You’ve been meditating for a while. Maybe a couple of weeks or several years. There are days when the benefits seem palpable. You don’t react when your brother belittles you just like he did in your sandbox days. When the woman in yellow heels tries to maneuver her cart ahead of yours in the checkout line, you pause, then wave her forward with a smile. She smiles back with what looks like genuine relief. Angry a moment ago, you now feel good, along with, you note, a hint of superiority. A friend you haven’t seen in years remarks how you seem more forthcoming.
Meditation always seems like a good thing to do, except when you’re actually doing it. Then it can seem like a boring, uncomfortable, complete waste of time when there are clearly more important things to do, buy, watch, eat and read.
While “meditating” today, I put together a list of time-tested ways to avoid actually meditating.
My story is like most others. I started to meditate because I was in pain. I was 29 years old and in a relationship that kept me constantly off-balance and unsure of myself. It was a cold New England January. I was depressed, though I didn’t know much about depression at the time and didn’t recognize my own condition. My depression was energetic, rather than lethargic. I felt like I had coffee running through my veins, keeping me awake all hours of the night with only black thoughts for company.
Sitting isn’t easy, so setting a specific amount of time to meditate helps me maintain a consistent practice. I started off using a kitchen timer, but it ticked, so an audio-engineer friend created “songs” for my iPod with a gong at the beginning, silence for 10, 20, 30 or 45 minutes, and then a gong at the end. This was in 2006, a year before the first iPhone was released.
When I bought an iPhone in 2011, one of the first apps I downloaded was Insight Timer Light. I upgraded to the paid version later, for the advanced options. I can’t remember what it cost, maybe $9.99, but it seemed like a reasonable price to pay for an app I used almost every day.
I’ve worked with some excellent teachers over the years, but migraine headaches have taught me more about meditation than any of them.
I was 13 when I had my first migraine. The pain and nausea were unbearable. My worried mother took me to a pediatrician, who referred me to an optometrist, who referred me to a neurologist, who prescribed medicine that didn’t work. Fast forward a few decades, several doctors, and many drugs later—I still get migraines.
How do you distinguish between self and other? That’s the question Dr. Karine Gibbs, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, is trying to answer. Using the bacterium Proteus mirabilis as a model, Gibbs and colleagues are working to understand how bacteria discriminate self from non-self.
P. mirabilis is the culprit in most catheter-related urinary tract infections (UTIs). But UTIs aren’t the bacteria’s only talent. When migrating as a swam across a surface, populations of the bacteria display a remarkable phenomenon: swarms of the same strain merge, while swarms of different strains form a visible boundary between each other. This behavior suggests that P. mirabilis swarms are capable of self vs. non-self recognition leading to territoriality .
Looking for the molecular mechanisms underlying this ability, the Gibbs lab has identified a set of genes in P. mirabilis that encodes the components necessary for self vs. non-self recognition. Martha Henry sat down with Dr. Gibbs in her office in Harvard’s BioLabs to talk about the work.
Joy Ladin is a poet and Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. In 2007, after living as a man for 46 years, Ladin transitioned from male to female, changing her name from Jay to Joy. She and her wife of over twenty years divorced. Ladin’s memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, chronicles her life of gender dysphoria and eventual transition. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Transmigration (2009) and Impersonation (2015). She talked to Martha Henry by phone in early May.
As her brain began to shut down during her stroke, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist and spokeswoman for the Harvard Brain Bank, was fascinated by the process. The stroke left her unable to speak, walk, or remember anything about her former self. She became, in effect, a 37-year-old newborn. Once her condition stabilized, surgeons removed a golf-ball-sized clot from her brain. That was in 1996. Bolte Taylor spent the next eight years recovering and creating a new self. Her poignant TED Talk, My Stroke of Insight, went viral in 2008. Martha Henry reached her by phone at her home in Indiana.
At Harvard Medical School, all first-year students are required to take the Gross Anatomy Lab, part of “The Human Body” course. A few of my journalist friends were auditing the class, so I asked to come along. I wanted to get close to death, but in a clinical sort of way. Continue reading Holding Brains
When searching for brains images, I was surprised to discover how many artists are creating quirky, compelling pieces using yarn and thread. Here’s my idiosyncratic gallery of The Best Neuro Needlework out there.
Brain Barbie, photo by Simmone Spring, from her Etsy shop, Your Organ Grinder