasting stress is blamed for many chronic diseases; but is it the stress or the story?

The Stress-Appraisal connection sheds light on how a person’s thoughts lead to strong negative emotions that then affect the body. Let me say a few words about the concurrent bodily processes that in turn affect a person’s thoughts. Nerve impulses produce every thought we have, emotion we experience, or sensation we feel. Neurons that interact with each other form networks. In 1949, Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb first observed this self-reinforcing feedback loop: the more nerves in a network fire together, the more they wire together. This implies that a person, by repeating certain thoughts, emotions and behaviors will rewire him or herself to experience similar thoughts, emotions and behaviors in the future. Such rewiring, also known as Hebbian learning is the basis for memory, and is the defining feature of what we now call “neuroplasticity.” In this case, a brain that feels stressed will react strongly and emotionally to it and therefore keeps its attention on it. This feedback will rewire the brain (and therefore the person) to experience more stress.

A sensitized brain can then register stress without any precipitating stressful event. How scary is that? In such cases, the stress “lives” in the brain as a network effect. Unfortunately, there is no surgery, medication, therapy, or modality yet invented that will heal such sensitivity. But happily, people suffering from chronic stress related illnesses can and do get better. When a person learns to skillfully direct his or her attention in a soothing way, change and healing can happen.

Studies show that the more patients know about their condition, the better their management and outcomes. Conversely, ignorance of one’s condition increases fear, which leads to story making and more fear. Lacking understand of this mind-body connection often causes a person to get stuck in a cycle of hating thoughts and sensations, which only makes it worse. That’s why for sufferers of chronic stress-related illnesses, appraisals have more impact on their prognosis than does their diagnosis!

Over the past 30 years, neuroscientists studying mindfulness meditation have generated a lot of data. These researchers found that there is something about sitting quietly, picking a meditation object, and mindfully watching it that stimulates healing in the practitioner. One of my meditation teachers, Shinzen Young, says mindfulness has three qualities: clarity, concentration and equanimity. These qualities increase a person’s tolerance for distress, thus cutting the emotional power behind the Stress-Appraisal loop. In other words, a person who watches his or her suffering state with clarity, steadiness, and composure can heal it. Why? Mindfulness practice may be a means of self-directing neuroplasticity. Experiencing discomfort mindfully is simply a far less stressful way of being. In fact, it is healthy and calming.

I heard a statistic recently that in any one moment, there are 1000 quadrillion bits of information flowing into and circulating around a person’s body. There’s no way to validate this sum, but accurate or not, it makes an important point: there’s a lot happening inside each of us! Freud talked about the unconscious, and you can see why: we can’t pay attention to everything. But those who learn to meditate gain insight into otherwise unconscious processes that enable them to make healthy changes. Meditators learn to become ever more aware of their internal experience. Meditation is therefore a way to enter the mind-body’s internal conversation and consciously change the story. There may be no other reasonably reliable means to steer neuroplastic changes. For that reason, healing any stress-related condition is an inside job.

The research coming out of the fields of both pain science and meditation agrees: absentmindedness and inexperience in mindfulness can lead to suffering states. My job as a therapist and meditation teacher therefore is clear: to teach my clients how to be mindful of distressing states as they arise, and, to give them tools that then enable them to skillfully manage those same states. In the immortal words of Captain William Bligh: “the beatings will continue until moral improves.” What this means for us is that healing requires a shift in perspective. Instead of resisting what one does not like, accept and work with it so it may pass away by itself. The better you are at that, the less trouble you will get into and therefore the less tough you will need to be. Let me teach you a mindfulness practice. It’s easier than you think and it will positively change your life.

Wishing you the best health and happiness,




Stress, the Social Crisis of Our Time

The pressures not only to succeed, but to simply make ends meet have never been greater. As a result, stress is a fact of life for most people. Indeed, 79% of Americans report living with higher than healthy levels of stress. Scarier still is the fact that two-in-five Americans 35-54 years old report extreme levels of stress on a regular basis. Accordingly, chronic illnesses related to stress have become the social crisis of our time, costing our society well over 1.5 trillion dollars annually. The research has been quite clear: the negative behavioral patterns and illnesses associated with modern life—insomnia, all manner of addictions from chemical to behavioral, depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity, eating disorders, diabetes, asthma, allergies, OCD, ADD, ADHD, PTSD, metabolic syndrome, chronic pain and headaches, ulcers, IBS, autoimmune diseases and much more—are all related to unhealthy levels of stress! This isn’t rocket science; stress is making us sick.

Part of the problem rests with the fact that most people do not know how to adequately cope with, or skillfully self-manage their stress. Understandably, people turn to the medical system for help. This explains why 80% of all doctors’ visits today are attributable to stress and its related illnesses. Accordingly, all of the patterns and conditions listed above have become “medicalized.” Yes, these patterns and conditions do manifest physical and psychological symptoms, which are helped by medicine—so medicine does have a part to play. That being said however, have you ever met a person whose stress related illness was cured by a pill? Probably not. Pills can manage, but they can’t cure a stress illness. In other words, medicine is a way to lessen the intensity of symptoms, which is helpful, but pills do not target and therefore remedy the root cause of the problem. Don’t lose heart though. A fundamental solution to stress-related illnesses does exist, but in order to apply the remedy in service of healthful change requires three interrelated elements: understanding, practice, and skillful execution.

“Have you ever met a person whose stress related illness was cured by a pill?”

Let’s start with correct understanding. Correct understanding implies this: the more a person knows about his condition, i.e. what causes it, the better he is able to manage it, and therefore improve his outcome. This principle has been applied in numerous studies related to all kinds of conditions. Stress illnesses are no exception. In order to heal a stress related pattern one also has to understand its primary cause. Once the cause is correctly understood, refraining from that cause can then be curative. It makes sense.

over-workedSo, do you think you know THE cause of all stress related illnesses? There’s only one that lies at the heart of them all. You may think that its something like stress hormones, like the oft maligned culprits cortisol and adrenaline. That would be a good guess. These chemicals are part of the problem. But the actual cause starts before such chemicals are even produced by your body. The actual cause and cure of stress-illnesses first starts in the mind of a stressed-out person. “The cause and cure of all stress-illnesses starts in the mind of a stressed-out person.”

Okay, here it is, the cause of all stress related illnesses is something that I call “Attentional Fixation.” Attentional fixation is where a person’s attention gets stuck on something: like an obsession. Behind all stress is an obsessive, fixated attention. The reasoning behind my assertion is simple to understand. Attentional fixation causes emotion—intense liking or disliking. Emotion then creates stress chemicals—serotonin and dopamine on the liking side, cortisol and adrenaline on the disliking side. If the stress chemicals persist in a person’s body for too long and in too high a concentration, biochemical “dysregulation ” occurs, which then predictably leads to symptoms. This process explains how attentional fixation, emotion, and repetition create downward spirals, or what are known as accelerating, or self-reinforcing feedback loops. This is how through mental and physical feedback processes (actions) a person develops a stress related illness. And, why once it arises, it’s so hard to heal or change it.

Because this is so, the cure for stress illnesses comes from skillful monitoring of where one’s attention goes, knowing whether it’s fixated, and lastly, being able to unfixate it. The cure therefore comes from training one’s mind—to change your life and feel better requires that you learn to be mindful. Let me help you start a practice. I want you to be happy!

Wishing you health and happiness,