Five Benefits of Group Meditation

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a relaxing retreat courtesy of Mind Body Marriage.  It was my privilege to lead a group meditation for the 13 women physicians in attendance. As I’m reflecting on this time we spent filling our cups, a feeling of fresh, renewed energy has filled my heart. 

I was reminded that meditation in a group setting has powerful effects that go above and beyond meditation by yourself. 

What benefits are there to group meditation?

1) Transform your community: Setting positive intentions in a group has the power to make changes within your community and the world.  This principle, sometimes termed the Maharishi effect, was originally brought to light by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960’s. He noted that when at least 1% of a population is practicing a transcendental meditation technique, there is an effect upon the local environment. Nearly 50 scientific research studies verify the Maharishi effect benefits.  For instance, some studies have shown a decrease in crime rate in regions where this technique is introduced.

Individual consciousness affects the collective consciousness.

2) Experience synergy: In the group setting, the interaction of two or more individuals produces a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.  During group meditation, your energy frequency attunes to those around you, and your meditation experience can be elevated. 

3) Receive group support: People who meditate in a group setting report feeling less alone, more connected to others, and more impacted by the silence generated during a session. You may connect with other like-minded individuals who may help you along this journey.

4) Get feedback:  In a group, there are typically meditators of varying experience. This provides opportunities to learn new approaches to meditation and ask questions.

5) Develop a habit: When you are committed to a group, you benefit from additional motivation and confidence to continue a regular practice

Join my free group!

We will meet on zoom every Monday at 5 am CST for a 10-20 minute meditation beginning Monday July 8, 2019. Just go to click join and enter meeting ID 347-110-508 join us.

An Exercise in Mindfulness

Mindfully Applying Lip Gloss

We are taking a momentary break from the science overload of the Exploring the Science Series this week! Enjoy this brief exercise.

For this exercise, you will need a lip gloss or chapstick with screwtop lid like this one:

First, wash your hands. Then, I invite you to set all judgment aside, and try this 2-3 minute exercise. Approach this exercise like a small child, who may have never seen lip gloss before. We are going to explore it with all of your senses. (I do not recommend tasting it though 😉 )

Place the lip gloss container in your hand. Focus on it as if you’ve never seen anything like it before. Focus on seeing the roundish object.  Study the lettering. Scan it, exploring every part of it. Turn it around with your fingers and notice the color and clarity. Notice the folds and where the surface reflects light or becomes darker. Notice the ridge where the top and bottom join together.

Next, explore the texture of the container. Notice the texture and the feel of the container against your skin.  Are you feeling any softness, hardness, coarseness, or smoothness? Run your finger over the lettering.

While you’re doing this, if thoughts arise such as “Why am I doing this weird exercise?” or “How will this ever help me?” then just see if you can acknowledge these thoughts, let them be, and then bring your awareness back to the gloss container.

Next, gently turn the lid to open the lip gloss, noticing if it is smooth or rough as you turn. You may want to bring it close to your ear as you turn to hear the sound it makes as it opens.

Set aside the lid. Take the gloss beneath your nose, take a deep inhalation and notice the smell of it.

Now, gently place your clean finger into the gloss, feeling the sensation at the tip of your finger as it dips in. Notice the effect the warmth of your finger has on the surface of the gloss. Gently bring the gloss to your lips. Simply explore the sensations of your finger and the gloss against your lips as they touch.

Lightly press your lips together. Notice if there are any changes in how your lips now feel. Can you still smell the gloss now that it is on your lips?

Take a moment to congratulate yourself for taking this time to mindfully apply lip gloss.  This exercise is meant to demonstrate that mindfulness can APPLY to anything we do throughout the day, bringing more joy and focus to your present moment experience.

Questions For Reflection:

What did you notice with the gloss in terms of: sight, smell, touch and hearing?

What, if anything, surprised you about this practice?

Did any thoughts or memories pop up while doing this practice?

Were there elements of this practice that you found challenging, difficult, or easy?

Was anything different about the experience of mindfully placing lip gloss versus your usual habit?

If you are interested in learning more about working with me, please visit my website at

Exploring the Science Series: Neuroplasticity

For centuries, and actually until just recently due to the explosion of technology within neuroscience imaging, it was believed that once the brain developed fully throughout childhood/early adulthood, it became an unchanging, static organ with no capacity for physical growth or change. However, in recent and very exciting neuroscience publications, it has become clear that this is not the case, and in fact, the brain actually has the capacity to physically change throughout an individual’s entire lifetime. This plasticity means that neural functioning, once thought to be fixed, can be transferred to different locations within the brain, the proportion of gray matter can increase, synapses (or connections between neural cells) can strengthen or weaken over time. Our brain’s capacity for physical change is limitless.

Like going to the gym and lifting weights to build muscle strength, you can build attributes of your mind that you wish to increase through meditation…like weight lifting for the brain!

Specifically, let’s discuss some of the clinical studies which demonstrate that meditation will result in physical changes to the brain structure. This, by no means, is a comprehensive list. However, I’ve pulled some studies that I find interesting and applicable in the realm of cancer treatment.

Pain is commonly experienced by patients with cancer. Two meditative techniques, Zen meditation, a Japanese tradition emphasizing mindfulness, and yoga have been shown to result in increased gray matter (increased cortical thickness) in the regions of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex and insula.  These regions of the brain are involved in pain, emotions, perception, self-awareness, drug cravings/addiction, and consciousness. The increase in cortical volume in the insula resulting from these practices was associated with greater pain tolerance. Interestingly, the longer the meditator’s or yogi’s experience, the thicker the gray matter became, and this correlated with increasing levels of pain tolerance. (1,2)

Practicing Zen meditation or yoga can help you to have a higher pain tolerance.

Another common symptom during and after cancer therapy? What patients often refer to as “chemobrain”, a brain fog that results in poor short term memory and decreased cognitive processing. A form of meditation called insight meditation, described as cultivating nonjudgmental present moment awareness via sustained attention to internal and external sensory stimuli, was studied and shown to result in thicker cortex in meditation participants than matched controls in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area is involved in planning, complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior. The results were most pronounced in the older age-group, which suggests that meditation may offset age-related cortical thinning and therefore have a role in preventing dementias that are related to age-related volume loss. (3). Although the aim of this study was not specifically to study “chemobrain”, it is interesting to hypothesize that similar positive effects on cognitive processing may be seen in patients with cancer who meditate regularly.

Practicing insight meditation may prevent memory loss and improve cognitive processing.

And what about stress? The regions of the brain called the amygdala and caudate are associated with fear response and emotional regulation. A study on patients who practiced regular mindfulness showed decreased volume of the right amygdala and left caudate. This is associated with reduced stress reactivity and helps to illustrate the pathways that link mindfulness with the ability to better handle stress. (4)

Practicing mindfulness improves the stress response.

One thing I’ve always wished for my patients (and all people) is the ability to experience joy despite what might be viewed as negative circumstances. What if I told you that you could create the experience of joy using only internal stimulus of your brain’s reward system?  A type of meditation called Ecstatic Meditation (Jhana Altered State of Consciousness), a Buddhist technique which induces an altered state of consciousness with the short term goal of joy/happiness, was studied for this very purpose. This study used functional MRI imaging and EEG (neuroimaging techniques which show brain activity) to show that after an experienced meditator entered the state of jhana, there was activation in the nucleus accumbens in the brain, the brain’s reward center associated with motivation, pleasure, and reward/reinforcement. The practice induces extreme joy and shows activation in the dopamine reward system. (5)

Practicing Ecstatic meditation allows you to feel more joy.

The Bottom Line: What you practice is what you get.

If your mindfulness practice centers on growing your sense of loving compassion, your brain has the capacity to physically grow in the frontal lobe and thalamus, parts of your brain that handle positive emotion. If your practice focuses on experiencing joy, your brain can bulk up in the reward/joy center. You can focus your practice on the areas in which you would like to see growth or improvement, and likely, that is exactly what you will see.

Exploring the Science Series: The Science of Habit

This is the first official post on my upcoming “Exploring the Science Series.” In these posts, my hope is to highlight the clinical research and mechanisms of action behind the evolving knowledge that we, as a species, are not just bodies capable of thinking, but instead bodyminds. In this multi-week series, I hope to answer the questions: what is the supporting science behind a regular meditation practice? How does it help improve the experience of life with cancer, and life caring for those with cancer?

After reading my previous blogs, you may be thinking this mindfulness thing sounds useful, but forming a new habit can be a BIG challenge!

In this first post of the Exploring the Science Series, we are diving into the science behind habit formation, and what better way to do so than to share what I’ve learned from 2 fascinating books presenting the science of habit formation.

You may not be in the habit of regular mindfulness meditation, or are just getting started. The question is…how do you create a habit where there is no habit? Very smart people have created a career studying this. Today, I’m going to teach you what I’ve learned (so far) about forming a new habit.  Most of this material comes from my personal experience, and the wisdom I gained from these two EXCELLENT books, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

In Switch, the Heaths teach a helpful analogy for forming a new habit. Imagine a giant elephant, making his way down a path, with you as a rider sitting on his back. The rider represents your rational mind, and is the planner. The elephant represents your emotional mind. The path represents the circumstances of your situation. To form a new habit, you need to address all three: the rational, the emotional and the circumstances.  The Heaths teach that in order to form a new habit, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path.

To dig into this a little deeper, let’s use this example. Let’s imagine that your goal is to form a new habit of meditating for 20 minutes every day. You know the benefits, but you just can’t seem to get going.

How can you direct the rider?

  • Look closely at the times you did meditate. What worked about that for you? Maybe you planned ahead, maybe it was the time of day, maybe you set a reminder alarm. Analyze the times that worked, and reproduce.
  • Give clear direction. Write out a plan. Script your next moves.
  • Give the rider a goal that “smacks him in the gut.” (in other words, has emotion to it.) For instance, let’s say that you are a competitive person: Instead of a goal of “meditate for 20 minutes every day”, your goal might be “prove to myself that I am up to the challenge of 40 days straight of 20 minutes of meditation per day.” You can use a tracker and make it a competition with yourself, or a friend.

How can you motivate the elephant?

  • Ask yourself, “how can you make this change a matter of identity, rather than consequences?” Our inspiration to change comes from our desire to live up to our identity. For example, if you consider yourself to be an honest person, try telling a friend that you practice regular meditation. This may appeal to your honest nature to live up to the statement.
  • Motivation comes from feeling and confidence (believing that you are capable of conquering the change and that in the end, this change will benefit you). Knowledge is not enough.
  • Know your reasons for wanting to meditate regularly. They must be greater than the activation energy it takes to get started.
  • To grow your confidence, start small and build. For instance, if your eventual goal is 20 min of meditation per day 365 days per year, you might start with a goal of 5 min/day for a week. Once you have that down, you can increase the time, and then the frequency.
  • Also, joining a group of like-minded individuals who are motivated to meditate may help with your confidence and motivation.

How can you shape the path?

  • You could create an action trigger. For instance, find something you do every day, and link meditation to that. One example would be brushing your teeth. Every time you brush your teeth, meditate right afterward. Soon, these tasks will begin to become linked in your brain.
  • You can identify other supportive habits: setting a daily alarm, making sure you are getting enough rest at night, giving yourself selfcare time regularly.
  • You can set up a home meditation space that makes it easy to begin, and the site of which motivates you to meditate.

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg teaches about the cue–>routine–>reward cycle. You can harness this to make meditating a regular habit.

Start by creating a new cue, something that will trigger you to meditate.  Cues typically fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action.  Then, clearly define a reward for meditating. This creates a craving for the reward that drives the habit loop.

Here’s an example:

A few years ago, I got into the habit of going to the gym in the morning. When I decided I wanted to meditate more regularly, I decided to tack it on to my gym habit that was already well ingrained. Then, at my gym, there are massage chairs. After completing meditation, I’d spend 10 minutes relaxing in the massage chair.

Cue: going to gym

Routine: meditation after my workout

Reward: chair massage

If you are someone who is motivated by accomplishment, you might benefit from setting up a challenge for yourself. Challenge yourself to meditate 85% of the days in the next 3 months. Download a counter app and keep track of it. The sense of accomplishment in achieving your goal at the end may be enough reward. Or you could reward yourself by going for a pedicure, massage or special meal when you accomplish the goal.

Duhigg also teaches that you need belief for these habits to take hold:

You must believe you can change, and believe that the change you are making is connecting you to the inner purpose of your life that is far greater than the external rewards you will receive.

Lastly, there is the power of group support. If you are interested in joining a group challenge, sign up for my email list at to receive notice when there is an upcoming group or challenge beginning.

My hope is that in this post, you will find some useful tactics to start making meditation a regular practice.