spiritual practice & happiness

Professors study the science of happiness (The Daily Princetonian)

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Josephine Wolff, The Princetonian: Studying religious and meditative practices may help neuroscientists understand the neurological indicators of happiness, panelists argued this weekend in a symposium in McCormick 101 sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion.

“Happiness can be conceptualized as a skill, not fundamentally different from learning to play the violin or learning to play golf,” University of Wisconsin psychology professor Richard Davidson said, describing his research into whether meditation and other contemplative practices can cultivate positive states of mind.

Examining brain images of subjects during meditative exercises has shown that “even relatively short-term strategies to train the mind in this way can produce beneficial effects that are observed in the brain,” Davidson explained. “It seems like certain positive qualities of the mind, like happiness and compassion, may be benefited by training.”

In recent years, neuroscientists have attempted to use brain images to find an objective marker of mental wellbeing, Princeton’s Program in Neuroscience Director Jonathan Cohen said. If such a marker can be found, he said, perhaps people could be trained to be happier.

“Imagine, if along with the gross national product every year we had a gross national happiness index,” Cohen said.

In one ongoing initiative discussed at the symposium, neuroscientists have consulted with the Dalai Lama to develop experiments that integrate Buddhist practices and Western scientific techniques. Panelist Margaret Kemeny, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, described one study in which a group of 80 female schoolteachers attended an intensive training program that included Buddhist teachings such as meditation and mindfulness, as well as Western-style instruction about neurological triggers and emotional responses.

Kemeny said the program appears to have helped both the teachers and their students. One teacher, she said, realized after finishing the training program that the behavior of a particularly disruptive student in her class was really an indication of the student’s own unhappiness. Once the teacher stopped taking the student’s behavior personally, she was able to help the student improve his behavior.

Other recent experiments have used brain imaging to examine how meditation affects the brains of Tibetan monks — who have spent years meditating — compared to those of individuals who were recently trained in the technique. Clifford Saron, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, said the monks use a larger portion of their brains when they meditate, just as practiced pianists exhibit greater brain activity than individuals who are simply taught to play a scale.

Panelist Wayne Proudfoot, a religion professor at Columbia University, suggested that an explanation for Saron’s work might be the difference between two levels of meditation: calming and discernment. “Traditional Buddhist texts distinguish between calming meditation and meditative discernment, or insight, and generally consider calming to be preparation for the state of discernment,” Proudfoot said, suggesting that the meditation novices in Saron’s study may have only achieved calming.

“It is misleading to think that religious experiences can be explained exclusively in biological terms because personal interpretations of these experiences are very important,” Proudfoot added.

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Samuel Johnson: “The fountain of content must spring up in the mind…”

Samuel Johnson

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove”

There are some things in life we can change. There are some things in life we cannot change. Knowing which is which is the key to our well-being.

Dr. Johnson was not a man to mince his words, and offers us one of his typically bracing edicts. It may strike us at first as being somewhat of an overstatement to suggest that desiring to change something other than ourselves will bring unhappiness rather than the happiness we seek, but the good Doctor, as usual, is very astute.

When we begin by assuming that the cause of happiness or unhappiness lies outside of the mind, we make a fundamental and tragic error. This is a viewpoint that has been held by religious and philosophical leaders for millennia and which is also borne out by scientific research.

It seems that each of us has a “happiness set point” — a kind of hedonic thermostat — to which the mind tends to gravitate. From day to day our happiness may fluctuate on either side of this set point, so that one day we are pleased or elated while the next we are disgruntled or depressed. But on the whole our level of happiness will tend to settle down around our hedonic set point, just as water slopping around in a shaken glass will find its own level.

So although we may direct our energies to “fixing” the outside world in order to remove sources of irritation or to fulfill our desires, in the long term this will make no real difference to our level of happiness. We may be ecstatic to win a fortune in the lottery, but a year later we’ll be back at that set point of happiness. Similarly, we may be devastated by an injury or illness, but some time later we’ll adapt and be just as happy (or unhappy) as we were before.

Our individual hedonic set point may well be influenced by our genes, but genes are not destiny and our attitudes also play a major role in how we experience life. It is within that we must look if we are to find greater levels of happiness in the long run.

Those who meditate have been shown to demonstrate long term increased levels of well-being and rewiring of the brain with increased activity in those parts of the frontal cortex associated with happiness.

We can’t choose the things that happen to us in life, but we can learn — through developing mindfulness — to respond differently to those events. By developing more patience, kindness and, perhaps above all, a greater appreciation of impermanence, we can learn to adapt to life’s challenges more elegantly and in ways that lead to less suffering. This is not to say that we can’t make changes in the outside world or that such changes will make no difference to our sense of well-being. But if we seek to change our environment without changing ourselves, then we are in for a difficult time.

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Meditation may bolster brain activity (WebMD Medical News)

Meditation may not only produce a calming effect, but new research suggests that the practice of Buddhist meditation may produce lasting changes in the brain.

Researchers found that monks who spent many years in Buddhist meditation training show significantly greater brain activity in areas associated with learning and happiness than those who have never practiced meditation.

The results suggest that long-term mental training, such as Buddhist meditation, may prompt both short and long-term changes in brain activity and function.

Buddhist Meditation May Change the Brain

In the study, which appears in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers compared the brain activity of eight long-time Buddhist monks and 10 healthy students.

The average age of the monks was 49, and each had undergone mental training in meditation for 10,000 to 50,000 hours over the course of 15 to 40 years.

The students’ average age was 21. They had no prior experience in meditation and received one week of meditative training before the start of the study…

Both groups were asked to practice compassionate meditation, which does not require concentration on specific things. Instead, the participants are instructed to generate a feeling of love and compassion without drawing attention to a particular object.

Researchers measured brain activity before, during, and after meditation using electroencephalograms.

They found striking differences between the two groups in a type of brain activity called gamma wave activity, which is involved in mental processes including attention, working memory, learning, and conscious perception.

The Buddhist monks had a higher level of this sort of gamma wave activity before they began meditation, and this difference increased dramatically during meditation. In fact, researchers say the extremely high levels of gamma wave activity are the highest ever reported.

The monks also had more activity in areas associated with positive emotions, such as happiness.

Researchers say the fact that the monks had higher levels of this type of brain activity before meditation began suggests that long-term practice of Buddhist or other forms of meditation may alter the brain.

Although age differences may also account for some of the differences found by this study, researchers say that the hours of meditation practice, rather than age, significantly predicted gamma wave activity.

Researchers say more studies are needed to look at whether differences in brain activity are caused by long-term meditation training itself or by individual differences before training.

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Opening Up to Happiness (Psychology Today Magazine)

wildmind meditation news

Mark Epstein, Psychology Today: Why happiness is unattainable for some people and why it’s a mistake to wipe out sources of displeasure.

“I’m sick of this,” a patient of mine remarked the other morning. “I can’t stand myself anymore. When am I going to be happy?” It’s not an uncommon question in therapy, yet aspirations for happiness can sound naive or even trivial. “How could she be asking for happiness?” I thought to myself. “Didn’t Freud say that the best that one could expect of therapy was a return to ‘common unhappiness?'” Yet, my patient’s yearning was heartfelt. How could I possibly address it without being misleading?

I approached her dilemma not just as a psychotherapist, but as a longtime Buddhist. Buddhism holds the promise of more than just common unhappiness in life; it sees the pursuit of happiness as our life goal and teaches techniques of mental development to achieve it. To the Dalai Lama, “the purpose of life is to be happy.” He wrote those very words in the foreword to my new book, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective (Basic Books, 1995).

“On its own,” he goes on to say, “no amount of technological development can lead to lasting happiness. What is almost always missing is a corresponding inner development.” By inner development, the Dalai Lama means something other than mastering the latest version of Microsoft Word. He is talking about cleaning up our mental environment so that real happiness can be both uncovered and sustained…

Americans have a peculiar relationship to happiness. On the one hand, we consider happiness a right, and we are eager for it—as the advertising world knows. We do everything in our power to try to possess it, most particularly in materialistic form.

On the other hand, we tend to denigrate the pursuit of happiness as something shallow or superficial, akin to taking up woodcarving or scuba diving. But, as the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, happiness is not a hobby, nor is it a trivial pursuit. It is a fundamental drive as basic as those of sex or aggression, but not often as legitimized in our cynical, postmodern culture. In fact, Americans are waking up to the Dalai Lama’s point: Materialistic comforts by themselves have not led to lasting happiness. Having reached that conclusion, however, we do not often see another way, and retreat into our comforts—barricading ourselves from what appears to be a hostile and threatening world. Acquiring and protecting, we continue to crave a happiness that seems both deserved and out of reach.

My experience as a psychiatrist trained in Western medicine and in the philosophy and practice of Buddhism has given me a unique perspective. I have come to see that our problem is that we don’t know what happiness is. We confuse it with a life uncluttered by feelings of anxiety, rage, doubt, and sadness. But happiness is something entirely different. It’s the ability to receive the pleasant without grasping and the unpleasant without condemning.

All the Wrong Places

Buddhism and psychoanalysis teach us that the very ways we seek happiness actually block us from finding it. Our first mistake is in trying to wipe out all sources of displeasure and search for a perennial state of well-being that, for most of us in our deepest fantasies, resembles nothing so much as a prolonged erotic reverie. One of my patients said it best with his adolescent fantasies of romantic love. He described his perfect woman as someone who would faithfully leave him with an erection every time she exited the house.

This approach to happiness is instinctual, deriving from our earliest experiences, when intense emotional states of pleasure and gratification inevitably are interrupted by absence and frustration, evoking equally intense states of rage or anxiety. Anyone’s first response would be to try to preserve the pleasurable states and eliminate the unpleasurable ones. Even as adults we rarely come to terms with the fact that good and bad are two sides of the same coin, that those who make pleasures possible are also the source of our misery. In Western society, with its extended family structure and rabid pursuit of individualism, people often find themselves with nowhere to turn for support in dealing with these feelings. In more traditional Eastern societies, there is a much greater social and familial support system that helps people contain their anguish.

However much we as adults think we have come to terms with the fact that no one can be all good or all bad, we are still intolerant of frustrations to our own pleasure. We continue to grasp at the very objects that have previously disappointed us. A wealthy patient of mine exemplifies this predicament. After a gourmet meal, he craves a cognac. After the cognac, a cigarette; after the cigarette he will want to make love; after making love, another cigarette. Soon, he begins to crave sleep, preferably without any disturbing dreams. His search for happiness through pleasures of the senses seemed to never have an end, and he was not happy. We think only of manipulating the external world; we never stop to examine ourselves.

Our search for perpetual gratification often plays out in intimate relationships. Take my friend who was very much in love with his new wife, but plagued by rage and bitterness over her sexual unavailability when she became pregnant. He could not help taking it personally. His happiness in her pregnancy was overwhelmed by his inability to tolerate his own sexual frustration, and he could not get past the feeling that if she really loved him she would be as interested in sex with him as he was with her. He was restricted by his tunnel vision; his own pleasure or displeasure was his only reference point.

We identify with the feelings of violation, rejection, or injury and we long for a happiness in which no such feelings could arise. Yet as Freud pointed out, even intense erotic pleasures are tinged with unhappiness since they all must come to an end, in the form of a relaxation of tension. Post-orgasmic depression is a well-known phenomenon. We long for this not to be so, but it is physiologically impossible.
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The Buddha’s point about happiness is very similar. As long as we continue trying to eliminate all displeasure and preserve only pleasure for a prolonged sense of well-being, no lasting happiness is possible. Rage, envy, and the desire for revenge will always interfere. Real life and its complications inevitably trickle in. There is a well-known story in the Buddhist tradition, that of Kisagotami, that illustrates how important it is to give up that approach to happiness.

Kisagotami was a young woman whose first child died suddenly somewhere around his first birthday. Desperate in her love for the child, Kisagotami went from house to house in her village, clasping the dead child to her breast and asking for medicine to revive her son. Most of her neighbors shrank from the sight of her and called her mad, but one man, seeing her inability to accept the reality of her son’s death, directed her to the Buddha by promising her that only he had the medicine she sought. Kisagotami went to the Buddha and pleaded with him for medicine. “I know of some,” he promised. “But I will need a handful of mustard seed from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died.”

Slowly, Kisagotami came to see that hers was not a unique predicament. She put the body of her child down in the forest and returned to the Buddha. “I have not brought the mustard seed,” she told him. “The people of the village told me, ‘The living are few, but the dead are many.”‘ The Buddha replied, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”

Kisagotami’s story resonates, not just because of our sympathy for the horror of losing a child or because of our fear of a world in which such tragedy is possible, but because we all, like her, feel that our situation is unique and that our emotional pain requires relief. In the privacy of our own minds, we are aggrieved and single-mindedly self-centered. We still seek absolute gratification that is intolerant of frustration.

But the most difficult part of Kisagotami’s story for me comes when she lays her child down in the forest. Even though he has been dead for a long time, I still feel slightly aghast at the idea of her leaving him there. Yet this is precisely what the Buddha is asking us to do. He did not teach a method of recovering primal emotions or embracing some sort of injured child that lies buried within. The Buddha helped Kisagotami find happiness not by bringing her dead child back to life, but by changing her view of herself. The inner development he alludes to is a development beyond the private childish perspective of “me first” that we all secretly harbor.
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Happiness a la Buddha

The root cause of our unhappiness is our inability to observe ourselves properly. We are caught in our own perspective, unable to appreciate the many perspectives of those around us. And we are unaware of how insistently this way of perceiving drives us. Only through the uprooting of our own self-centeredness can we find the key to happiness. Buddhist meditation practice is one way to catch hold of this “me-first” perspective and begin to examine it. But it can happen in incidental ways. A teacher of mine, for example, remembers standing in line for food at a silent meditation retreat when someone suddenly spilled the large serving bowl of soup. “It wasn’t me,” he remembers himself thinking spontaneously. “It’s not my fault.”

Immersed in the quiet of the meditation retreat, he was all too aware that his reaction was patently absurd. Yet this is the kind of response we all have much of the time without being aware of it. Buddhist meditation is a way of coaxing the mind to deal with frustration in a new way, experiencing it as an interested observer instead of an aggrieved victim. Rather than responding to the inevitable frustrations of life with “Why me?,” the successful practitioner of meditation can begin to see how conditioned our everyday sense of self has been by the insulted response to disappointment.

Our True Nature

The first step to inner development is to find and hold the sense of a single, one-point perspective. This is the feeling that we all have that we are really the most important person in the room at any given moment, that no matter what happens the crucial thing is how it will impact me. You know the feeling; it’s the same one you have when you are cut off suddenly in traffic or are standing in line at the cash machine while the person in front of you makes one transaction after another. The visceral response is always, “Why are you doing that to me?” Similarly, when someone comes to therapy because they have been spurned by a would-be lover, there is always the feeling of “what is wrong with me?” In Buddhist meditation we seek out that feeling; we bring it into self-awareness rather than let it run our lives. When a person is able to do that successfully, there is often a sense of freedom.

A patient of mine, for example, recounted to me how he picked his girlfriend up at the airport recently and reached out to carry her bag for her after retrieving it from the baggage claim. She took the bag from him and carried it herself. Rather than take her action as a sign of self-sufficiency, he felt immediately rejected, as if she were not glad to see him. Once he learned to make that knee-jerk reaction of his the object of his meditative self-observation, he was freed from his obsessive scrutiny of his girlfriend’s mood. He then became more self-reliant, she felt more supported, and both were happier with each other.
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As the tendency to view the world self-referentially loses its hold, we begin to appreciate the Einsteinian world in which all realities are relative and all points of view subjective. Then, a happiness that has more to do with acceptance than gratification becomes available to us.

One particular meditation technique prepares the mind for a new, broadened perspective, that of naked–or bare–attention. The technique requires you to attend only to the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the very first time and distinguishing emotional reactions from the core event. So instead of experiencing a spouse’s suggestion as criticism or their withdrawal as abandonment, as so often happens within couples, one would be able to simply bear the experience in and of itself, recognizing any concomitant feelings of rejection as separate and of one’s own making.

As bare attention is practiced, many of the self concepts or feelings of self we harbor are revealed to be reactions that, on closer inspection, lose their solidity. My patient who overreacted at the airport was astonished at what he discovered upon closely examining his core sense of self. “This is it?” he asked. “This little feeling is determining so many of my actions? Am I really so narcissistic as that?” The answer, for most of us, is a resounding yes. Our sense of self, we soon find, is a house of cards.

A common misbelief people hold about meditation is that, in attacking reactive emotional tendencies, it encourages a stoic acceptance of unhappiness. Yet stoicism is not the goal. The point is not to become impervious but open, able to savor the good with the bad.

We cannot have pleasure without displeasure, and trying to split them off from each other only mires us more deeply in our own dissatisfaction. A recent incident involving an old friend of mine may illustrate the point. After breaking up his 10-year marriage, he sought psychotherapy at a local mental health clinic. His only wish, he told his new therapist in their first meeting, was to feel good again. He implored her to rid him of his unwanted emotions.

His therapist, however, had just left a three-year stint in a Zen community. When my friend approached her with his pain, she urged him to stay with his feelings, no matter how unpleasant. When he complained of anxiety or loneliness she encouraged him only to feel them more intensely. While my friend didn’t feel any better, he was intrigued and began to practice meditation.

He describes one pivotal moment. Terribly uncomfortable with the burnings, pressures, and pains of meditation, he remembers watching an itch develop, crest, and disappear without scratching it. In so doing, he says, he realized what his therapist had meant when she counseled him to stay with his emotional state, and from that moment on his depression began to lift.

His feelings began to change only when he dropped the desire to change them. This is a major revelation that is often brought on through the physical pain of meditation, which requires stillness within a demanding posture. My friend’s discovery is similar to the sensation cancer patients feel after taking morphine for chronic pain. They say the pain is still there, but it no longer hurts. So the sensation remains, but without the oppressive quality. Likewise, my friend learned to recognize his emotional pain, but was not oppressed by it.


Like many others, my friend was looking for that pervasive feeling of well-being and hoped that meditation (or love, money, success, alcohol, or therapy) would provide it. But well-being, which is not sustainable, is not the same as happiness. Happiness is the ability to take all of the insults of life as a vehicle for awakening—to enter into what the pioneer of stress-reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has called the “full catastrophe” of our lives with an open mind and heart.

In pursuing a study of Buddhism and psychotherapy, I am convinced that a method of mental development exists that enables a person to hold feelings of injury without reacting destructively. Rather than immediately responding with rage or anxiety, a person can use feelings of injury to focus on the core sense of self that will prove illusive, nonexistent. If there is no self to protect, there is no need to react in rage or angst. Pleasure and displeasure can then be appreciated for the ways in which they are inextricably linked. Well-being becomes understood as an inseparable part of a larger whole that also encompasses catastrophe.

Happiness, then, is the confidence that pain and disappointment can be tolerated, that love will prove stronger than aggression. It is release from the attachment to pleasant feelings, and faith in the capacity of awareness to guide us through the inevitable insults to our own narcissism. It is the realization that we do not have to be so self-obsessed, that within our own minds lies the capacity for a kind of acceptance we had only dreamed of. This happiness rarely comes without effort to train mind.

To accomplish this we must first discover just how narrow our vision usually is. This is the function of meditation. Go ahead, close your eyes for five minutes and observe how self-obsessed your thoughts are. “When can I stop doing this?” you may think. None of us is very far from the eight-year-old child who can think only about who got the biggest piece of cake.

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Buddhists able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts

Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts, research has shown.

According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe – an area just behind the forehead – which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.

Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain.

Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation.

“This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.

“Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Tibetan Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek,” he writes.

Another study of Buddhists by scientists at the University of California has also found that meditation might tame the amygdala, the part of the brain involved with fear and anger.

Professor Flanagan writes: “Antidepressants are currently the favoured method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.”

The Independent (original article no longer available)

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Buddhists really are happier, study shows

Scientists say they have evidence to show that Buddhists really are happier and calmer than other people.

Tests carried out in the United States reveal that areas of their brain associated with good mood and positive feelings are more active.

The findings come as another study suggests that Buddhist meditation can help to calm people.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Centre have found the practise can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory.

There is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek

They found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to other people.

Paul Ekman, who carried out the study, said: “The most reasonable hypothesis is that there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek.”

BBC: Read more

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