Meditation medication of the future

For people seeking to improve their health, the US surgeon-general advises putting aside an hour, several times a week, for “compassionate” meditation.

Actually, he doesn’t. He prescribes 60 minutes of physical exercise. But noted molecular biologist Eric Lander, a leader of the Human Genome Project, believes the change is coming.

“It is certainly not inconceivable that 20 years from now the US surgeon-general might recommend 60 minutes of mental exercise five times a week,” Lander told a conference of renowned scientists and Buddhist scholars at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) at the weekend.

Such a prediction, from a man of Lander’s stature at a venue like MIT, is an indication of mainstream science’s growing fascination with Buddhism, and especially with the preliminary but extraordinary results of state-of-the-art research into the Olympian mental athleticism of trained Buddhist monks.

Some of the data presented at the conference – attended by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama – pointed not only to amazingly high attention spans, but also meditation techniques that could actually “rewire” the brain’s neural pathways.

Harvard-trained neuroscientist Richard Davidson showed brain-scan images of a monk who was able to push levels of activity in his left, prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain associated with positive emotions – “off the chart” by using a technique known as compassion meditation.

In a different meditative state, the same monk could do what, until then, had been thought to be impossible. He was able to suppress the “startle reflex” – the involuntary response to a loud, sudden noise like a gunshot.

Paul Ekman, an eminent expert on the science of emotion, described the monk’s level of control as a “spectacular accomplishment”.

Alan Wallace, a former monk and president of the Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Consciousness in Santa Barbara, believes Buddhist practices aimed at improving emotional and cognitive balance could be powerful tools, and not just in treating depression and mental illness.

“I see no reason why some of these techniques could not be introduced into the school system,” Wallace said.

“People will do better in education and a myriad professions because they are happier, more balanced and more attentive,” he added.

One obvious problem raised by several of the scientists at the conference was that the monks involved in the studies had honed their mental skills over the best part of a lifetime.

“It’s a wonderful achievement, but if it takes 15 years, it’s not going to help most folks,” said Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Another objection comes from those who believe there could be a price to pay in the Buddhist practice of reducing or eliminating “afflictive” emotions in favour of their positive counterparts.

One argument suggests some of the emotions that fall in the negative camp – such as anger or fear – are important for survival.

“Martin Luther King was an angry man and a lot of good things came from his anger,” Gilbert said.

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