Cultivating neuroplasticity.

Leisure swimmers have different muscles to committed cyclists, gardening works muscles that typing wont. Just as muscles may be built by occupation, pastime or determination so too our brains are built upon by how they get worked – by experience, repeat experience, on going flexing. It is not just that we can alter our attitudes, we can actually change our minds – physically rewire the structure of our brain by regularly adopting and flexing that attitude. The brain is pliable enough to change, to alter – it is not rigid, it has plasticity. Previous embedded mind-sets can be unset.

This capacity for neuroplasticity is one of the reasons regular mindfulness is often clinically prescribed to undo the habitual harm and self-programming of depression, addiction, anxiety, panic and even PTSD. Mindfulness and other meditations can physically remodel brain regions associated with attention control, sensory processing and response to stimuli and so reshape attitudes and quality of life – helping people regain control after years of fixed patterns and inflexible reactions. The scientific studies and advancement of mindfulness in therapeutics is found in the works of Sara W. Lazar, Daniel J. Siegel and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Neuroplasticity is happing all the time it is how we learn new things. What is interesting is that one must be up for it, enthusiasm is required, you can’t really go through the motions of it – positive motivation and real alertness triggers the neurochemicals necessary to enable the brain modifications. So your depressed state or distracted anxiousness actually switches your neuroplasticity function off. Coming to mindfulness is the way to reengage that function and activate purpose.

In learning any new task the more honed the attention the more we take it in, the more memory is retained of how to. It’s the old ‘practice makes perfect’ idiom; the more repetition the more the brain grabs of the experience, the more it gets wired in. Each time, the brain strengthens the connections of neurons that are engaged in the task or experience. Cell-to cell cooperation is enhanced in the moment by moment of the occurrence. When we bring moment to moment mindfulness to this process we further enhance it by reducing the disruptive power of distraction. We are there, it is happening, game on, switch ‘on’.

The single tasking of bringing our presence to the moment – to the task in hand, consolidates performance and perfects acquisition. The more we practice mindfulness the more we cultivate our own neuroplasticity.

something to contemplate. “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee (Hong Kong-American martial arts expert and philosopher.1940 – 1973)

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disarming anxiety and stress

Stress and anxiety are complex issues and both are a spectrum – indeed, both of symptoms and intensity. The first thing to say is that stress and anxiety are natural human states, they are part of our evolved survival mechanisms – the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. They let us know something is not quite right or safe with this situation – and that’s the ultimate way to overcome it – to change the situation or your reaction to it.

Mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and even simple relaxation techniques can disarm the panic button and help you view the situation differently and so react less. I would urge everyone who is having a hard time with anxiety or stress to get to the bottom of what is triggering their distress and to seek out psychological tools and other supports. But until you rewire your brain to a better place, there are dietary and herbal interventions.

Prescribed Anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals work by targeting the GABA receptors in the brain to influence neural signalling and calm the central nervous system as well as slowing down alpha waves and taking the steam out of over thinking – thus providing a more tranquil experience. There are a couple of plants that have been doing that job for thousands of years.

Chamomile, lavender and lemon balm are known as the three great stress busters. What’s so cool about them is they can alter our brain chemistry and disarm stress molecules in the body via two routes – we can make a pleasant herbal tea and sip some calmness or you can carry an essential oil in your backpack and avail of the aromatherapy. Both the sip and the inhale are equally effective in stepping the brain down a gear. The chemistry is in both to ease tensions off of our neurotransmitters and GABA receptor in particular. The chemistry is in both methods to trigger the body to dissolve or decrease cortisol and other stress makers.

GABA receptors can also be influenced to a calmer setting by ingesting a bioflavonoid known as Apigenin which is found in parsley, thyme, onions, oranges, tea, celery, buckwheat and a whole host of kitchen staples. Apigenin is present in beer and red wine which is perhaps why so many people self-medicate that way – but why have the hangover. Hops in beer are chemically an anxiolytic (reduces anxiety and stress responses) but you can soak some hops in the bath and absorb the tranquil chemistry through the skin without the fermented next day headache. we have receptors on our skin as well as in out stomachs and brains they respond to the hop chemistry. Hops are in the cannabis family and work on those same receptors that cannabis affects.

Cannabidiol aka cbd, extracted from cannabis is popular today almost as a panacea for every ill – it won’t fix the ingrown toenail but where it works with anxiety and stress is in supporting serotonin (happy hormone) levels, improving cerebral blood flow and lowering blood pressure – all of which help diminish cortisol and other stress markers in the system.

The trick is not to use any of these herbs as a perpetual crutch but to utilize as a temporary support until you can diminish those stress triggers. Any of the mindful entries across these pages will help in that direction.

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To plant mindfully

In the segment on sowing a seed mindfully I mentioned diligence, diligence is acting with integrity; it is bringing your dutiful and alert self into the process. We gardeners can become automatic on regular gardening tasks and not really be present to what we are doing. We may dig the right depth hole and water in after planting but we perhaps ‘phone it in’ or go through the motions without actually noticing what we are doing or have done. To plant mindfully is not just to bring a correct method to bear, it is to be there.

So notice how you dig the hole, feel the implement in your hand or how your hand parts the soil. Feel it, register it. Become aware of the plant as you tip it from its pot, tease it roots, place it in the hole. Feel the sensation of backfilling, firming in – there is a lot of physicality and contact here. Experience it all. Then with positive regard water the plant in. Know you have given it the best start you can. Know that by planting with your attentive self – in a mindful mode – you have really interacted with that plant, that you have cultivated a connection, that you are not just doing in the garden you are being and a vital part of its being.

Garden contemplation: To garden is to be less distracted by our minds and more in tune with our hearts.

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sowing the seeds of mindfulness

Sowing seed is not an act of will, it is participation in the divine force of creation, it is participation with the force of life; to renew itself. In sowing seed you are present at the conception of a new batch of plants – be present. Be awestruck. Be joyous. Be mindful.

With diligence read the seed packet or recall from past experience the requirements of the seed to germinate. Does it need light and so a surface sowing, does it germinate in darkness so a prod of a pencil tip to set its depth in the growing media to success? This attention to detail is being present to the life process requirements of the plant. Taking it seriously, not just dispersing seed any old way and leaving it to chance, is not just due diligence but respect. Respect is a loving kindness, it is an open heart, it is an awake presence to the under taking.

Bring your awake presence to every stage; to filling the compost tray or making the drill or fine tilth in the earth. Put or manifest the intent to success in every action. Feel the seed in your hand and carefully deposit it into its position to grow. Consciously water it to its requirement. This may be a gardening task that you do regularly, almost on a muscle memory, automatic, without experiencing but why not experience it anew by doing it as if for the first time, by letting it be the full focus of your attention. By being here and now with it.

Garden contemplation: Seeds are primed to germinate under the right conditions – so too we gardeners under the right conditions can be renewed and burst forth with fresh life.

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how to really deal with slugs and snail.

The mindful approach. To be a mindful gardener we may not like what the slugs and snails do but we need not hate or rage. In Theravada Buddhism it is taught that the antidote to anger is compassion and loving kindness. Not the easiest of asks but when we accept that anger is toxic not just to the spirit but to the body, which it floods with a stressful chemistry. In mindfulness we learn to master our emotions or at least not have them dominate us.

I will admit I am not quite at the stage of extending loving compassion to the slugs and snails that devour my seedlings – though I want to be of Buddha mind and Krishna consciousness. I do however acknowledge that they are only operating within their nature – feeding and living – there is no malice in it. There is no need for a sense of injustice or anger. It is just the nature of the garden. It is just the nature of life – there are things beyond your control, bad things happen – we cannot internalize everything that does not go to plan or to our peace of mind. we don’t have to ride the storm or the tsunami of negative emotion; we can bring compassion to our self and move on to the next moment.

Anger, doubt, regret – all the disrupting sentiments are just sentiments – they are not you, they are not of I or mine. They are transitory, if you let them transit on. If you transition to a different now. Slugs and snail  eat. We garden. Life goes on.

Transmutation. Anger can be motivation. I know that on the spiritual path ego and anger are seen as evils. I dispute. It is the context. Ok egotism can go, but you can’t obliterate the self fully, you still need some self for self-respect. The letting go is not of any semblance of self it rather with letting go of self-identification with aggression, greed, emotional pain and other suffering. It is transcending the moment – that is going to heaven, that is reaching nirvana – that is the journey and the afterlife or shush I say that is the next stage of life.

Anger is problematic but it often stems from what we perceive as an injustice and that hints at a will to right the situation but we can stand in front the tank not drive it, we can love bomb not blow up. We can overcome.

Anger is a human trait and so if it’s good enough for evolution to retain than it has some value. I do not mean aggression, I mean a sense of justice or outrage at injustice or true evils. anger is the sensation we experience when something offends, if the smirk of a colleague angers – work on that. If slavery, persecution or prejudice offends you then get to work on that – vote, campaign, boycott, speak up.

So if those slugs are still bothering you into rage or clenched teeth then be motivated by it – make the beer trap, buy the grit, protect the plants. Turn the negative experience into impetus towards a more positive experience. This is the alchemy of the soul. There is more to made than precious metals.

Garden contemplation: Overcome one’s self then overcome all else.

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A latitude for gratitude

Gardening gifts myriad opportunities to be grateful; Grateful that the sun is shining, or that the wind has abated or that the rain is doing the watering today. Grateful that those seeds germinated, or that plant flowered or that bush berried. We gardeners can mistake our kind regard for the situational moment as relief; relief that the sun is shining or the wind abated etc but becoming more mindful we not only shift our contentment to joy, but lift our relief to thankfulness – to a deeper appreciation of the situation. To not just sense the happening of a good moment but embrace and rejoice that the moment is doing you good too.

Many studies have found that expressing or experiencing gratitude can trigger a realization of eudaimonia; that’s a positive psychological perception of one’s own welfare, often accompanied by a sense of physical health. Being thankful is so close to being joyful that our brain chemistry and body responds accordingly. Gratitude is now popular as a psychological device to protect oneself from stress, negativity, self-pity, anxiety, and depression. Long before that it was simply a way to count your blessings.

Cultivating eudaimonia. The concept of eudaimonia is as old as the Greek gods but it is perhaps most clearly considered in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where it is understood to mean “to live and fair well”. Etymologically, it consists of the words “eu” meaning wellness and “daimōn” which denotes a guardian spirit; so it is the spirit of doing good – thriving. It is often translated as welfare, wellbeing, happiness, flourishing, blessedness, prosperity, and so on – you get the meaning; it’s not a bad thing to be cultivating.

So how do we grow this good life. Well by growing things and enjoying them, by eating our harvest, by looking forward to our next sowing, by participating in our pleasures and our rewarding pastimes. Appreciating the garden and mindfully considering the more positive aspects of life is often seen as having a positive outlook but it is a personality trait than can be honed more if you naturally have it and even gained if it’s not your natural inclination.

The way is to express more gratitude, kind regard and loving kindness towards your self, your daily experiences and your life journey. It is not so difficult. It is just a matter of allowing it. Take the time to appreciate the beauty or bounty of the next plant you water. Take the time to notice the next pollinating bee. Bring your awareness to just how good it is to be outside as your flourishing self in your flourishing garden

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A balm for exam stresses and other anxieties.

I have long been enamoured with Lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis). I think it a pretty plant, I love its aromatic contribution to the garden but I relish its healing potential. Of course any plant with officinalis in the title was once upon a time – before foil packet medicines – an official herb of health. With this one I love its mental health attributes and its ability to help bust stress around exam time.

The scent alone has mood lifting benefits – lemony fragrances tend to ping energizing and antidepressant brain receptors. That refreshing whiff is a nifty touch of aromatherapy. Crush a leaf and try for yourself. The essential oil is often recommended to vaporise in a room or add to bath in times of moderated stress to severe anxiety. I love it because it not only calms the system but opens up the brains capacity to receive and store and recall information. It’s the perfect fragrance to get a nose to at exam time, not only are you less stressed you are better functioning.

To get a bit technical for a second, its volatile oils act to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain – that’s the neurotransmitter with a wide array of functions including mood regulation, cognitive function, memory storage and recall, rapid eye movement sleep, as well as neuromuscular signalling and motor control. So the aromatherapy has broad application. But ingesting the plant is a more potent dose of those volatile oils.

Those lemon-scented leaves are delicious in a herbal tea or used (dried or fresh) to flavour an evening meal or lunch with a citrus hint or to make a salad dressing with some zing. A tea is one of the simplest methods to get some into you – as we say. 1-2 tsps of chopped dried herb or several plucked leaves will match the strength of any shop bought tea bag. To capture the maximum quantity of volatile oils it is best to brew in a pot or cover the tea cup with a saucer to stop them evaporating. A brew length of 3-7 minutes will do the trick.

Lemonbalm tea has a long history in tackling anxiety and stress – its anxiolytic effect come not just in its psychologically soothing nature – hence ‘balm’ in the name – but in its ability to increase neurotransmitter levels related to cognitive function and intellectual performance – it’s the alertness with the tranquillity that works as such a potent therapy.

One of those neurotransmitters that it stimulates is gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) – which just happens to be the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for reducing neuronal excitability throughout our entire nervous system and which helps to attenuate the activation of the amygdala and other brain circuitry in the face of stress markers and negative emotional stimuli. In other words – Super calming.

Where the lift comes from is that Lemonbalm also contains flavonoids such as apigenin, luteolin, kaempferol and quercetin which can help bolster how we perceive our own general sense of wellbeing and improve peripheral blood circulation to – and the oxygenation of – our brain. Because lemon balm also deepens restorative sleep it helps rest the body away from the build-up of stress. In restorative sleep mode we actually upload our learned files and delete those nonsense moments of the day – we prioritise the lesson learned over the mistake made – this is why good sleep is so important to mental health.

Ok so maybe you don’t have a driving test or college exam looming, maybe you have long since aced or other your leaving cert, well lemonbalm is still worth growing. The principles that give it its lemon flavour – citral, citronellal, citronellol – are antispasmodic agents that work to calm the digestive as well as nervous systems. Those same agents making it useful to address menstrual cramps and also tension headaches. Lemonbalm’s polyphenolics such as rosmarinic acid have a potent anti-viral action so drinking lemon balm can also shorten a cold or flu.

To discover more about herbal teas and how to maximise their chemistry, check out my new book – a quick cuppa herbal.

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