Sunday, January 20, 2013

Buddhism: Approach to Menopause

The interdependence of the mind and body and the impact of emotions and thoughts on personal health and well-being were well known to ancient Buddhists. Buddhism speaks of the power of the mind and how we could control many functions of our bodies with our minds. According to Buddhist thinking, when dealing with illness and health, the mind, emotions and body could be dealt with in an integrated manner. Buddhism is emphatic on the inseparable connection between the mind and body - the complex interactions that take place between thoughts, body, and the outside world.

In the East, Buddhism has impacted the field of health and medicine for many years. In Buddhist sutras and ancient Buddhist chronicles, there are countless references to and discussion on health and medicine, and how the mind and emotions affect ones behavior and ultimately ones health, physical and emotional well-being. Buddhist spirituality is founded on “maithri” or loving-kindness and compassion towards all living beings. According to Buddhism, to be active and healthy, one needs to live a spiritual life. Spirituality with meditation, as an essential element of daily life, has a direct impact on the overall health of people.

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Integrated Approach to Health in Buddhism

What science and Buddhism really share is the goal of understanding the nature of reality. Science uses that scientific method and a lot of technology – it starts from the outside and probes the nature of reality. Buddhism uses the human mind, reformed through meditation, starting from the inside, looking at the same questions.

The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The Buddhist understanding of good health is similar with its emphasis on the balanced interaction between the mind and body as well as between life and its environment. Illness tends to arise when this delicate equilibrium is upset. Buddhist theory and practice aim to restore and strengthen this balance.

While modern medicine tends to address the ailing part of the body in isolation from the rest, treating it alone, the Buddhist understanding of health sees disease as a reflection of the total somatic system, or life itself, and seeks to cure it through a fundamental reorientation of a person's life-style and outlook. Physical aspects of life are inseparable from the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects. The optimal condition of health is one achieved when mind and body are functioning well and interacting together as one. Central to the Buddhist approach to health and healing is its emphasis on spiritual strength and an overriding sense of purpose in life based on compassionate action for others.

Although modern medical science has made great strides, it has not necessarily furthered the cause of human happiness. The emergence of the holistic and psychosomatic movements testifies to the need for something deeper in understanding the human being.

In recent years focused scientific studies have revealed the decisive influence of people's states of mind, emotions, attitudes and beliefs on how they get sick and how they stay well. Upsets or shocks to the mind such as divorce, death of a loved one, have direct bearing on the biochemistry of the immune system. Similarly, wear and tear on the mind such as boredom, self-obsession, sense of not being in control, alienation, wears down the physical systems of the body.

A sense of purpose makes people live longer, feel better and stay physically healthier. Also compassion, generosity and patience are qualities that make people strong and resilient. Buddhism directs its energy inward to train the mind to understand the mental state of happiness, to identify and defuse sources of negative emotions and to cultivate emotional states like “metta, mudita, karuna upekkha”, or loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, in order to improve personal and societal well-being.

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Buddhism on Menopause

Menopause represents the new phase in your life - birth into the “wise woman”. Although when the term “menopause” is mentioned, it actually includes “perimenopause” as well, because as the medical community has come to realize, the life transit that menopause represents is actually one that spans 10 years or more for many women. For most of them, hormonal shifts begin in their early 40-s or even mid to late 30-s, whether they notice them yet or not. And with this comes the energetic, psychological, and spiritual shifts that usher them into their wise woman years. In a way, it is a long and complicated transition period.

Changes to your subtle body – your chakras and energetic systems – mirror multiple changes in your physical body. In spiritual traditions that work with the chakras, working with these changes is a big part of the transition into wise woman status – they are part of what enables a shift into a new spiritual perspective and skills. Specifically, it is during this time that you are guided to revisit any themes from earlier in your lives that you have left unexamined, or any wounds you have left unhealed. If you rise to this challenge, you come to own a new relationship to your delicate body, your intuition, and your spiritual selves.

From an energetic technical perspective, this “prompting” often occurs through bursts of kundalini, or spiritual awakening energy, in your chakras. In chakra meditation traditions, ideally the kundalini is brought up gradually from the root to the crown chakra, enabling a smooth spiritual awakening process. During perimenopause, instead there are often sporadic bursts of kundalini (some even connect hot flashes to these bursts, since the kundalini rising often triggers a similar feeling of warmth or “fire”.) Just as your hormones swing during this time, so does your energetics system.

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Many women experience these energy bursts as actual sensations of warmth or tingling in a part of their body associated with a chakra. If you meditate on your chakras or work with them in some other way, you may feel active energy in the chakras themselves. If not, you may not be aware of these bursts at all, but instead may see the results of them in the patterns or themes of your life during this time, because these bursts bring forth that which you are asked to heal or learn.

Whether you experience them physically or not, these energy bursts represent a tremendous growth opportunity.  Each chakra is related to life themes, and you are usually called to focus on the one or two that are the most central to your growth. Although there can be a lot of complexities to the spiritual growth and exploration, here is a basic guide to the chakras and the corresponding “life themes”:

·      First/Root Chakra (Tailbone, Legs, Feet)  – Security, Safety, Life Foundation, and Familial Heritage

·      Second/Sacral Chakra (Lower Belly, Pelvis, Womb) – Emotional Openness, Creativity, Sensuality, Sexuality

·      Third/Navel Chakra (Navel, Solar Plexus)  – Personal Power, Will, Boundaries, and Identity

·      Fourth/Heart Chakra (Chest) – Ability to Love/Feel Loved, Compassion, Acceptance

·      Fifth/Throat (Neck, Jaw) – Self-expression, Clarity, Authenticity, Integrity

·      Sixth/Third Eye (Forehead) – Intuition, Wisdom, Seeing Beyond Surface

·      Seventh/Crown (Back Crown or Head) – Spiritual Connection, Faith, Insight

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The best way to work with this knowledge is to consider how the life experiences you are having during this time corresponds to these themes. Consider how they relate to your past, especially your childhood – what has been left unresolved? Do you harbor buried fears or resentments related to any of these areas deep in your psyche? Or alternatively, are you experiencing health problems related to any of the chakra physical correspondences?

The energetic shifts of this time can manifest in any number of ways. If you approach this phase of your life as an opportunity to really work through anything that you have avoided facing in the past, your overall energy will be freed up, allowing it to flow through your subtle body. You can also benefit from working with the chakras directly, particularly with any techniques that help free up chakra flow – the energy moving between the chakras. Yoga is excellent for this, as are meditation techniques that focus on the movement between chakras.

When the energy flows freely through your energetics system, you may experience a flowering of spiritual gifts, particularly of intuition – a key part of the wise woman archetype. Your ability to sense and connect with energies and spirit is magnified.  As the reproductive aspect of your physical body winds down, the spiritual aspects of your subtle body ramp up! And this shift is something that can continue to deepen for the rest of your lives. 

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The University of Massachusetts research showed that mindfulness training, based on a Buddhist meditation concept, reduced the distress associated with hot flashes and improved physical, psychosocial and sexual functioning.

“The findings are important because hormone replacement therapy, used to treat menopause symptoms in the past, has been associated with health risks,” said study author James Carmody, an associate professor of medicine in the division of preventive and behavioral medicine.

About 40 percent of menopausal women suffer from hot flashes and night sweats, which undermine their quality of life, the researchers noted. But since hormone replacement therapy has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and stroke, Carmody observed that “not only are women looking for alternative treatments, it is an NIH (National Institutes of Health) priority to find behavioral treatments.”

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