By Michael Crespo
Last Saturday I had an amazing experience. I attended my first daylong meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation center in Woodacre, CA. Attending a daylong has been on my bucket list for awhile because I believe in meditation/mindfulness as a potent skill to cultivate a deeper knowledge of yourself. I am somewhat of a super spiritual person, but I perceive myself as being very practical/rational at the same time. I say all that to say that what attracted me to this particular day long meditation was the title of the event. “True Nourishment From Mind, Heart, to Cell”. As a practicing health coach looking for tools to better serve my clients, this had my name written all over it. If there was ever a time to attend a daylong, the time was now.
Saturday finally came. Armed with a good pen and notebook, I left my cell phone in my truck and prepared to immerse myself in this new and exciting experience.
Our speakers for the day were three amazing ladies. One speaker was a buddhist monk of the Gelugpa Tradition (The same order as the Dalai Lama). The second speaker was an amazing meditation teacher and mindful eating nutrition coach. I gained something from each speaker but the one that spoke to me the most was the third speaker, Dr. Elissa Epel, PhD. Dr. Epel is a Professor in Psychiatry at The University of California San Francisco and she is one heck of an amazing human being. Dr. Epel leads many research studies on stress and the effects it has on our health and longevity. It was from Dr. Epel that I gained many pearls of wisdom.
I know many people who don’t believe that meditation works for them. The cool thing about meditation is that there are about a million different practices. Also for the purposes of this article I will use the terms mindfulness and meditation interchangeably. Mindfulness equates to being fully in the present moment. Practices can range from sitting alone in silence for extended periods of time, to going for a walk in nature, or even playing sports (entering the zone). People practice mindfulness in many different forms sometimes without realization.
What was amazing about Dr. Epel is she was very thorough in explaining the science behind mindfulness. The how and the why. By definition the mind is the element of a person that enables them to be aware of the world and their experiences moment to moment, which includes their environment, their bodies, and thoughts. It is everything that we feel from the temperature outside to the self criticism inside.
I often discuss with my colleagues the connection between the mind and the body. Much like the chicken and the egg one of the questions I wrestle with is what comes first, the feelings of the body or the emotions of the mind? According to Dr. Epel the feelings of the body shape the mind. The mind is also something that is not easily measured. We can measure pieces such as blood flow, attention, and even compassion but these are all parts of the sum. My intent going into going into the daylong was to walk away with something to share, the following bullets are key takeaways I learned from Dr. Epel;
- “Context shapes cognition” we are easily influenced by our environment (people, places, and things) this perhaps explains why the community aspect of CrossFit is so integral
- Our natural state of being (default mode network) exists in the midline prefrontal cortex of our brain. With regular mindfulness practice (about 7 months) our thinking shifts to being more aware of actual reality you can see all of this via brain signatures (neuroscans)
- “Selfing” one of Dr. Epel’s terms creates the illusion that we are separate and leads to feelings of depression and ruminant thoughts (a wandering mind) in the mind which leads to loneliness which she stated is a “sickness of the mind and body”
- Stress in the body = unconscious stress. We can trick our minds into thinking everything is okay but our bodies hold onto that stress and elicit a stress response
- When we sleep at night our stress response is supposed to “dip” but if our bodies still feel stressed and do not dip. This has been associated with more occurence of chronic disease.
- Positive stress (exercise), breathing, and meditation, are ways that you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system to to control your physiology in a better way and lower the stress response.
- Situations that we know have an end and that we are in control of are positive stressors that add to our lifespan (Hour long CrossFit class anyone?)
- You can remind yourself you are safe by giving yourself safety cues, it is as simple as being in an environment that you feel safe in and actually telling yourself you are safe and trying to feel it in the body
- We need more self-compassion in the west. Unique to our western culture is our vulnerability of social stress and our inner critic. Social stress is our common condition
- Overcoming social stress is about finding emotional independence and not being attached to conditions
- Loneliness is as dangerous as smoking and causes inflammatory responses in the body
Dr. Epel has a book “The Telomere Effect” which I purchased and am currently reading. In it she discusses her work on telomeres which are parts of our cell whose lengthening and shortening are associated with aging. Behaviors that are detrimental to our health = shorter telomeres and in effect, shorter healthspan and quicker entry into chronic disease. On the other hand behaviors that are beneficial to our health can stall the shortening of our telomeres and in some cases even lengthen them. Now more than ever the reasons for living a healthy life are backed by science. So why don’t we do it?
The truth is it is not as simple as it seems.Turn on the television and within half an hour you’ll see 5-6 different fast food ads. Exercise can be a very vulnerable activity. Without support, a person that comes from a family that suffers from chronic disease may not be able to make the necessary changes to live a longer more quality life. Why should they? Their family and friends likely struggle with making healthy choices themselves and thus the cycle continues.
Health Coaching is one of the newest and fastest growing professional fields. One in two americans has a chronic disease, one in four have multiple chronic diseases. The need for a collaborative health model that is client centered is needed now more than ever. What do I mean by client centered? I mean that the client needs to take charge of their own health. Intrinsic motivation (or self motivation) is the key to reversing this most vexing problem that we face in the US. Were everyone to have enough will power to make the changes necessary to lead healthy lives there would be no need for the health coach. This however is not the case, and as it turns out willpower is a finite resource.
After Saturday the fire in my heart grew tenfold and a lot of pieces came together. The journey to better health is not easy but it is possible. “Many hands make light work” this is where the health coach comes in. The client holds the keys within. It is our job to help evoke the person that our clients truly are and wish to be for themselves, and their loved ones. Their best self. Through, accountability, support, and compassion. I believe we are in the middle of a health revolution and not only is the future fit, but the future is one that is full of health, self-love, and compassion.