by Joseph Brady and Jacqui Shumway
“Aging is a question of mind over matter — if you don’t mind it it doesn’t matter,” once quipped Mark Twain. Modern Biomedical research has verified that he was right, to a large extent. As we get older we look forward to enjoying our golden years and doing everything we’ve always wanted to do. However certain changes in our bodies and in our lives can make that more difficult. Mindfulness meditation can minimize these effects and we can get the most out of the life these bodies afford us.
Among the biochemical changes that effect the enjoyment of life is the decline in norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine is known as the “happiness and contentedness hormone”. Serotonin, among other things, is responsible for our being able to get a good night’s sleep or not. The conditions that destroy the quality of life for many older adults often can be traced to the normal decline of these chemical messengers. These include depression, loneliness, boredom and sleep disorders. In a very real way, the quality of our lives depends in large part on the quality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis.
Our Own Behavior Controls the Biochemistry
George Kerin, the former Chief of the Geriatric Unit at Fort Logan Mental Health Center and current Chief of the Adolescent Unit, often takes the position that certain behavioral activities such as, daily exercise, meditation, reading, memorizing or learning new things can be more effective in combating common depressions than conventional psychotherapy. How?, by directly effecting the levels of these chemical messengers. For people who suffer from severe clinical depressions, a combination of drug and psychotherapies can be a lifesaver and certainly a quality of life saver.
Another local educator, Harvey Milkman is a psychologist at Metro State. He and his colleague Stanley Sunderwirth, professor of Chemistry at Indiana-Purdue University, teamed up with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance to use exercise, dance and art as major components in Project Self-discovery. The program has successfully worked with young drug users to change life patterns by teaching young adults to create natural highs, to take control of their own biochemistry, and to get high on life without drugs. Although these are young people, the use of lifestyle factors such as exercise and meditation to improve norepinephrine and serotonin levels works well in both young and older adults and ultimately can improve their quality of life.
What is Meditation?
The term “meditation” can be easily misunderstood. When I speak of “meditation” I am not expecting you to adopt someone else’s belief system.
Scientifically, meditation is a very simple and natural process of quieting the mind of its typical chatter by focusing on breathing or movement or some other rhythmic action. This allows the mind to take a brief vacation from everyday problems and normal thinking patterns that distract us from enjoying life.
Dirty Tricks Department of the Mind
You are probably aware that certain patterns of thinking have been shown to have a devastating effect on the quality of life. Joan Borysenko, Director of the Mind/Body Clinic out of Harvard University, calls these patterns mind traps, attributing them to the “dirty tricks” department of the mind. We sabotage our own happiness with these patterns, and meditation can be a very useful way to examine our own thoughts and gain insight into our own worst enemy — ourselves.
What we expect in life never fully matches up to what we experience. When we don’t get what we want we feel disappointed and we suffer. The EGO then tries to figure out why we are unhappy, and usually explains it away by dipping into the subconscious for old thinking patterns that explain why we are suffering. Negative thoughts about ourselves such as “I’m no good,” I’ve never been any good at this,” “Well, I guess I’m just a rotten parent,” traps us in unhappiness because it doesn’t allow us to look for the real reasons we are unhappy so we can fix it. If we want to truly achieve happiness, we do not want to get stuck. We get stuck like the kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar unable to escape because we won’t let go of the cookie.
“I should have done this, or I should have done that,” result from negative social expectations of what we think others think about us. “What will the neighbors think?” We tell ourselves that we can’t possibly be happy unless we have this or do that or do what society says will make us happy. When we let others rule our lives, we cannot possibly follow our hearts. While we need to be considerate of others, we do not need to meet their expectations to be happy.
“Doing it my way” and rationalizing things” are two more of Joan Borysenko’s “dirty tricks” that undermine our relationships with others. We spend so much energy insisting that our way is the right way, that we stifle those around us and create our own misery. Do we have to be right all the time? Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?
Rationalizing is when we are always blaming others. We cannot be thinking about fixing a problem if we are using our thoughts to look for someone or something to blame. Like it or not, we cannot control what others do — only our reaction to them. A successful response to any perceived problem depends upon our willingness to focus energy on what we can do by taking responsibility for our role in the solution.
If these traps fail to relieve our unhappiness, we are in danger of falling into the two most dangerous mind traps of all — disillusionment and despair. “Oh well we tried,” “I did my best and it wasn’t good enough.” We give up and turn to drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive behavior even suicide to relieve our suffering.
Get Yourself a Regular Daily Practice
To get the most benefit from an exercise meditation program, seek out qualified, trained professionals who can ensure that you get the benefits for both health and well-being. A safe and appropriate environment is also necessary.
Plato once said that “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age.” Today many resources and much information exists to aid all of us to pursue a healthy, happy life and truly make our golden years golden.