Wednesday, October 29, 2008
In a recent scientific study conducted at the University of California Los Angeles, researchers examined the neurological processes surrounding short and long term grieving. The results, although partially speculative, provide an excellent backdrop for a conversation regarding meditation and its age old role in coping with sadness, depression and personal loss.
The study at UCLA examined 23 women who had lost a loved one within five years, eleven of whom still suffered from what psychologists call "CG" or "complicated grief": prolonged grieving resulting in depression, stress, fatigue, and lowered immune efficiency. While monitoring brain activity, researchers showed each woman pictures of her deceased loved one or words and phrases strongly associated with her deceased loved one. The results, as expected, showed that each woman in the study had social pain and grieving effects related to the images and words. But the interesting result was the commonality that all of the "complicated grievers" showed during the brain monitoring.
Each of the complicated grievers demonstrated high reward, pleasure, and addiction activity responses in the brain, in addition to the social grieving response. This finding suggests that brain interference could be responsible for "complicated grieving," and its fallout symptoms: fatigue, depression, stress, lowered immune efficiency and an inability to let go of the past. Some puzzling results, right?
Well, science is a funny thing. After all, it was the human mind that created the scientific method and rationalism, not the scientific method that created the rational mind. In other words, it's important to remember that human experience, in its full palette, inspired this kind of study in the first place. Therefore, interpreting the results of scientific data in a healthy conversation is the fertile ground where we might determine which seeds of cultural evolution are worth planting next. So what might this study imply about depression and how might it relate to meditation?
Let's make a few assumptions. Let's assume that being healthy and strong and "selfcentered" means that you are independently happy. In other words, you have established a healthy balance between the outside world (food, shelter, nature, clothing, jobs, people) and your inside world (emotions, thoughts, words, and actions). Now let's assume that people are thrown out of balance when they place too much emphasis on their internal world or the external world to create that sense of harmony and well being. In the case of the UCLA study, how would these assumptions about health filter out?
Let's say that your internal world feels terrible. You don't like who you are. You don't like your emotions, or they are too much to handle. Your mind moves too fast. You don't enjoy life. And you're always questioning what you say or why you said it. The immediate answer is often to look for another human or something outside to fix what is going on inside. It's not a terrible impulse. Sometimes it works. Sometimes when I'm feeling sad inside I will call a friend for a reminder that I am strong and special. Then something inside of me clicks over and I say, "Oh yeah, that's right. I am doing just fine." And in most of my friendships there is an equal balance of giving and taking from one another. We call each other for help about the same amount, or else we would start resenting each other.
But sometimes we get into relationships that are based around a constant and habitual need for something that we simply do not know how to do inside yet. It's as if we each have a muscle inside of us that must learn, as we grow up, to lift ourselves up when we need help and happiness. When this muscle has atrophied (because our parents didn't do a good job or because we got into a bad habit, or you believe in Karma, or sin, etc,) we often look for all of our strength in someone else, a relationship of some kind. It's human to need love, right?
On the surface this kind of relationship might seem perfectly normal. It might seem like love. When I'm weak my partner makes me strong and when my partner is weak I make them strong. However this isn't how it works. Instead it usually works like this: When I am weak my partner is strong, and when I am strong my partner is weak.
This unhealthy relationship looks like a seesaw. One person is always out of balance because of the other. This is not intimacy. Instead it is a constant and competitive swing between high and low that is most commonly associated with extreme behavioral disorders and addiction. Whereas the image of intimacy is more like a yoke of oxen. Life can be difficult and challenging. So it's important that if we're carrying a load, the ox on the left and the ox on the right have an equal amount of weight distributed between them. This means that each person has the same amount of internal muscle strength.
We often wonder why the divorce rate in our country is so high. Maybe it's because many relationships are unhealthy "seesaw" addictions instead of compatible teammates walking with equal weight distribution? And maybe when we see folks grieving for excessively long periods of time after losing a loved one it is because their relationship to that person was more like the see-saw addiction than a balanced relationship? In the wake of losing such a relationship a person might have to go through a prolonged period of sadness, just like a drug withdrawal.
How miserable would it be to withdraw from a person instead of appropriately mourning their passing? How confusing and painful. But it happens all of the time. So here's where meditation comes in. Because the obvious question to ask is, "How can we avoid these imbalanced relationships or how can we heal ourselves if we're coming out of an imbalanced relationship?"
I'm a meditation teacher, and I practice daily so perhaps I'm partial. But meditation is a way to develop the internal muscle that is needed to lift yourself off the mat when you feel like life is beating you up. Meditation has been proven to be of great help to people fighting or coping with behavioral disorders: people in AA or drug rehab, schizophrenics, terminally ill medical patients, and many others. By mediating and getting quiet inside we learn how to find happiness within ourselves, and we learn how to develop that internal muscle of self-love. As a healing technology, meditation is great for rehabilitating our wounds and could be a natural way for a person coping with prolonged grief to start reprogramming their mind and body to something new.
On the flip side, meditation is like preventative health care because strengthening that muscle makes it difficult to get into a co-dependent relationship in the first place (although the club might not be a fun place to meet people any longer, and you might become pickier about who you're thinking of spending your time with).
In closing it is interesting to think that since the dawn of time the indigenous peoples of our planet had ways of mending unhealthy relationships after death. In both the Hindu and Christian traditions, for example, early tribes and families had ritual times of mourning and releasing sadness. Beyond this it was thought of as inappropriate to mourn because it would tamper with the deceased soul's ability to travel forward beyond the earth. In fact, some cultures believed that excessive grieving trapped spirits on the earth and made them angry, causing a tribe to be haunted or cursed. In these situations special medicine men or religious authorities would sing songs and create additional healing rituals in order to detach a soul from the griever. Sometimes people would be sent into wilderness vision quest ceremonies to meditate for weeks and weeks in order to heal their minds and say a proper goodbye before they were allowed back into the community.
Is it so different today?
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