Eve Savory, CBC, Canada: Erin Gammel is a shoo-in for the Canadian Olympic swim team. Canadian record holder, champion backstroker – unless something wildly unexpected happens, she’s going to Athens.
But four years ago she was a sure bet for the Sydney Olympics, too.
“Everyone kept telling me you’re a shoo-in,” she says. “And we had the strategy and everything was perfect. And I thought this is it, I’m going to the Olympics.”
She was racing at the Olympic trials in Montreal. She hit the lane rope, lost her concentration and lost her place on the team.
“It was just extremely disappointing. I was depressed. I was just really sad. I was crying and I couldn’t control myself,” Gammel says.
Erin Gammel cried for two years. Help was to come in a way she would never have dreamed, from Dharamsala in Northern India, 5,000 kilometres and cultural eons away…
Dharamsala is the home in exile to thousands of Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama, after China occupied Tibet.
For 25 centuries Tibetan Buddhists have practised and refined their exploration. For generations they probed their inner space with the same commitment with which western science explored the external world and outer space. The two inhabited separate worlds.
But now, they are finding common ground in a remarkable collaboration.
In March 2000, a select group of scientists and scholars journeyed to Dharamsala. They came to share insights and solutions – to human distress and suffering.
Among them was Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin. He finds nothing contradictory about doing science with Buddhists.
“There is almost a scientific-like attitude that is exemplified by Buddhist practitioners in investigating their own mind,” he says. “Their mind is the landscape of their own experimentation, if you will.”
The westerners had been invited by the Dalai Lama himself to his private quarters.
For five days, monks and scientists dissected what they call “negative emotions” – sadness, anxiety jealousy craving, rage – and their potential to destroy.
One of the participants, Daniel Goleman, author of the book Destructive Emotions, says, “As we were leaving the U.S. to come here the headline was a six-year-old who had a fight with a classmate and the next day he came back with a gun and shot and killed her. It’s very sad.”
Why would the scientists seek answers in Tibetan Buddhism?
Because its rigorous meditative practices seem to have given the monks an extraordinary resilience, an ability to bounce back from the bad things that happen in life, and cultivate contentment.
Richard Davidson’s lab is one of the world’s most advanced for looking inside a living brain. He’s recently been awarded an unprecedented $15-million (Cdn) grant to study, among other things, what happens inside a meditating mind.
“Meditation is a set of practices that have been around for more than 2,500 years, whose principal goal is to cultivate these positive human qualities, to promote flourishing and resilience. And so we think that it deserves to be studied with the modern tools of science,” Davidson says.
A little over a year later, in May 2001, the Dalai Lama returned the visit to Davidson’s lab in Madison, Wis.
His prize subjects – and collaborators – are the Dalai Lama’s lamas, the monks.
“The monks, we believe, are the Olympic athletes of certain kinds of mental training,” Davidson says. “These are individuals who have spent years in practice. To recruit individuals who have undergone more than 10,000 hours of training of their mind is not an easy task and there aren’t that many of these individuals on the planet.”
The Dalai Lama has said were he not a monk, he would be an engineer.
He brings that sensibility – the curiosity and intellectual discipline – to the discussion on EEGs and functional MRIs.
But this isn’t really about machines.
And it isn’t about nirvana.
It’s about down-to-earth life: about the distress of ordinary people – and a saner world.
“The human and economic cost of psychiatric disorder in western industrialized countries is dramatic,” says Davidson. “And to the extent that cultivating happiness reduces that suffering, it is fundamentally important.”
The monk and the scientist are investigating – together – the Art of Happiness.
“Rather than thinking about qualities like happiness as a trait,” Davidson says, “we should think about them as a skill, not unlike a motor skill, like bicycle riding or skiing. These are skills that can be trained. I think it is just unambiguously the case that happiness is not a luxury for our culture but it is a necessity.”
But we believe we can buy happinessï¿½if we just had the money. That’s what the ad industry tells us. And we think it’s true.
People’s theories about what will make them happy often are wrong. And so there’s a lot of work these days that shows, for example, that winning the lottery will transiently elevate your happiness but it will not persist.
There’s some evidence that our temperament is more or less set from birth. So and so is a gloomy Gusï¿½someone else is a ray of sunshine – that sort of thing.
Even when wonderful or terrible things happen, most of us, eventually, will return to that emotional set-point.
But, Davidson believes, that set point can be moved.
“Our work has been fundamentally focused on what the brain mechanisms are that underlie these emotional qualities and how these brain mechanisms might change as a consequence of certain kinds of training,” Davidson says.
His work could not have been done 20 years ago. “In fact, 20 years ago, we had dreams of methods that allows you to interrogate the brain in this way, but we had no tools to do it.”
Now that we have the tools we can see that as our emotions ebb and flow, so do brain chemistry and blood flow. Fear, depression, love ï¿½ they all get different parts of our brain working.
Happiness and enthusiasm, and joy – they show up as increased activity on the left side near the front of the cortex. Anxiety, sadness – on the right.
Davidson has found this pattern in infants as young as 10 months, in toddlers, teens and adults.
Davidson tested more than 150 ordinary people to see what parts of their brains were most active.
Some were a little more active on the left. Some were a little more active on the right.
A few were quite far to the right. They would probably be called depressed. Others were quite far to the left, the sort of people who feel “life is great.”
So there was a range. Then Davidson tested a monk.
He was so far to the left he was right off the curve. That was one happy monk.
“And this is rather dramatic evidence that there’s something really different about his brain compared with the brains of these other 150 people. This is tantalizing evidence that these practices may indeed be promoting beneficial changes in the brain.”
Here, the Olympic athletes of meditation meet the Cadillac of brain scanners.
Khachab Rinpoche, a monk from Asia, came to Madison to meditate in perhaps the strangest place in his life: the functional MRI.
It let’s scientists watch what happens inside his brain when he switches between different types of meditation.
They want to know how his brain may differ from ordinary people, and whether that change is related to the inner contentment the monks report.
So they test how subjects react to unpleasant sounds and images flashed into the goggles they wear in the MRI.
Normally when we’re threatened one part of the brain is tremendously active, but in the monks, “the responsivity of this area is specifically decreased during this meditation in response to these very intense auditory simuli that convey strong emotions,” Davidson says.
It’s very preliminary work, but the implication may be that the lamas are able to move right through distressing events that overwhelm the rest of us – in other words, one of the keys to their happiness.
It may tell us something about our potential. “Our brains are adaptable, our brains are not fixed. The wiring in our brains is not fixed. Who we are today is not necessarily who we have to end up being,” Davidson says.
Tibetan Buddhism is said to be one of the most demanding mental endeavours on the planet. It takes 10,000 hours of meditation and years in retreat to become adept. Few of us can imagine such a commitment.
But that doesn’t mean the benefits of meditation are out of our reach.
Zindal Segal is a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. He uses meditation to treat mood disorders.
It’s based on Buddhist teachings and its called mindfulness.
Michael Herman, senior partner with the law firm of Goodman and Goodman, meditates in his office.
“Very few of us can sit for 10,000 hours to be able to do this but the interesting thing is that we don’t need to. These capacities are available to all of us,” Segal says. ” We’re talking about paying attention, we’re talking about returning wherever our minds are to this present moment. These are things that we all have. We don’t have to earn them, we just have to find a way of clearing away the clutter to see that they are already there.”
Meditation is now out of the closet. The word is, it eases stress, drops blood pressure, helps put that bad day at the office in perspective.
Meditation is being mainlined by the mainstream, from corporate offices to factory floors.
These days it’s not unusual to find hospitals like St. Joseph’s in Toronto offering meditation programs. Some 360 people pass through the eight-week course every year.
Like most, this program has taken the simplest form of Buddhist teaching and adapted it for busy lives.
“Meditation is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be practised. So we use the breath as the place where we start to practise but eventually what we want to be able to do is to be able to use the awareness of the breath in our daily lives,” Segal says.
“When we have the ability to do that we can then use the breath when we’re standing in line at a bank, or if we’re having an argument with a spouse, as a way of grounding ourselves in the middle of something that is disturbing.”
Something disturbing, like the mind movie Erin Gammel couldn’t escape: the day when she failed to make the Olympic team.
“I just remember my hand getting caught in a lane rope and thinking to myself, it’s over,” Gammel says.
She lost her focus, her place on the team, and her heart to swim.
“It affected my entire life. I cried at the drop of a hat. I wasn’t improving and it didn’t look like anything was really improving. And I felt everything I did I seemed to fail at,” she says. “That was part of the depression and the sadness because I felt like I was failing at the time. Nothing was going well.”
Until she hooked up with the National Swim Team’s sports psychologist, Hap Davis. Davis had been fascinated by scientist Richard Davidson’s work.
He had a hunch that reliving the trauma was suppressing that part of Erin’s brain on the left that Davidson had found was so active in happy people.
He devised a rescue plan – a breathing meditation that she was to do before and after repeatedly viewing the video.
“If a person can ground themselves and feel centred with meditative breathing they can get to the point where they can look at it and view it with a critical mind, with a mind that is capable of being open to the experience and looking objectively at what took place,” Davis says.
“You know what it felt like during the race. It felt like I stopped absolutely dead. But in the video I look and it looks like just a little glitch. Nothing.”
It’s more than two years since they’ve needed to study the tape – because it worked. Erin’s joy of swimming returned; she’s winning race after race.
“She’s more resilient emotionally. She’s more stable emotionally. She’s more consistent in terms of performance,” Davis says.
“Meditation isn’t necessarily about happiness but it makes you happier. I guess that is how you would say it. And I feel more confident. That I know how to work with this stuff and work with bad things that happen in my life,” Gammel says.
Once again there’s one more race to win – the trials to make the team that goes to Athens.
“This is my year. That’s what I keep telling everyone. This is my year to make the Olympic team because making it through all those times there it’s just going to happen, I know it is. lt’s just going to happen,” she says.
“Meditation has been around for 2500 years so it’s not like a new practice,” Davis says. “But science is catching up to an old tradition and the evidence seems to be emerging that meditation can change the pattern of brain chemistry or blood flow in the brain.”
And now there’s proof meditation can change the brains of ordinary people and make them healthier.
Promega is a biotech company in Madison, Wis., where the researchers from the Brain Imaging Lab recruited typical stressed out workers – office staff, managers, even a skeptical research scientist, Mike Slater.
“Things were chaotic and crazy. We had a newborn. We had three deaths in the family. So it was a pretty topsy-turvy time,” Slater says.
All the subjects had activity in their brain measuredï¿½and half – including Mike Slater – were given an eight- week course in meditation.
Then everyone – meditators and controls – got a flu shot, and their brains were measured a second time.
The meditators’ brain activity had shifted to that happy left side. Mike Slater was almost too successful.
“I was pretty happy all the time and I was worried that maybe I was masking some stuff that might really be irritating me so I stopped it and my wife noticed an increase in my irritability, so, you know, I have both sides of the experiment now. It calmed me down and I stopped doing it and my irritability increased,” he says.
That wasn’t all. Their immune systems had strengthened.
“Those individuals in the meditation group that showed the biggest change in brain activity also showed the biggest change in immune function, suggesting that these were closely linked,” Davidson says.
Davidson and his team had shown meditation could shift not just mood – but also brain activity and immunity in ordinary people.
And they’d answered a potential flaw in the monk study.
“Someone may say, well, maybe these individuals are that way to start out with. Maybe that’s why they’re attracted to be monks,” Davidson says. “And we actually can’t answer that on the basis of those data, but with the Promega study, we can say definitely that it had to do with the intervention we provided.”
There are reasons to believe the insane pace and many aggravations of daily life can be dangerous to the health of our minds and our bodies.
We can’t push the delay button on a busy world and we can’t bail out.
But perhaps meditation is a way to encourage a sense of well-being – a deep breath in the centre of the whirlwind.
“As the Dalai Lama himself said in his book The Art of Happiness, we have the capacity to change ourselves because of the very nature, of the very structure and function of our brain,” Davidson says. “And that is a very hopeful message because I think it instills in people the belief that there are things that they can do to make themselves better.”