Pain Management, Inflammation and Meditation medical imagesFor over thirty years now, we’ve seen the management of pain being treated by mindfulness. This technique was brought into the mainstream by Jon Kabat Zinn and his now highly successful mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MBSR) program, which began at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. In his 1982 paper titled, “An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: theoretical considerations and preliminary results.”, Zinn declares that there is a detachment experienced in meditators from the sensory experience and the “affective/evaluative alarm reaction” experience via the meditator’s new-found cognitive reappraisal.

What does that mean? It means that you disassociate your feelings and thoughts of the pain from the physiological sensation while you are experiencing pain. The act of doing so greatly diminishes the suffering involved. If you’re interested in this meditation technique, Shinzen Young, the well-known American meditation teacher and monk, has some great talks on pain and its management through meditation (through its mechanism of cognitive reappraisal). Here’s one you might enjoy:

Now let’s switch gears for a moment. This may seem obvious, but a number of studies suggest a relationship between pain and inflammation. For example, Laird et al., (2011) studied the relationship between pain and inflammation using C-reactive protein (CRP) as a marker, concluding a positive correlation using data from two clinical trials. Later, Laird et al., (2013) expanded their study, using a larger cohort of patients to test patient-reported outcomes (including the perception of pain) and inflammation levels (again using CRP). Much like their first study, they concluded that the majority of cancer symptoms are associated with inflammation — including pain.

Furthermore, in the Journal of Clinical Investigation article, “What is this thing called pain?” (Woolf, 2010), the author includes inflammatory pain as one of the three primary classifications of pain, stating:

“…pain assists in the healing of the injured body part by creating a situation that discourages physical contact and movement….pain is one of the cardinal features of inflammation.”

To this point, we’ve been assuming that meditation acts to reduce our perception of pain through Zinn’s mechanism of cognitive reappraisal. We may want to reconsider this long-held idea — it appears that meditation may actually have a biophysiological effect! A recent study by P. Kaliman et al., (2013) reveals that meditation may have an additional pain-reducing effect through its possible control over inflammatory pathways. Kaliman et al., shows that mindfulness may produce beneficial effects for peoples with chronic inflammation, by way of the mechanisms employed by anti-inflammatory drugs like HDACi (e.g. Trichostatin A) or cycloxygenase inhibitors (e.g. asprin). While Kaliman et al., (2013) could not demonstrate that the downregulation from meditation/HDAC gene expression had an impact on these anti-inflammatory pathways, this correlate is an important finding, warranting further research. Considering that meditation appears to have a profound effect on pain, yet needs more evidence outlining its mechanism of action, more research in this direction may help to increase funding for meditation and pain research researchers.

Laird, B., McMillan, D., Fayers, P., Fearon, K., Kaasa, S., Fallon, M., Klepstad, P. (2013). The systemic inflammatory response and its relationship to pain and other symptoms in advanced cancer. Oncologist, 18(9), 1050.

Laird, B., Scott, A., Colvin, L., McKeon, A., Murray, G., Fearon, K., Fallon, M. (2011). Cancer pain and its relationship to systemic inflammation: an exploratory study. Pain, 152(2), 460.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33.

Kaliman, P., A´lvarez-Lo´pez, M., Cosı´n-Toma´s, M., Rosenkranz, M., Lutz, A., Davidson, R. (2014). Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneruroendocrinology, 40, 96.

Woolf, C. (2010). What is this thing called Pain? The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 120 (11), 3742.

5 Apps for Meditation

I’ve found that integrating my meditation practice with meditation apps (or mindfulness apps), believe it or not, has really helped me further my practice. There are countless guided meditation apps out in the market. So I won’t attempt to sift through those. Many are useful for the beginner and I think they’re a great way to learn how to properly meditate. That being said, you’ll probably need step away from the guidance to get deeper into your practice at some point. While some of the apps below use guided meditation as a feature, there are a couple here that go an extra step to help you further your practice. Here are a few that you might find useful.



image courtesy of:

1. Insight Timer – (Free and paid options)

I use this cloud based timer for my meditation practice. If I feel I can spare only a few minutes for a quick meditation session, I can set my timer for a short amount of time. Usually, after my quick session, I decide that I should have set my timer for a longer period of time; I find out what is really important in my day. This app is also great because it keeps track of how many days you’ve been meditating, gives you long and short-term goals and give you access to different messaging groups (although I haven’t used these too much)

2. Lift – (Free)

While not a “meditation app” per say, I use this additional app to keep track of the days that I meditate. It will send you push notifications to keep you motivated and remind you to keep track of your habits. Unlike the other apps in this list, you can input whatever habit you’d like to keep track of, and receive motivation from other people that use the app too. You may find its helpful to keep track of your thoughts of loving-kindness throughout the day, or maybe you’d like to keep track of being aware of your breath throughout the day. Name it, you can keep track of it.

3. Buddify – (Paid)

Taking a modern approach to Buddhism, Buddhify uses guided meditations to help you navigate the modern world with a Buddhist mindset. Great narratives and great for beginners looking into how to approach Buddhism in everyday life.

4. Headspace – (Free with Paid options)

Although I’ve never used this app, it seems to be so popular that I couldn’t leave it off the list. It uses animations to help you learn how sit and meditate. Guided meditations are also provided, and like most of the apps above, allows you to keep track of your practice.

5. ReWire –

Since I’m Canada, I can’t actually download this app (US only store), but the premise seems interesting at least. It aims to cultivate your focused attention by accessing your music and video in your iTunes library and asking you to pay attention to the gaps in the playback. The concept of this app comes from Shinzen Young’s technique using “gone” to note when a sensory input vanishes. While an interesting concept, I’m unsure how much this will differ from the concentration I’m able to cultivate when playing Candy Crush.


Evidence for mindfulness treatment for individuals experiencing psychosis

You will often see literature that advises against meditation for individuals who have issues with psychosis/mental instability. Honestly, it made sense to me; things can get very weird while meditating. Why add to mental phenomena that you’re unfamiliar with when you’re just struggling to cope? However, this article, titled, “Mindfulness groups for distressing voices and paranoia: a replication and randomized feasibility trial” shows that our assumptions could be wrong.

Creative Commons - Shaheen Lakhan

Patients that were diagnosed with “psychotic experiences” were randomized into 2 groups; Those groups being (essentially) no-treatment vs. mindfulness training group (for 5 weeks). Patients who were in the mindfulness training group revealed a “…statistically significant improvement in mindfulness of distressing thoughts and images” (but not voices). The authors go on to state that “contemporary mindfulness-based interventions are safe and therapeutic for people with distressing psychosis”

Mindfulness therapy seems to march on, helping to conquer more and more illnesses. Apparently, even illnesses we thought it would aggravate! What can’t it do! Here’s a link to the abstract or for those who have access to the article:


I created free audio recordings of the Pali Canon

I created free audio recordings of the Pali Canon

The Pāli Canon contains scriptures from Theravada Buddhism. I find they can be difficult to get through when listening or reading, so I’ve composed some contextual music to accompany my readings. My hopes are that you find them more engaging than the bare text or readings and perhaps they may get you excited about reading more. I’ve listened to these recordings over and over during the production process, and found that they tend to “sink in” after multiple listens. So you might want to review them from time to time.

These recordings are FREE to download (Enter $0). Click here for more info:

Running with Mindfulness

I was once a very active person. Entering my 20s and early 30s, this activeness slowly gave way to other interests and obligations. Through all my life however, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with running. I’ll try to run about 3-4 times a week, but due to laziness and busyness, I usually only get around to it about 2 times per week. I imagine this is a common thread for many. My love of running came from the sense of accomplishment and greater fitness at the days end. The hate aspect, came from the running itself. Those first 5 minutes of running are generally the most painful for me. Soreness, malaise and self-pity are usually at their peak, dwindling off at around 10 minutes, these feelings return at around 20 minutes into the run – I may realize how difficult  it is to run up a hill. I find I am breathing hard and may decide to turn back, due to self-pity and my minor sense of accomplishment. My internal monologue usually proceeds as such, “Why don’t I just walk right now? Its much easier! Go ahead, catch your breath…You’ve done enough for today…Hey! Poor baby!…Common push! But my legs! So tired! Aaaaandddd….I’m done.”.

As I’ve been trying to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life, one day I thought to incorporate this mind-state into my run. What success! I found all my self-pity, malaise, soreness and sense of accomplishment faded out completely, leaving me only with my sense of breathing, and my feet on the ground. Even the sense of accomplishment is gone, not giving me the chance to think that I had completed enough for the day. My breath volume also decreases dramatically when I’m at my most mindful and thus diminishes my need for self-pity. A positive feed-back loop for running! How fantastic! Avoiding obstacles or people usually bring me back into a thought-filled state, but quick attention back to my breath usually dispels any negative thoughts. I often feel like I literally run all day.

Well I’m not the first to try this idea out. It turns out the running world has known how great mindfulness is for a while now. Here’s a more recent post in Runner’s World, that may be helpful to some. I also found some guided running meditation exercises that some may enjoy at Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s site,

You may also enjoy this video, where Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, describes his interpretation of body/mind as it relates to running. I hope this post ends up motivating a few of you to get off the internet and put your shoes on…

Cross-Cultural Cognitive Science and the 5 Aggregates (the illusion of self)

What exactly creates the sense of a permanent self? Buddhists will tell you to turn to the 5 aggregates. Bridging the gap between traditional Buddhist teachings and modern neuroscience is a large hurdle that will obviously be instrumental in advancing the science of meditation. Part of that bridging includes examining the lexicon used in Buddhist texts and comparing that to our contemporary knowledge of consciousness. That being said, what does neuroscience and psychology have to say about aspects of Buddhist teachings? I read an article recently that examines, among several things, the correlates between cognitive science/western philosophy and the five aggregates (Rupa, Vedana, sañña, Samskara and Vijnana). I’ll present here a very condensed version of what is discussed in the article in hopes of furthering some understanding for those who don’t want to dedicate too much time in dissecting the article. If this interests you, I encourage you to read the article in the link to get a better understanding of what I have presented here.


The Five Aggregates:

1. Rupa

Rupa, the aggreagate of the body’s matter or form, also refers to the body’s “…mobility, temperature regulation, fluid, and digestive systems, as well as its processes of decay”. Some may argue that emotion also plays a part in bodily reactions (ex. rising of blood in embarrassment) while emotional theorists obviously extend the definition of emotion as encompassing the feelings associated with them (pleasant feelings/unpleasant feelings/indifferent feelings).

2. Vedana

This latter aspect of “feeling” correlates with the second aggregate of vedana (feeling or sensation). Psychologists may refer to this aspect as “affective valence”. Both the Buddhist and neuroscience perspective describe that vedana or affective valence can be present with or without conscious awareness and in more than just emotional mental states.

3. Sanna

The third aggregate, sanna, (or perception) is the aspect of consciousness that can identify, recall, and report experiences and correlates with what philosopher Ned Block calls “cognitive access”. Cognitive access consists of “…having the content of an experience enter working memory so that one can identify and report on this content”. Samannāhāra (or bringing together thoughts/stimuli) and manasikāra (or attention) are concepts helping to further refine this aggregate. It roughly corresponds to the alertness hypothesized to be dependent on the thalamus and brainstem (and not requiring selective attention).

4. Samkhara

The fourth aggregate, samkhara (mental formation or volition), can refer to cognitive processes that occurs when committing to a course of action, and the habitual routine that determines how we behave without our awareness. Samkhara corresponds to models of cognitive events such as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. In other words, small changes in our mental conditions can greatly shift trajectories of thought because of “…self-forming processes arising from non-linear interactions between components at neural and motor levels”.

5. Vinnana

Viññāṇa (or consciousness), the fifth and final aggregate can correlate with Block’s, “phenomenal consciousness”, which is defined as, “…as a moment of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, or mental awareness”. It can be described as “what it is like” to have an experience. For example, what is it like to see the colour red? I believe these types of mental phenomena are referred to as qualia.

Now that the aggregates have been outlined, how do we bring that all together? The article states it nicely so I’ll leave the authors to summarize it best,

“This core or ground-floor level of consciousness depends on a basic kind of alerting function distinct from the higher-level mechanisms of selective attention that come into play in determining what one is conscious of. On this view, the fact that there is a phenomenal feel – the fact that there is something it is like for a subject – depends on the basic alerting function. In contrast, the content of phenomenal consciousness – what it is like for a subject – depends also on how this consciousness is directed to particular objects and properties through selective attention. Put another way, the particular contents of phenomenal consciousness can be seen as modifications or modulations of a basal level of awareness dependent on the alerting function (see also Searle 2000).” (Link to main article) (Davis and Thompson)

Additional references mentioned in the above article:

Block, N. (2007). Consciousness, Accessibility, and the Mesh between Psychology and Neuroscience. In Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30, 481–548. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X07002786.

Block, N. (2008). Consciousness and Cognitive Access. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society
108(3), 289–317. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9264.2008.00247.x.

Searle, John R. (2000). Consciousness. In Annual Review of Neuroscience 23, 557–78. doi:


Clifford Saron TEDTalk – “The majesty of the present”

Interesting short talk on the Saron lab’s efforts with their “shamatha project”. Lots of cool stuff here. What interested me the most: Apparently Dr. Saron has a paper discussing the increase in telomerase (an enzyme used in DNA replication – its also expressed highly in cells that divide often) after an extended meditation retreat. I wonder if they figured out what tissues it was highly regulated in? Cool.

Why We Love Music

To this point, I’ve been posting a lot of scientific evidence/research papers etc. So I don’t want you to be confused by this post. I’ll be stating my opinion for the most part (a running hypothesis of mine) mixed in with some evidence…

I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that, as humans, we immediately have a connection with music. Maybe you’ve seen this viral video at some point – “Notorious B.I.G. calms down crying baby”. Its a good chuckle:

There are many more examples like this; Just search around on Youtube. Generally, a baby hears music (who in my opinion shouldn’t have a reference point to enjoy music), and almost like hypnosis, they become magically engaged, seem to forget about their worries, and simply listen and enjoy the music. But why does this work? Is Biggy just that good?…..Yes and No.

I believe that part of what music does for us is based in its rhythm – and its inherent ability to entrain our brain waves to pulse at the same frequencies as the rhythms in the music. Confused? Here’s another way to put it – When you hear a sound, your nervous system transmits the sound wave to your brain by way of the auditory nerve – producing an electrical potential in your brain. If you hear a pulse at a certain frequency your brain becomes entrained to that pulse and fires electrical signals at that same rate.

Here is a real life example: your brain hears a bass drum pulsing quater notes at 120bpm (beats per minute), it receives sound waves at 120bpm and transmits that information in pulses to other neurons at 120bpm throughout your brain. The rhythms played between those notes (high hats, snare drums, vocals etc) are also transmitted through your brain at their respective frequencies. Through enough repetition, the music likely entrains your brain to the rhythm. If that rhythm/frequency happens to be similar to the frequencies that we experience during meditation (alpha, theta, delta frequencies/waves), that should have some interesting effects (See my post on alpha brain waves/meditation/sensory focus and benefits:

Ever hear of Yucatecan trance induction beats? They probably induce a similar effect: A drummer repeatedly beats his drum at 210bpm for about 30min. Apparently, after about 15 minutes, church goers listening to the beat go into a trance-like, euphoric state.  Here’s another example – entrainment even works during sleep. Pulsing a delta frequency (1-2 Hz) has shown to induce an entrainment effect on slow wave sleep patterns. Researchers have generated slow delta waves in the brain’s of subjects by entrainment to an audible delta pulse. I’m guessing yet another example of this effect comes from Tibetan Singing Bowls, commonly used to help induce a meditative state. Here’s a video if you’re unfamiliar with these bowls:

Do you hear the pulsing sounds? I’m hearing pulses in the delta to theta range (frequencies ranging from 1-7 Hz). Research shows that when our brains go from an “everyday life” beta wave state (varying from ~14Hz-30Hz), usually associated with higher thinking, concentration, worry, anxiety, and agitation, to a slower alpha wave state (8-13 Hz) or theta brain wave state (4-7Hz), we have a greater sense of relaxation, happiness, and joy. On a molecular level, its been shown that greater levels of serotonin are released into the synapse during the alpha state (and I’m guessing also in theta). Are you using a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft etc) to help you with your depression? Similarly, these type of drugs act to keep serotonin in your synapses, thereby helping to treat your depression.

But how does this relate back to the baby video?  When we listen to,

“Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see…”

we’re hearing rhythmic frequencies around 5-6Hz (in theta) and a various mix of other alpha frequencies. To register those sounds as information, your brain needs to fire neurons at that rate (and as discussed, these frequencies are shown to have positive effects). Don’t you love being absorbed in your favourite songs? The more we focus on the sound, the greater amount of our brain’s resources begin to fire at those rhythmic frequencies, and thus we get greater enjoyment from the music.

So is this why the baby is loving Biggy so much? And is this why we love music? Maybe. Albeit, its probably much more complicated. My request to you – maximize the experience you can get from music – be like the baby. Stop doing other things while listening to music, be present with it, stop thinking, and get absorbed in the music (i.e. close your eyes and put some headphones on). You’ll be happier and more fulfilled for it…and well, that is just being mindful, isn’t it.

Yoga therapy, kundalini, and mental disorders


Just a point of interest. There’s a journal article (that I don’t have access to) that is titled,

Yoga therapy as an add-on treatment in the management of patients with schizophrenia–a randomized controlled trial

It seems that yoga therapy and “physical” therapy have significant effects on decreasing psychopathology in schizophrenic patients. The abstract also states that yoga therapy is significantly more efficacious than “physical” therapy. Of course – that’s super interesting to me and I’d love to read more.

In contrast to these results, I’m aware of several (personal/non-scientific) examples of people having schizophrenic-like episodes that seem to have been INDUCED by yoga (kundalini specifically). There is some documentation of this – I believe the DSM-IV aludes to things that we might call “kundalini syndrome” under a “Religious or Spiritual Problem”. Moreover, it does list, (and I’m lifting directly from wikipedia at this point –  “Qi-gong Psychotic Reaction“, described as “an acute, time-limited episode characterized by disassociative, paranoid or other psychotic or non-psychotic symptoms[…] Especially vulnerable are individuals who become overly involved in the practice.” I think they call that – ZouHuoRuMo. (I’m going off point here…) . Its probably the equivalent of Kundalini syndrome in yoga.

So a while ago I read a book, titled, “Kundalini Yoga Meditation for Complex Psychiatric Disorders: Techniques Specific for Treating the Psychoses, Personality, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders” There’s a picture of the cover at the top of this post. In the book, the author describes various kunalini yoga techniques for decreasing psychopathology in patients who undergo his treatment. Specific treatments needed to be done for specific types of disorders and for specific amounts of time. He outlines numerous case studies of his treatments and discusses how poorly clinical trials of anti-psychotics usually proceed since the side-effects of the treatments are typically very undesirable and the patients drop out. But…they’re case studies. Then again, how can it hurt? Wait a second….maybe it could hurt…based on what I said in the last paragraph…hmmmm…..but people getting kundalini syndrome (that I know of) seem to get it from “casual” teachings – when not taken with serious respect from a teacher that knows what they’re doing…..but then again…how do you know if your teacher knows what they’re doing?….but then again…..

Anyway, I’d love to get my hands on that article and see how yoga can treat mental disorders in a randomized control trial setting. If anyone knows of extra studies etc. please pass them on!