Gate Gate…

Gate Gate, ParaGate, ParasamGate, Bodhi Svaha.

Doing the dharani this morning during my meditation. A nice round of 108 of those does wonders for one’s stress level. Which I was definitely needing this morning.

The chanting and a few capsules of “Calm the Bitch” and I’m feeling much better! Ah, yes, that’s an herbal blend with an inappropriate name, perhaps, but an effective blend and a perfectly descriptive name!

Not sure exactly what’s in it as it’s a personal blend from our friend Hsin-Hsin, a Chinese Medicine practitioner who manages the herbal pharmacy at East-West College of Natural Medicine. One of her students gave it the name after discovering its power to calm anger and relieve stress. Mostly citrus and a little He Huang Pi (Collective Happiness bark), I think.

But, back to the chanting. It’s the dharani from the Heart Sutra, one I’ve been chanting for nearly 30 years now. Its literal meaning, if such can be assigned to a dharani, is something like: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. Enlightenment be praised.” Some English versions include the phrases “gone to the other shore” and “having never left.”

Its real meaning is more in the sound of it than the words, and that sound can be transcendent. Especially if one is immersed in the Heart Sutra itself. But that’s way beyond the scope of this blog entry! Red Pine has a great book on the sutra if you’re interested.

Chanting dharanis or mantras is not something I do much of. It is more like medicine to me than a practice. I use it often when driving to help with the stress of that situation. I don’t think a practice built on daily chanting has the power to bring the kind of liberation, deep and wide liberation, that I see a true meditation practice as capable of bringing. I could be wrong about that, but it seems so to me.

I needed its medicine today, though.

Life has been rather loaded with stress, even anger, lately. I find that dealing with the stress via meditation and herbs is better than living in denial or escape. Much of the social malaise which plagues us nowadays could be laid at the feet of a public who would rather ignore, escape from, or deny social problems.

Much of my stress comes from the deeply sad, wounded nature of the world today. Though I live in this quiet, lovely community, word seeps in of the incomprehensible terror and pain that so many in our world, our sweet and beautiful world, live in. So many of my fellow beings, human and otherwise, find their daily lives surrounded by a hostile world of greed, anger and delusion, a world where these three poisons are taking human form in monstrous ways….

Monstrous ways that seem to threaten the very lives of all of us on so many levels. If it is true, as some propose, that we humans have developed to be the means by which this planet or even the entire cosmos is self-aware, then we are sensitive to all this pain and agony to good purpose. Which is why I think it’s better not to hide from or deny these realities. But it can be unpleasant and stressful, to say the least.

This stress can impact our lives and relationships in many ways. The most difficult thing for me, in trying to live a meditation-based life, is that I find myself in a near-constant state of frustration that cascades into irritation and anger, with an occasional outburst leading to more stress and unpleasant, hurtful feelings for ones I love.

A recent outburst and the fallout from that is a big part of my current need for stress medication! Things are improving greatly today, but the last few days were — well, not so good.

The positive side – the “wisdom side” as the Tibetans say – of this experience has been that it shows me once again how important it is to be consistent and deep and real in my meditation practice. My first Zen teacher always said that his teacher said, “One hour or meditation, one hour of enlightenment.”

Keep sitting.

Or, as that great philosopher Dave Mason said long ago, “Can’t stop worrying about the things we do. Can’t stop loving, without it nothing would seem true.”

 

 

Stress, ageing, meditation and society

As I continue to read and re-read parts of the article on the research of Elizabeth Blackburn, I get more and more amazed. This is intense, groundbreaking research on how stress ages us. Here’s the basic piece: she and her fellow researchers found:

… a repeating DNA motif that acts as a protective cap [on chromosomes]. The caps, dubbed telomeres, were subsequently found on human chromosomes too. They shield the ends of our chromosomes each time our cells divide and the DNA is copied, but they wear down with each division. In the 1980s, working with graduate student Carol Greider at the University of California, Berkeley, Blackburn discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can protect and rebuild telomeres. Even so, our telomeres dwindle over time. And when they get too short, our cells start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide – a phenomenon that is now recognised as a key process in ageing. This work ultimately won Blackburn the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Then she connected with Elissa Epel, a postdoc from UCSF’s psychiatry department, and the two began working on taking this research into the real world. They did research on mothers, and the findings are powerful:

The results were crystal clear. The more stressed the mothers said they were, the shorter their telomeres and the lower their levels of telomerase.

The most frazzled women in the study had telomeres that translated into an extra decade or so of ageing compared to those who were least stressed, while their telomerase levels were halved. “I was thrilled,” says Blackburn. She and Epel had connected real lives and experiences to the molecular mechanics inside cells. It was the first indication that feeling stressed doesn’t just damage our health – it literally ages us.

Ten years of research since then has added lots to the picture.

“Ten years on, there’s no question in my mind that the environment has some consequence on telomere length,” says Mary Armanios, a clinician and geneticist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who studies telomere disorders.

There is also progress towards a mechanism. Lab studies show that the stress hormone cortisol reduces the activity of telomerase, while oxidative stress and inflammation – the physiological fallout of psychological stress – appear to erode telomeres directly.

This seems to have devastating consequences for our health. Age-related conditions from osteoarthritis, diabetes and obesity to heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke have all been linked to short telomeres.

The big question for researchers now is whether telomeres are simply a harmless marker of age-related damage (like grey hair, say) or themselves play a role in causing the health problems that plague us as we age.

…This much we know; telomeres tend to shorten over time. But at age 75–80, the curve swings back up as people with shorter telomeres die off – proof that those with longer telomeres really do live longer. “It’s lovely,” she says. “No one has ever seen that.”

But the most interesting part of the studies to me – and I think I’ve blogged this bit before – is that meditation can help. They have begun researching

… ways to protect telomeres from the effects of stress; trials suggest that exercise, eating healthily and social support all help. But one of the most effective interventions, apparently capable of slowing the erosion of telomeres – and perhaps even lengthening them again – is meditation.

And this bit sounds like a quote from a mindfulness meditation manual:

Theories differ as to how meditation might boost telomeres and telomerase, but most likely it reduces stress. The practice involves slow, regular breathing, which may relax us physically by calming the fight-or-flight response. It probably has a psychological stress-busting effect too. Being able to step back from negative or stressful thoughts may allow us to realise that these are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality but passing, ephemeral events. It also helps us to appreciate the present instead of continually worrying about the past or planning for the future.

… That study, of 239 healthy women, found that those whose minds wandered less – the main aim of mindfulness meditation – had significantly longer telomeres than those whose thoughts ran amok. “Although we report merely an association here, it is possible that greater presence of mind promotes a healthy biochemical milieu and, in turn, cell longevity,” the researchers concluded. Contemplative traditions from Buddhism to Taoism believe that presence of mind promotes health and longevity; Blackburn and her colleagues now suggest that the ancient wisdom might be right.