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The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

The Science of Meditation for Friends who Think You’re a Hippie

EDIT: Ok yep, this post actually doesn’t dive into the science at all, although it does summarise some scientific studies. I’m gonna revisit this again and get a bit more scientific-y another time.

Meditation rocks. If you can actually be bothered to do it more days than not, or even if you do it sporadically, there’s so much to be gained from hanging out on that cushion. Let’s face it though, it’s still seen as a pretty alternative practice by those who don’t close their eyes for extended periods of time except for when they’re sleeping, and for those of us who do, it’s tempting to keep our practice a secret to colleagues and certain friends, for fear of being called that most lazy of insults, a hippie. Or maybe that’s just me.

Thankfully meditators everywhere have a new ally. Science is on our side! Recent developments in research and in neuroscience in particular have shed fascinating insights into what happens physiologically and psychologically when we meditate, validating that ancient practice and demonstrating it’s universal worth.

Of course those of us who meditate know what good it does for us without have to turn to the ‘S’ word for validation of our practice, but it’s worth recognising what this research is telling us, partly because it’s great motivation to keep meditating, or maybe approach it with renewed vigour, but also because it’s great to have some handy ammo in case that ‘H’ word ever gets aimed at us.

Humans have known about the efficacy of meditation for thousands of years, yet in the west it’s only been relatively recently that it has started to catch on. Despite an increase in awareness of meditation, it’s still likely some of your friends will think you’re a nut for doing it, so here is what you’ve always wanted – a list of some of the profound benefits of meditation, as confirmed by those rational scientists. Who can argue with that? And if you don’t meditate, this is what you’re missing…

1) The mindfulness cultivated by meditation lowers levels of the hormone cortisol, of which high levels are associated with stress

2) The practice of meditation produces a relaxation response, even in new meditators, leaving you nice and mellow but without blunting the sharpness of your mind

3) Meditation actually causes physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the volume of grey matter in the right orbito-frontal cortex, and the size of the right hippocampus. Why should we care? This is good because it’s thought larger volumes in these regions leads to the cultivation of positive responses and emotions, and increased engagement in mindful behaviour.

4) Meditation increases cortical thickness, which recent studies have associated with lowering pain sensitivity

5) Meditating strengthens the connections between brain cells, and increases ‘gyrification’ of the cortex. This enables the brain to process information faster. Furthermore, it was found the more years you meditate the greater these benefits.

6) Just ten days of intensive mindfulness training can lead to improvements in working memory, sustained attention, attention switching and depressive symptoms

7) Meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, enhancing your ability to control worried thinking

8) Meditation decreases elaborative stimulus processing, resulting in the improved ability to attend to the continuous stream of stimuli we are exposed to without getting ‘fixed’ on one particular thing

9) ‘Open’ meditation increases creativity and the ability to come up with new ideas

10) In one study, meditation reduced the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or death by 48%

Who knew?! If you want to be creative, less stressed, more chilled, kinder, healthier and a better thinker, you know what to do…

Can Ayahuasca Really Make You Happy?

Can Ayahuasca Really Make You Happy?

A lot has been written about the therapeutic efficacy and transformative power of the visionary Amazonian brew ayahuasca. I myself have enthusiastically espoused the benefits of the vile tasting drink online and to those I feel able to talk openly with. Ayahuasca has attained cult-like status among those with an interest in entheogens, spirituality and self development.

Its use has been increasing every year and what was once the sole pursuit of shamans and the indigenous peoples of the Amazonian region has now become a large-scale industry, attracting many ‘ayahuasca tourists’ from all over the world to countries such as Peru, Equador, Colombia and Brazil. Use of the brew has also become prevalent far from the land of its origin, through Santo Daime churches around the world and with other groups and individuals practising ayahuasca healing works inside and outside of a traditional framework.

In the summer of 2008 I nervously entered a village hall in the south of England to attend my first ayahuasca ceremony. It was the culmination of an unlikely and remarkable set of circumstances, and my life was never to be the same again. Since then I have partaken of ayahuasca on and off for a number of years, having drunk it a total of about thirty times both in the UK and in Peru. Given the reputation ayahusaca sometimes seems to have—so often being spoken of in revered terms and considered by some to be the ultimate of all self development and healing tools—I think it’s interesting to take a step back and consider as objectively as possible what changes regular use of ayahuasca really can invoke. I am not concerned here with describing the experience itself in detail but rather in discussing the impact that regular participation in the ayahuasca experience can have on an individual’s life.

Of course all my views have been filtered through my own perceptions and interpretations and therefore you could say they might not be more generally representative, though having discussed my experiences with others I’m confident what follows is expressive of the experience for many people. I’m not claiming to be some ayahuasca guru, I’m just a dude who’s drunk ayahuasca a bunch of times reflecting on my experience.

For those unfamiliar with the ingredients or experience of the brew, a brief outline follows; those already familiar are welcome to skip this paragraph. Ayahuasca is most commonly made by slowly brewing in water a combination of the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi with Chacruna leaves until a concentrated putrid brown liquid is achieved. Other ingredients may be also added. The leaves contain DMT (diemthyltriptamine) which is made orally active during the brewing process by the presence of an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) in the vine. This drink is typically consumed in amounts of around 25 to 100 ml, traditionally in a ceremonial setting. The DMT is the primary component responsible for the ‘psychedelic’ nature of the experience, during which the participant might experience strong visions or hallucinations; the experience of travelling to and seeing other worlds, dimensions, times and realms; encounters with entities that might be benevolent or threatening in nature; a strong sense of empathy, fear, love or other emotions; receiving information and teachings regarding their life, relationships, the nature of reality, and much more. I won’t concern myself further with the chemical composition of the brew or the phenomenological details of the experience but instead refer the interested reader to Erowid for more information.

Ayahuasca demands much from those who choose to drink it. It can be an uncomfortable or even terrifying experience and is almost certainly unlike anything an ayahuasca newbie will have experienced before, though experience with LSD, ketamine or psilocybin will provide some helpful reference points. While often invoking challenging experiences, it can also offer glimpses of blissful states of mind far beyond what is normally possible for most people.

One striking feature of the experience per se is that when you are ‘in it’ it often feels inherently and extremely valuable in nature, as though by merely participating you are engaging in something of fundamental importance, perhaps of even more importance than anything else you might ever have done – at least that’s how it can seem. In addition it is also often quite simply the most extraordinary thing you will have ever taken part in, often being ridiculously entertaining, humbling, shocking, completely ‘far out’, aesthetically and philosophically stimulating, profound and pregnant with meaning and value, and potentially overwhelming of the senses.

But what happens in the weeks and months after a ceremony? The unfolding of the experience over time is complex and can be influenced by many factors, but there are some recurrent themes. One of the most valuable of these is that using ayahuasca often bestows upon one an extraordinary ability to heal relationships with others. I know from first hand experience that breakthroughs can be made in relations with parents, lovers and people you have fallen out with, no matter how unlikely this might seem beforehand.

Part of the reason for this seems to be the extremely empathetic nature of the experience, enabling you to understand the perspective of the other and to make sense of their experience. In addition the experience provides what I would describe as an energetic release; the negative emotions associated with the relationship are no longer felt so strongly, as though purged from the felt emotional body. In their place can be found a desire for harmony, an ability to forgive and an acceptance of one’s own wrongdoings, alongside a willingness to admit them, at least to yourself. I have benefited profoundly from this aspect of ayahuasca.

Somehow drinking ayahuasca seems to cultivate in the user a greater affinity with nature and a deeper appreciation of our biological identity. As a result we feel both more ‘human’, and more embedded in nature. We become more aware that we are an expression of nature and evolution. The sense of separation from our natural origins dissolves and the natural world is re-experienced as home, sacred, of great importance, and essential to preserve. A distaste for overexposure to technology and hectic urban environments may also develop.

A related extension to this is awakening to a desire to consume more natural food and drink, and to eliminate unnatural products from the diet. I know many people who have transitioned to a vegetarian or raw food diet as a result of drinking ayahuasca. In addition, the preference for consuming alcohol and other drugs is often diminished or disappears. There is a greater perception of the body and mind of the individual as being something to be looked after and nourished.

Ayahuasca may provide the individual with a greater sense of meaning to their life, as though what once may have seemed senseless can now be seen to be part of a teleological path or life-long journey. Often the path involves goals such as healing oneself and relationships, or finding a way to live that has more meaning and makes a positive contribution to the world, or is a positive expression of the individual. Basically, it can turn you into a bit of a hippie.

Ayahuasca work is shadow work par excellence. Psychotherapists recognise the importance of integrating unhealthy, unacknowldged or repressed aspects of the self through bringing them into conscious awareness, and though there are many methods to do this there may be no greater tool than ayahuasca. The uncomfortable or even downright terrifying features of an ayahuasca experience are part of this process and seem to facilitate an acceptance of our darker or previously denied human traits. It is understood that these are equally valid parts of one’s whole being whose presence must be acknowledged and integrated for a healthy and balanced mind.

In my experience, regular ayahuasca use (in my case as in a frequency of approximately once or twice every two to four months) enhances the ability to cope with the visicitudes of life. A greater capacity for handling adversity may be available and it may be possible to detect a sense of peace and that ultimately ‘things are okay’, even amongst the drama of a relationship ending or other upheavals common to the human experience. Perhaps most remarkably, I know of several instances where use of ayahuasca has healed serious long term depression and helped people in the most desperate of predicaments immeasurably. It is anecdotes like this that have lent ayahuasca it’s cult like status and reputation.

Well all this sounds pretty great, hey, what’s not to like? Well maybe, but it’s worth bearing a few things in mind, as, like with most things, it’s not quite that simple. Perhaps most obviously, drinking ayahuasca will not stop crappy things happening. This is life and shit happens. The journey is not smooth; hearts may be broken, dark spells may visit, jobs may be lost, depression may return. While ayahuasca may certainly offer an enhanced ability to deal with difficult times it will not stop them happening. Ayahuasca is not a ”cure all’. While it certainly seems to peel back and heal layers of our selves, new challenges will surface as new layers are encountered.

The development of more holistic values and a desire for a less conventional lifestyle may prompt greater dissatisfaction with one’s social circle, job, home city and the collective values and morals of society and culture at large. Ayahuasca often grants a vision of just how good things could be, if they weren’t so fucked up. Returning home after a ceremony and realising how far from this ideal the world is can be disheartening. A greater sense of alienation may also be experienced, as the ayahuasca initiate joins the small club of those who cannot see the world the way they did before. This could be harnessed as a catalyst for making positive changes but it must be acknowledged that the process is not guaranteed to be easy.

The deeper life journey that ayahuasca use seems to set people on can be said to be richer in some ways, but might still involve painful lessons that have to be endured along the way. At times great pain can seem so senseless, but at other perhaps fleeting or extended moments you can glimpse a purpose or a teaching in the way your heart or sense of self has been cracked so nakedly and wide open. Ayahusaca increases our insight in these areas. On the ayahuasca journey our sense of what is worthwhile engaging with might change, as conventional distractions such as addictions and involvement in popular culture cease to fulfill, and a more essential and authentic vision of oneself is birthed.

Ayahuasca can also be seductive, and new initiates may experience a period where the virtues of ayahuasca are elevated to a degree where it is not acknowledged that hard graft remains and life may still be tough. Ayahuasca may be seen as the ‘holy grail’ of self development and not as one of many tools available to us. In addition to this, strong visions or received information may be interpreted too literally, resulting in a distorted notion of reality and a warped sense of self. A lack of critical discrimination might result in the literal belief that beings or entities encountered in a vision are actually real, ignoring the possibility that they may be symbolic representations of aspects of the self or a personal issue. It would be easy to become over-attached to the story of ourselves that we gain so much insight into in ceremony, and talking too openly and evangelically about your literal belief in what you experienced in ceremony can annoy people and make you seem a bit crazy.

In my experience, Ayahuasca is no panacea. Ayahuasca does not automatically make you a nice person. Years of Ayahuasca use will not mean you no longer have to deal with problems or even really heavy, burdensome troubles. Drinking ayahuasca does not stop you making mistakes. Ayahuasca use will make you confront aspects of your self you don’t like. Ayahuasca could force you to make uncomfortable changes to your life. Drinking ayahuasca does not result in an ‘end point’ where everything is miraculously fixed.

And yet, Ayahuasca could also gift a deeply profound and divine experience of life. It may well heal your broken heart, your broken relationships, or the way you hate yourself. It could help you to discover or commit to something you’re passionate about, or imbue life with new meaning. It could heal your sadness. It really could be that new beginning.

The ayahuasca journey is complex; some aspects are of great benefit and other aspects present their own challenges, and what I’ve listed is by no means exhaustive. To conclude, and to try to answer the question posed in the title—can ayahuasca really make you happy?—I really want to say ‘yes’. It’s a yes with a caveat though – there is every chance, but it’s a bumpy road. But does it make life richer, and pave the way for a more profound engagement with our world and experience, whatever that may entail? On this we can emphatically confirm it does.

In my opinion ayahuasca is an incredible tool for assisting with the overcoming of things that make our lives difficult, and for gaining meaning in a world that often makes no sense. There is a reason ayahuasca is known as ‘medicine’ and as a healer. Combined with a regular meditation practice and support from others who know the brew, it is even more effective, and anyone who feels called to explore this world and is ready for and accepting of challenge and change can be sure that there is potentially much to gain.

Reclaiming ‘Hippie’: The Taboo of Positive Living

It seems like the more I make positive changes to my life the more I get called a hippie. Granted this is usually by friends and it might be in jest but nonetheless it points to an interesting phenomenon. The term hippie, as used today, seems to be a derogatory word, and even when it is used jokingly I think it reflects something important – that is, mainstream society’s indifference or perhaps even contempt for values that are not about doing whatever is normally done, whether or not it is good for you the individual, or the planet.

Most recently I’ve started making nut and seed milk. Yes okay, I can hear the cries of ‘hippie!’ starting already. Why? I think it’s probably not that great for a cow’s welfare to be forcibly milked all the time, at least I know I wouldn’t like it; nut milk is healthier for me too; it’s not much more hassle than going to the shop; it’s no more expensive than normal milk; it gets me closer to my food and it tastes amazing. What’s not to like?

Yet this is precisely the type of activity that is ripe for the mockery of the hippie tag, as is my thrice weekly yoga practice, healthy eating, daily meditation, interest in entheogens and probably a load of other stuff. It’s as if doing anything positive is socially unacceptable. How weird is that?! These are all really good activities, good for cows, good for my mind and good for my body, yet on hearing about them people choose to poke fun. I’m really interested in what’s going on here.

It’s not that I want to ban humour, and I’ve used the H word myself so I’m really not complaining, it’s more I’d like to point out that if we look behind this seemingly innocent jesting, we see that it conceals the way we have been conditioned to discount the value of things which are not ‘normal’, with normal meaning activities and habits that we have been conditioned to unconsciously believe are the right thing to do.

I’m thinking of the overconsumption of alcohol, the implicit support of large scale animal torture and murder, the mindless consumption of crappy TV, and addiction to food that will kill you to name a few. Most people mindlessly engage in these destructive behaviours without a thought and thus implicitly endorse all that they stand for. We all do it (even hippies), to a greater or lesser degree.

Of course there are exceptions but I find that often when someone uses ‘hippie’, even in humour, it indicates a tendency not to question the way things are, and an adherence to the conventional version of what’s right. Strangely they neglect the value of activities concerned with living as positively as possible. What is it about our culture that means we find the activities that are best for us strange and unappealing?

If people insist on using it then in response I’d like to redefine and reclaim the word hippie. No longer must we associate the term with outdated connotations of unwashed, long haired drop-outs. I’m proud to be called a hippie because to me what it stands for now is to be freethinking, to have the perception to avoid cultural brainwashing, the depth to always ask questions and the ability to step outside of the consensus trance.

It means never giving up and settling for things the way they are now, and always believing there is a better way to live. It means compassion for animals, concern for the environment and a faith in the potential inherent in humans and life. I don’t care if anyone thinks I sound like a hippie, to me it’s just the right way to live.

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