Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Zen meeting: Mind, body

Neuroscientists from the University of Wisconsin created a series of clinical tests involving 256 sensors stuck to the skull, and MRI scans.
The purpose of the test? To determine happiness.
Due to his off-the-charts score, the scientists have declared Matthieu Ricard the happiest man in the world. Ricard, who years ago abandoned his own science career in France to study Buddhism at a Tibetan monastery, credits meditation with his happiness.

Closer to home, some Las Cruces also credit meditation with not only happiness, but wellness and wholeness. "My road to wellness really started 12 years ago or so," said Ellen Schwartz, a partner in Las Cruces' Alegre Health Haven at the corner of Main Street and Alameda Avenue. "I had irritable bowl syndrome and other health challenges. I went to many doctors and got no relief. They gave me medication, but nothing worked. And I couldn't eat. "So I sought help in alternative directions. With help from my mentor, I learned to quiet my mind. It was very hard for me in the beginning.
"My mentor had me light a candle set my mind on it. If I had a thought, I would blow the candle out. It took a while to be able to calm my mind and my body down. When I learned to do it for one full minute — and it took a long time to get to that point, to let the candle burn for 60 seconds — it made all the difference. "Suddenly all my health challenges disappeared," Schwartz said. "They just went away. It was amazing. So I kept going. I'd been to all these doctors and there wasn't anything anyone was able to do."
Harvey Daiho's road to wellness began in Vietnam when, as an infantry soldier, he got shot in the head. "That, in effect, changed my life," said Daiho, who recently retired as the priest of the Las Cruces Zen Center. "I started a lifelong moral, ethical search so to speak, and I became a therapist. I got my Ph.D. in social work, and established and ran private mental health clinics." As a therapist, Daiho used meditation techniques, or as he called them then, stress management. "I worked with people who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder," he said. "The more Eastern philosophical and religious practices proved very useful tools in dealing with stress-related disorders."
Rev. Gozen Michael LaTorra, the current priest at the Las Cruces Zen Center, has seen meditation's positive effect on health in himself and in others. "There are physical benefits and psychological benefits," LaTorra said. "Mind and body. People who meditate — and this has been shown clinically in controlled studies, not just anecdotally — show improvements in blood pressure, immune response and level of anxiety."

Rev. Gozen Michael LaTorra, abbot of the Zen Center of Las Cruces, takes the position of eno, the timekeeper of a Buddhist meditation service. Above him are the Japanese characters dai butsu ji, which means "The Great Buddha Way" (Sun-News photo by Richard Coltharp).

LaTorra cited an 8-week study of adults and teenagers with ADHD, and published in the Journal of Attention Disorders in 2008. "The conclusion of this study was that meditation was helpful," LaTorra said. "With 30 percent reporting at least one-third reduction in symptoms and improved neuro-cognitive functions."

For Schwartz, her results were so profound, she had to share the wealth. She began teaching meditation, Tai Chi and wellness classes in Cicero, N.Y., before coming to Las Cruces two years ago to do the same at Alegre. The meditation helped her body, but later, her mind, when her son Kris, now 26, served two tours as a soldier in Iraq. "My Tai Chi road, just keeps evolving," Schwartz said. "I had done Tai Chi since I was a kid, so I was glad I knew the forms when my son went to Iraq first time. I found a teacher who helped me with different meditations. Instead of learning which foot goes where and which hand goes where, I was able to focus on the meditation aspects of Tai Chi. "I was able to quiet my anxiety down. After my son was involved in an ambush, I had a rolling anxiety that wouldn't go away. With meditation with Tai Chi, I was able to get rid of the anxiety."

What is meditation? Daiho calls meditation "deceptively simple."

"First, a person simply sits down," Daiho said. "The first aspect is Posture (a person sits down, crosses the legs and sits upright). The second aspect is Breath (for beginners in particular, you try to breathe through the nose, allowing it to find its own natural rhythm). The third aspect is Mind (that's the hardest; our brain produces thoughts, like our heart produces beats). "The training is to notice these thoughts, bring attention back to breath, notice you have a thought, go back to breath. "Do that for a period of, say, 25 minutes," Daiho said. "Your breath will naturally slow down, find its own rhythm. You will hear it slow down, and your blood pressure will go down.
"A good teacher is almost a necessary prerequisite," he said. "You need to have someone you can talk with, bounce stuff off of. Because you'll wonder, "Am I going crazy or what?'"

•"Happiness: A Guide To Developing Life's Most Important Skill," by Matthieu Ricard
• "Wherever You Go, There You Are," and "Full Catastrophe Living," by Jon Kabat-Zinn
•"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki

Web sites

By Richard Coltharp/Healthy U Editor (article launched: 07/02/2008)

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