Yolonda Colson, MD, PhD: The Importance of Community in Careers and Leadership
Episode #39 of the Charged podcast.
PodcastMar | 18 | 2020
During her graduate studies in molecular biology, an over-training injury derailed Dr. Sara Lazar’s aspirations to run the Boston Marathon. During her recovery, she discovered yoga and, after a few classes, was surprised to find that she felt calmer, more compassionate and less reactive. She wanted to understand why, and that quest ultimately altered the course of her career. For over 15 years, she and her team in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital have investigated how meditation affects the brain and were the first to show the connection between meditation and cortical thickening in the brain. In this episode, she discusses her work and how to integrate meditation into a busy life.
Sara Lazar, PhD, is an associate researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General and an assistant professor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. The focus of her research is to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of yoga and meditation, both in clinical settings and in healthy individuals, using scientifically validated brain imaging technologies.
In 2005, using modified MRI scans, she and her team in the Department of Psychiatry were the first to show the connection between meditation and cortical thickening in the brain, and later that grey matter increases in people learning meditation, particularly in areas related to learning, emotional regulation and perspective-taking. Her work has been covered by many news outlets, including The New York Times, USA Today, CNN and WebMD.
She received her doctorate in molecular biology from Harvard University.
When Dr. Sara Lazar was a grad student in molecular biology, an over-training injury derailed her aspirations to run the Boston Marathon. But during her recovery, she discovered yoga and it ultimately altered the course of her career for good.
While she expected the practice to have a physical impact, she was surprised to find that yoga quickly made her calmer, more compassionate and better able to handle difficult situations. That experience piqued her interest and inspired Sara to take up a new direction for her research—understanding just how mindfulness practices impact the brain. In 2005, using modified MRI scans, she and her team in the Department of Psychiatry at Mass General were the first to show the connection between meditation and cortical thickening in the brain, and later that grey matter increases in people learning meditation, particularly in areas related to learning, emotional regulation and perspective-taking.
Sara’s findings suggest that the positive impacts from mindfulness aren’t just a result of time spent relaxing. The practice is actually changing the make-up of our brains—for the better.
So welcome, Sara.
A: Thank you for having me.
Q: To start off, I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit more about what the focus of your research is.
A: Before I got into this field, there was a lot of research showing that yoga meditation had benefits on the body. So for instance, changes in cortisol and breathing rate and heart rate and whatnot. But there wasn’t much known about how that happened. And especially for meditation, you think about it, you're just sitting there, and there's these dramatic changes in your body.
And so I was really interested to understand, well, what happens in your brain? How is it that sitting there, and watching your breath, or focusing on your posture should lead to changes in cortisol, and in heart rate and breathing rate? And so that was really, you know, the brain-body connection was one of the first questions I was really interested in.
From the initial work, we got some hints that the practice was actually changing the brain in really profound ways. Our work now is more understanding exactly how is the brain changing? And how those changes in the brain lead to changes and emotion regulation and, you know, health, even when you're not actually meditating.
So we’re not looking just at the state of meditation anymore, but rather the—the lingering, ongoing effects of meditation, even when you're not practicing.
Q: And how do you go about investigating that? How do you see what's happening to the brain?
A: So, you can think about the MRI machine, sort of like a giant camera. And just as with a traditional camera, you can take either like a panoramic picture, or a selfie, or an action shot, you can set the MRI on different settings, to take different pictures of different types of brain structure and brain function. So, just as you can take a movie to see motion of the body, we can use the MRI machine to look at brain activity and how brain activity is changing over time.
We can also look at the actual structure of the brain. So how much gray matter, and how much white matter, and literally, where the neurons are talking in the brain. So we have been using different settings on the MRI scanner to look at these different aspects of brain structure and brain function. And we’re seeing that meditation changes all of it in very different ways.
It’s sort of like a giant puzzle, where we have a lot of pieces. And so we’re starting to get a small part of the puzzle together. And so gradually, we’re hoping to—to get the complete picture.
Q: And you mentioned gray matter and white matter. Can you talk a little bit more about—
A: --what those are?
Q: --what they are, and how do they fit together, and why are they important in the brain?
A: Right. So there are many different types of cells inside the brain. The most well-known one are the neurons. And neurons look kind of/sort of like a tree, with lots of branches, and lots of roots. And the part of the brain that contains the branches and the roots is your gray matter. And that’s where the branches of one neuron interact with the roots of another neuron.
But then, connected to the branches and the roots is the trunk. And the trunk is the white matter. And what happens is that, in order to facilitate the transmission of information from the branches to the roots, there's other cells that come in and sort of help this thing all come along, and they also help protect the trunk.
And, when you take a brain and, say, slice into it, most of what you see is actually white matter, because most of the brain is actually just the long distance connections from between the roots and the branches, basically. There's just a very, very, very thin layer on the edge of the brain that’s the gray matter. And that’s the cortex.
And then, there's also some structures buried down deep in the middle of the brain that’s gray matter. So, for instance, the hippocampus, the amygdala, the caudate. Those are your gray matter. The way I like to think of it is, the gray matter is where the thinking actually happens. And the white matter is more just sort of long distance communication.
Q: And when the brain grows or changes, can both of those different types grow?
A: Right, no, both of them can grow and change. What we can see is, for the most part, we’re born with all the neurons we’re ever going to have. There are new neurons made in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. And also, if there's brain injury, you can get some—some new neurons growing. But, for the most part, what we’re born with is what we have.
However, the number of branches and the number of roots can change dramatically. When you learn something new, it’s not that you're getting new neurons, but you're getting new branches and roots. And that’s what’s—what's facilitating the learning the new information. And then similarly, you can also change where your branches and roots are connected.
So you think of it as static, but actually you can see them. If one is going off in this direction, it can actually sort of shrink back and then go off in a completely new direction. And similarly, with the white matter, as the neurons move around, the white matter will move around.
Also, because the white matter is sort of like a protection. And it’s well known that it can break down with age. Also, things like exercise and diet can both positively or negatively impact it.
Q: And so then, how does mindfulness interact with those types of brain matter?
A: Back when I first started this research, a lot of people told me, “You're not going to see anything. Because when you meditate, you're just sitting there. You're not doing anything. You're just resting.”
And anyone who’s meditated knows, well that’s not exactly true. That when you meditate, you are just sitting there, but you're doing it in a very specific way. And, in particular, you don’t just let your mind wonder like you would if you were just like, say, sitting on a bus, waiting for something, right.
But we know that that’s not what happens with meditation, because the instructions of meditation are, choose something, for instance, the breath, or your posture, and focus on it. And when your mind starts to wander, notice your mind is wandering, and then bring it back to the present moment. And it’s going to happen over and over and over again. And so it requires something we call meta awareness. So sort of aware of what your mind is doing. Everyone knows what their brain is doing, but you're not always completely aware of it.
Q: I'm wondering, as you were talking about that, is there something unique about mindfulness? Or are there other activities that change the brain in similar ways? You know, you learn that, when you learn a new skill, it changes your brain. So is that a similar process? Or is there something different with mindfulness?
A: Right. No, it’s exactly the same process. And this is something that I think sometimes people get confused about.
The first study to demonstrate this was juggling. They took people who had never juggled before. They scanned them. They taught them how to juggle. They told them, “Keep juggling for three months.” Three months later, they scanned them, and they saw that part of the brain involved in detecting visual motion, had grown.
And then there were several other studies showing other types of learning. But the key thing is that, in each case, it was a part of the brain relevant to that task, which makes sense. So it’s a lot like exercise. You know, if you work out your arms, your arm muscles are going to get stronger. It’s not going to have an impact on your legs.
So our finding was significant for two reasons. One, just because everyone thought, “Oh, you're just sitting there. You're not doing anything.” So it showed that, well no, they are doing something. Just like learning how to juggle or anything else. It’s a real task. And then B what was interesting is where in the brain was changing. Because these are regions that are very important for emotion regulation. They're also regions that are negatively impacted by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And also just normal aging.
And so that was what was really exciting, was not so much that this was something new and different, but rather, that it was just evidence that meditation was something specific, and that it was changing the brain, and where in the brain was being changed.
Q: You mentioned this connection to Alzheimer’s, dementia, aging. Does that imply that perhaps mindfulness could impact or prevent those conditions?
A: Yes. So there's been a few small studies with this. And we’re actually conducting one right now. The first study was actually our very first study. One of the findings that was completely unexpected was that because we know that, in the general population, as we get older, our brains start to shrink. This is why it gets a little bit harder for us to figure out how to do things.
And there were two or three places in the brain, of the meditators, that were preserved with age. You know, they had the same brain structure as the 20-year-olds, suggesting that, sort of like, again, like with exercise. You know, if you keep working out as you get older, you're going to retain, you know, your muscle mass. And similarly, these people seemed to be retaining their brain structure with aging.
And so now there have been a few other studies. There has been a couple studies with people with early, early Alzheimer's, and showing that there are some hints that, at least for some people, they can indeed increase the size of the hippocampus, which is one of the main regions that’s negatively impacted. And there have been some other studies with long-term meditators, again, showing that other parts of the brain are also preserved, and particularly the white matter. And white matter, again, is very negatively impacted by aging.
Q: As someone who comes to this as an expert in the brain, and the functions of the brain, have you been surprised by the things that you’ve been finding?
A: We were surprised that with the first finding, you know, the first cortical thickness finding. You know, I didn’t know for sure that we would find something. But then, but of course it made sense. And so then it’s more, I think, where in the brain we’re finding changes.
And I think, also, the thing that’s been surprising to me and some other people is just how quickly we can see the changes in the brain. And there's been studies with animals showing that you can see changes in the brain, even after a few days.
But you know, meditation seems a bit more ephemeral, if you will. And so the fact that we could just see changes after just two months, that shocked people. Even people who meditated, and who had been doing this for many years, were kind of shocked that we could see changes that quickly.
Q: I'm wondering, then, how long do they last? Does the brain maintain those changes?
A: So in terms of brain structure and function we don’t know yet, because there hasn’t been any long-term studies. Again, we’re doing that study now. But we know, in terms of clinical symptoms, and just self-report measures, that typically, there are some benefits that are maintained, even if you completely stop. But again, sort of like exercise, that you know, after some time, things go back to normal. And we think it’s sort of like riding a bike. You know, you never completely forget.
Part of also what happens with meditation, and the reason why it’s beneficial, is that you start to see things from a different perspective. Sort of like, once you learn two plus two, you can't forget. And that happens with meditation, is that you start to see some of your bad habits. And once you see your bad habits, you can't unsee them.
And so, and that’s part of, why meditation works, is that you start to see these things that are getting in your way in your life. And so then you can keep working on it, even if you stop practicing meditation.
Q: I think sometimes people might associate mindfulness with a spiritual practice. Is that a part of how you think of it? Is that a part of how it impacts us, how we interact with it?
A: Right. So mindfulness originated in Buddhism. The person who popularized mindfulness here in the States is a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn. He was a meditator, and he was practicing in Asia. And he was the first person to say, “Well, you know, I think I could teach the concept of mindfulness in a secular way, you know, in a clinical setting, without any Eastern philosophy.”
And he really created the first eight-week program that did that. And so in those programs, there's absolutely no discussion, whatsoever, of Eastern philosophy- enlightenment, or karma. And so there's people who go through those programs, oftentimes it is just stress reduction.
For some people, though, I mean the question is, what exactly is spirituality, right? Is it, you know, connection with the divine, or something like that? And so some people, when they practice this, they do feel more connected to something inside them. Some people label that as the divine. So, for some people, it can become a very spiritual practice. But for many people that I know, it really is just stress reduction. It varies tremendously.
Q: You mentioned these eight-week programs. What might be included in a course like that?
A: The original eight-week program was something called Mindfulness Space Stress Reduction, started by Jon Kabat-Zinn out at UMass Worcester.The teacher gives you some instruction, and you actually sit and practice mindfulness meditation for 40 minutes.
And then the rest of the class, you do various exercises to help learn what mindfulness is. The first thing you always do is, actually, is you eat a raisin mindfully. And it takes about five minutes to eat one raisin. And it’s like, you know, you look at the raisin. You smell the raisin. You taste the—you know, just put it on your tongue. And then, you like, slowly roll around on your tongue. And you do all this in this really non-judgmental, mindful way.
And there's a lot of different exercises like that, that they do over the course of the eight weeks, to really help you understand what mindfulness is, and how to really bring it into your life, so that you really be mindful as you're walking from the car to the house, while you're doing the dishes, you know, how do you be mindful during all these different tasks.
Q: We talked about the brain changes, but then what those mean, in terms of mental activity and how you think and how you feel.
A: So one of the most interesting findings we found, and we’ve replicated it a couple times now, is that there's a part of the brain called the amygdala. And the amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotions. It’s the brain region that's more associated with emotions than any other part of the brain. We know it regulates a lot of body functions, including, say, cortisol and the fight or flight responses.
And what we found is that the size of the amygdala co-varies with with meditation and mindfulness related stress reduction.
As I mentioned, you know, neurons look sort of like trees with lots of branches, lots of roots. In animal studies, what they have found is, if you take an animal, and you stress it out, what happens is that there's a lot of roots and branches that grow within the amygdala. So the amygdala actually gets bigger, the branches just sprout.
With the humans, what we’re finding is that with before and after MBSR, it’s getting smaller, suggesting that those branches and roots are—are shriveling up. You know, we don’t know that, because we can't test that with MRI. But our data is consistent with that sort of interpretation. You know, sort of opposite of what we’re seeing with stressing out the animals.
The other thing we have seen with the MRI is that the brain regions that the amygdala is talking to seems to be changing. And the communication between the amygdala and different brain regions seems to be changing. We put people before and after this program, we had them look at faces with different emotional expressions.
And what we found was that for people with certain type of anxiety, that their response to these emotional faces decreased, which was consistent with being less activated by these faces. And we found that this change in amygdala activity to these faces correlated with a reduction in their anxiety symptoms. So it’s, consistent with this brain region sort of processing emotional information in different ways, so the people are less reactive, less jittery, shall we say, and so better able to handle their emotions.
Some of the other regions that have been found is another part of the brain called the insula, which is involved in pain. And we and other people have also shown that in long-term practitioners of meditation, that how pain signals are processed changes dramatically in the brain. And that the changes in the brain activity correlate with people’s self-reported unpleasantness of the pain. You know, because there's sort of two components of the pain. There's the, “Oh, it’s stabbing, tingling, burning.” And there's also that, “Ow. I don’t like it. Make it stop.”
And the change in the brain activity correlated with the changes in the “ow, make it stop.” [laughter] You know, and people were just saying like, “Okay, yeah, you know. It’s there, but it’s just not bothering me.”
Q: I think the emotional piece is the one that’s so interesting to me, because if you think, how do you become an emotionally strong person, you often think, oh, you have to go through some trials and tribulations. And that's how you build emotional strength. But finding that actually, it’s just you can sort of build it yourself, so to speak.
A: Right. Right. I think the same thing happens with the meditation. So what does it mean to build emotional strength? I—You know, and there is some evidence for this, that it’s, again, how the different brain regions are interacting with the amygdala and all these other brain regions that are involved in emotions, is that, you know, literally, we can see, like with cognitive therapy, that you know, how the brain is wired changes with these different, ways of doing therapy, talk therapy, psychiatric meds, and whatnot.
And so building resilience means building new pathways in the brain. And so the meditation is indeed building those new pathways. Part of the way it’s happening is, again, I think the sports analogy. You know, if you're learning how to play soccer, you start off with simple drills, right. You just kick the ball back and forth, with your buddy, right. And you practice making goals. Not in the heat of the game.
And so similarly, when you sit and be mindful, and sit and meditate, what happens is that, you know, your mind starts to wander. And you get frustrated. And it’s like, “Oh, my mind’s wandering.” Right. And so that’s a form of frustration and a form of emotion dysregulation. And so then you say to yourself, “Wait. No, it’s okay. You know, my mind wandered,” right. And so that’s sort of like you dribbling, and making shots on the goal, is that, it’s sort of a little emotional regulation that you're doing with yourself.
Similarly, sometimes what happens is, you know, you're sitting at the end of the day, and you're thinking about what happened. And it’s like, “Oh man, you know. He said this. And this happened.” And if you can sort of replay those memories mindfully.
When that person said that thing, “Can you notice in your body what happened?” Okay, he said that thing. And you know, my whole body started getting tighter. And I stopped breathing. And my heart started beating really loudly. So just feeling all that, and then just trying to breathe and relax, you know, and try to calm yourself down, thinking about how you reacted when that guy said that thing to you.
Then the next time you're in that situation, and that guy, you know, is saying those things, you know, you're better able to deal with it because you’ve sort of practiced being calm and unreactive during meditation.
Q: So it is that sort of practicing the way your brain or your body responds to various situations, almost.
A: Exactly. And then also, part of it is also, seeing things differently. Sometimes you’ll see, like, oh. Well, you know, he’s saying that thing because actually, he’s feeling insecure, right. Or oh, you know, he’s got a lot on his plate. And so yeah, he’s yelling because he’s just frustrated. It’s not about me, it’s about him.
Q: I was thinking, as you were talking about, you know, sitting and doing this practice for—I can imagine doing it for 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes.
Q: But, when I try to imagine doing it for 10 hours a day—
Q: It seems boring. [laughter]
Q: Is there a difference in the way that it happens, sort of at the, so to speak, the—that Olympic level?
A: Right. So the boredom is part of it. That's another part of the emotion regulation, right. It’s like, “I'm bored. I want to pull out my phone. I'm bored. I want to go watch TV.” Right. And it’s like, “No, no, no, I'm just going to sit here. I'm going to sit through the boredom,” right. So that’s part of the emotion regulation.
The other thing is that, yeah, when you first start, things are kind of boring sometimes. But what happens is gradually, over time, is that it just gets really quiet and peaceful inside. And so it’s sort of like, you know, being at the beach, and just watching the waves, you know. And you can have sort of that feeling of relaxed openness, and just watching the waves, even when you're sitting in a room quietly by yourself.
Q: So you started doing this research in 2005. So over the course of the last 15 years, the world has changed a lot, and the way that we interact has changed a lot. And technology has become evermore present. How has that impacted the way you think about this? And maybe do we need mindfulness now more than we ever did?
A: Yeah. Definitely. [laughter] I would say. Actually, I've been doing this research for 20 years. When I started this research, a few people had flip phones. But most people didn’t have phones.
I mean when you're on the bus, everyone was just sitting on the bus, looking out the window. And now everyone’s got their phones out, right. Even just walking down the street, a lot of people just can't even be alone with their thoughts even walking down the street. So I think that has changed dramatically.
One of the reasons why we’re stressed out, and we’re so unhappy, is because we’re constantly thinking about, “Oh my God, oh my God, all the deadlines I have.” And, “Oh my God, all that stuff that happened yesterday.” And you just feel overwhelmed by everything.
And the idea is that in this present moment, “I'm okay.” Like right now, all your listeners listening right now, right now you're okay. So can you just, right now, just say, “Right now I'm okay,” right. And basically just doing that over and over and over again for 10-20 minutes, right.
So if we’re constantly on our phones, we’re—we’re not doing that. Versus if we are just walking down the street, or just sitting on the bus, or sitting in traffic, we can, at least for a minute or two, just say, “Okay, right now, when I'm walking down the street. Oh, isn't it nice just feeling the sun on my face?” And just noticing, the sites and the sounds and the smells, and what my body feels like as I'm walking.
So I do feel like, you know, these opportunities to naturally be mindful are negatively impacted by our phones.
Q: I want to go back to the beginning of your career when you were getting into this work. And you started out studying molecular biology. So going into brain research, was that a direction that made sense?
A: Yeah, no, I was very unorthodox. I actually had always been interested in the brain. When I started grad school, you know, MRI hadn't been invented yet. And the brain research was okay. But there wasn’t just anyone doing brain research that I thought was really that interesting.
And so I got interested in this microbiology question. But the whole time I was in grad school, I started thinking, like, “Well, you know, I’ll look and see what’s happening with brains when I'm done.” While I was still in grad school, though, I started doing the yoga. And so then, when I finished grad school, I was like, “Okay, yeah. No, it’s time to go into brains, you know, and figure out some way to study this.”
Because I could just tell that something in my brain changed. I didn’t know what in my brain had changed, but something had changed. And so yeah, it was a big leap. And it took a couple years, you know. Because basically, I didn’t know anything about the brain. So I had to go, I had to learn neuroscience. I had to learn about imaging. There was a lot of stuff I had to learn. And so that kind of slowed me down the first couple years.
A lot of people were like, “What was your PhD in?” But luckily, you know, it worked out. I found some people to train me.
Q: So can you talk to me a little bit more about what that was like? You know, when people are giving you that pushback of, “You're doing what?” Or “Why?” Or, “How is this going to work?”
A: When I first started doing the research, a lot of people thought I was nuts. One of the nice things about being here at Mass. General, and in Harvard in general, is that you know, there are a lot of people with sort of crazy ideas. And so there is precedence, and there is sort of space, and—and room, and understanding that, okay. “Well, you know, give people with crazy ideas a little bit of space and time and let them try it out. And if it works, great. And if not, okay. Next.”
And so luckily, I found someone who was willing to take me in and train me a little bit. And I did a small study. What happened was, independently, Henry Benson who’s here, head of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, he was very interested in looking at brains. And so he actually contacted someone down the hall for me to do small imaging study.
And I was talking to this guy. And you know, saying, “Oh yeah, I'm interested in meditation.” And he looked at me, and he was like, “Why is everyone suddenly interested in meditation?” And so – he introduced me to Henry Benson. And so that’s basically how I did my first study, we sort of joined forces.
The first study was published in late 2000. It was just five people. And we had them meditate in the scanner. And that, again, was really groundbreaking, because everyone just said, “Well, they're just lying there. Nothing’s happening. We’re not going to see anything.”
But we could see that, compared to lying there doing nothing, to meditating, there was very big, dramatic change in brain activity. So that was—that was pretty cool. And so based on that, I was then able to get grants to then do a bigger study, and understand this in a bit more detail. And then that’s what led to the cortical thickness paper.
Q: So now you’ve been doing this research for over 20 years. And you found a lot of things. What's your vision for the future of your research?
A: So most of our research has been just looking at what happens over the course of eight weeks. We know, though, that, from people who practice regularly over extended periods of time, that you know, there continues to be more and more benefit. And that, you know, even people who’ve been practicing 10, 15, 20 years, they're continuing to benefit in different ways.
And so we really want to start doing studies, following people over five, 10, 15, 20 years, to just sort of document some of those changes. And so that, to me, would be really interesting and exciting.
Also, we’re doing more and more with different patient populations, to sort of understand, okay, because it’s good for depression. It’s also good for anxiety. It’s also good for trauma. It’s good for many different things. And so how is it good for all these different populations? And—And what aspect of it is changing in these different conditions?
Q: And sort of, does it apply differently in different brain conditions, almost?
A: Exactly, yeah.
Q: We’ve spent all this time talking about mindfulness. As the person doing all this research, I'm wondering how the research that you’ve done has impacted you personally.
A: That's an interesting question. A couple different ways. So one thing that has surprised me, not only about the research but about the impact of the research, is I have met a lot of people who used to practice meditation fairly regularly. And, you know, as you mentioned, lots of times you're sitting, and it can get boring.
And lots of times you’ve been meditating and meditating. And it feels like, well, you know, not much is happening. Am I getting any benefit from this? And when they saw the brain changes, they were like, “Oh, wow.” And they understood, yeah, no, there really is things happening. And it actually sparked their passion to start practicing again with more enthusiasm.
And, you know, and it started working for them again, which was kind of cool.
Also, a lot of people will have started practicing at all because of the brain data, because again, they thought, oh, you're just sitting there. It’s not doing anything.
The way it’s inspired people to start practicing, that really surprised me. And I think I'm a little bit that way myself. Yeah, there are definitely days where I think like, oh man. Am I going to sit today? It’s like, yes. I know. I have seen the data. [laughter] It really does make a difference. So I think that’s been really useful.
And then also, because some of the first studies we did, were with really long-term meditation practitioners. And so I got to talk to them. And, you know, that really inspired me. And I understood things, I think, in—in new ways. Just getting to meet some really neat people, talking about their meditation experience. Because usually they don’t talk about their experience, because it’s kind of a private thing.
Q: And I imagine being a young researcher can be very stressful. And you're worried about funding and your publications and all of these different pieces. And then, I know, you know, balancing that with being a parent. Did mindfulness play into that for you?
A: Oh yeah. [laughter] Yeah. Being a parent, there's actually books on mindful parenting. You know, because again, it’s the emotion regulation. You know, you come home from work. And you're tired. And your kid’s screaming. And it’s just like, okay. Just going to take a deep breath here. That sort of thing. My child is much better off because of the fact that I—I practiced meditation.
Times when things are just totally over the top. You know, feeling like, okay, I can handle this. You just stop and breathe. And, okay, one thing at a time.
Q: Was it challenging to—especially, I imagine, with a younger child, to carve out that time and—and protect it for yourself?
A: Yeah. And I must admit, especially when he was younger, I did not practice every day. [laughter] And I still don’t practice every day. I practice most days.
And I think this is actually important for people to know, it also is that, you know, ideally, you practice 40 minutes a day. But for many of us, you know, it’s just going to be five, 10, 15 minutes. And that’s great. Again, it’s sort of like exercise. You know, it’s like, you know, even doing a short workout is better than no workout.
And that’s actually one thing that you can do, is you say, “Okay, well when I'm walking,” say from your car to the office, or you know, from your car into the grocery store.
Instead of thinking about, “Okay, all the things I'm about to do,” can you just be there in the moment? Can you be mindful as you're walking in, you know, and just being, “Okay, here’s my feet making contact. You know, I'm noticing the sun.” And so even if it’s just a few minutes here, a few minutes there, really—even those little bits can really have an impact.
Q: Yeah. So sort of a cumulative impact of little pockets.
A: Yeah, exactly. There's an Indian woman. She was a great meditation teacher. She was a nun for many years. And then she just taught, in the slums of Calcutta. And she taught all of the women around her, and they were all housewives. Literally from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed, they are cooking and cleaning and taking care of their home. You know, they do not have time to sit and meditate.
But what she taught them is, “Okay, when chopping veggies, just chop veggies. You know, washing dishes, just wash the dishes. And what’s going on in your mind? And, just noticing what the water feels like. And what does this place look like?” Their entire meditation practice was built into being mindful during everyday tasks. And some of them had really profound changes.
Q: The accessibility of mindfulness, is it equal across brains? Or are there particular things that can make it more difficult, if, you know, disorders or anxiety? Or do we all have equal potential?
A: So there's not a whole lot of scientific data on that. You know, if you talk to the meditation teachers, you know, in the Eastern traditions, they’ll say, “Everyone has a capacity.” And it’s true, everyone does. Some people clearly have an easier time with it than others. Like I know some people who, they sit down, and they meditate, and they just get into this really calm, serene place instantly. And they can sit for 20, 30, 40 minutes, no problem. And they sit every day, because it just is so pleasant and peaceful for them.
There's a lot of other people who really struggle, myself included. [laughter] You know, and you sit down, and like, okay. You know. Your mind wanders. And, you know, after the 10, 15 minutes, you can sort of see, like from before to after, that yes, I'm more calm now than I was. But I wasn’t in this really calm, bliss state the whole time. It was a bit of a struggle. But, you know, you do see the benefit
As far as we know, it doesn’t seem to be disorder-specific, per se. The one caveat I would say is, so people with like a serious trauma history, and/or schizophrenia, they need to proceed with caution. And again, the analogy I like to use is, you know, someone who’s just had a heart attack or who is very overweight, you want them to exercise. But it should be, you know, walking 10 minutes on a treadmill, under close doctor supervision.
So people with a serious trauma history or with schizophrenia, they should practice probably just five or ten minutes. They should work with a really good, well-experienced meditation teacher and also with a good therapist. Because one thing that happens when you start meditating is, sometimes old memories suddenly pop up, like memories just haven't thought about in years suddenly pop up. And it’s often, it’s the emotional memories that we kind of stuff down.
And you know, for most of us, that’s no big deal, right. So obviously, someone who, you know, rape or incest or a car accident or something like that, you know, obviously, they need to be aware that, you know, that sort of memory might suddenly pop up again. So, you know, you need to be prepared for it. You need to, know how to handle that. And so just to, you know, to—to be aware that that could happen.
Q: One last question for you. I have a feeling people might listen to this and think, “Okay, I need to meditate.”
Q: What advice do you give to people who, you know, say, “I'm interested, but I don’t know how to start. How do I integrate this into my life or my routine?”
A: Right. So right now, because of the popularity, there's a lot of different options and ways to get started. There's lots of these eight-week classes, that are very secular, and, like stress reduction. So if they want to go that route, you know, most health clinics will have something like that.
There's also, of course, meditation centers. They often will have beginners’ programs. Right now, there's actually a lot of apps and books and whatnot. And I think that is good for getting started. So try it, you know. And if it’s something you think you’d like, it’s fine to just stick with the app. But also find a real live teacher.
Just because, often what happens is, you start thinking, “Oh, I'm not doing this right.” Or, “Am I doing this right?” And so, being able to talk to a teacher, they can tell you, “Yeah, yeah, no, no. What you're experiencing is completely normal.” Or,“Don’t worry about that. And, you know, try this instead.” So it’s really, really beneficial to have a teacher.
But definitely, there's a bunch of apps. I think the most popular one is something called Head Space. And they are just 10 minutes.
There's another one called the Insight Timer which I like, because it’s completely free. And they have thousands of guided meditation recordings. And they have all different lengths, different teachers. You know, some for falling asleep, some for anxiety just anything you want. And I'm not affiliated with either.
Q: Great. Well thank you so much, Sara.
A: Sure, uh-huh.
Q: This has been fascinating. Before I let you go, I have my final five questions. If you weren't a researcher, what would you be?
A: Probably horticulture. I love playing in the garden. So I sometimes think about that. Like okay, when I retire, maybe trying to find a greenhouse to go play in.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: To believe in myself more, I think, and it’s going to be okay. Don’t worry. [laughter]
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Yeah, Netflix. Don’t we all? But what on Netflix? Like right now, I'm in the British Baking Show.
Q: What do you consider your super power to be?
Q: And outside of your work, what are you curious about right now?
A: Well, definitely the meditation. So it’s always the fine line between what’s work and what's not? But I am very interested in this sort of more spiritual aspects of meditation. And my research is really focused, really, on the stress reduction, and the biological, and what we can really define. And it’s the—the other stuff that I really spend a lot of time when I'm not in work, sort of exploring that aspect of meditation.
Q: So thank you so much, Sara, for being here. It’s been absolutely a pleasure talking with you.A: Well, thank you. This has been fun.
Charged is a podcast devoted to uncovering the stories of the women at Mass General who break boundaries and provide exceptional care.
Episode #39 of the Charged podcast.