neuroscience of meditation

The Mind and Life conference

Marissa Kimsky, Emory Wheel: While scientists are searching for a cure-all pill for mental disorders, new research shows that the cure may not be in a bottle, but could rather be found in Tibetan meditation.

Hundreds gathered in the Woodruff Physical Education Center to hear discussions on this pioneering research on meditation and mental disorders. This research was presented in a dialog in the 15th Mind and Life conference: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression.

Mind and Life was organized by a scientist and an entrepreneur in 1987 to establish a dialog between Buddhist philosophers and scientists. It has proven to be extremely successful, encouraged countless studies on the benefits of meditation. The organization has inspired an initiative to teach Buddhist monks science, and it encourages a common goal between researchers and Buddhists to improve minds, lives, societies and the world.

Emory, one of the leading institutions for meditation research in the country, hosted the conference for the first time on Saturday, prior to the installation the Dalai Lama as a presidential distinguished professor on Monday.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama entered the room and immediately showered the crowed with affection. He lowered into a bow and clasped his hands together, blessing the audience.

The Dalai Lama was an extremely active participant throughout the conference, asking several scientifically in-depth questions and suggesting new directions for future research projects.

Co-founder of Mind and Life Adam Engel reflected as he opened this conference.

Twenty years ago, when the conference series began, the Dalai Lama had a request of the scientists.

“First investigate the positive effects of meditation,” the Dalai Lama said. “If you find it successful, please teach it to your society in a purely secular manner in order to benefit everyone.”

This has been the goal of the researchers for the past 20 years. Researchers Richard Davidson, Helen Mayberg, Charles Nemeroff, Charles Raison and Zindel Segal presented findings from multiple successful neuroscience projects geared towards improving the mind and mental balance. Buddhist scholars at the conference, including the Dalai Lama, John Dunne and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, connected these studies to Buddhist philosophy.

This was not necessarily an easy task for the Buddhist scholars.

“Speaking to the Dalai Lama on Buddhism is like speaking to Jesus on Christianity,” Dunne said.

Throughout the conference, both Buddhist scholars and scientists agreed that depression could be characterized by the sufferer’s inward focus.

Buddhism strives to accomplish the opposite — to turn one’s perspective outwards through compassion and mindfulness meditations.

Both of these forms of meditation were investigated by scientists in their experiments. Psychological and physical evidence showed that individuals suffering from depression were able to overcome the symptoms through compassion meditation.

Davidson used samatha, a Tibetan Buddhist form of mindful meditation, in his studies and found that it improves concentration. The functional MRI brain scans taken during this practice showed more activation in the frontal-parietal areas, regions of the brain designated to higher cognition.

Raison foresees using meditation to prevent more than just depression. He also thinks it can help prevent diseases associated with stress, such as depression, anxiety, heart failure, high cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. “Our interest is in looking at meditation as a potential strategy to protect against the emotional and medical diseases that arise from stress,” he said.

Dean Robert Paul and University President James W. Wagner also spoke at the event. Paul said he sees Emory’s research moving towards developing meditation as a prescription within preventative psychiatry, the medical practice of preventing mental disorders.

Mind and Life is also working to facilitate inter-religious dialog. Currently centering prayer, a contemplative Catholic tradition is also being investigated by other Mind and Life researchers and the conference strives to integrate various other contemplative traditions into the studies as well. Dunne believes that the research benefits not only neuroscience but an enormous array of disciplines.

“Mind and Life research also helps build a greater research network on contemplative based interventions,” Dunne said.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time.”

Martin Luther King Jr

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I feel it when driving — that desire to get back at the person who cuts me off, or who tailgates, or who nearly hits my car while talking on a cellphone — that surge of fear and anger that causes the heart to beat faster and the hands to tighten around the steering wheel and the thoughts to turn to revenge. If I wasn’t holding the wheel my hands would be fists, ready to defend, to injure if necessary.

Then my higher cortical functions kick in, the gray matter overriding the reptilian brain that’s telling me to lash out. Anger hurts, I recall. I remind myself to breathe into the belly, to relax my body, to keep a safe distance. I repeat my driving mantra: “Driving’s not a competition. Just get there safely.” And I remind myself that the other driver is a suffering being and wish him (sometimes her) well. “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” I remind myself to acknowledge and accept the fear that I’m experiencing, compassionately allowing it to be there, seeing it not as a problem to be solved but as just part of the richness of my experience. And as I do these things I start, sometimes remarkably quickly, to feel happy, to be living from my heart again, to have a sense of balance, well-being, and compassion. Nonviolence works.

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Dr. King’s nonviolence went beyond dealing with merely personal problems and was one of the most potent political tools in transforming 20th century America, leading to the end of some of the most egregious forms of racial oppression that had degraded and humiliated millions of people solely on the basis of the color of their skin.

The nonviolent approaches that King advocated are part of a direct lineage that runs back to the Buddha himself. King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who helped avoid what could have been a bloody end to British rule in India. Gandhi is the man who shamed an empire into dissolving itself.

Gandhi’s nonviolence was in turn inspired by the example of King Ashoka of India, who lived approximately 304–232 B.C.E and who established the first nation committed to abstaining from violence. King Ashoka was a Buddhist convert, giving up a lifetime of brutal conquests that had built an empire with uncountable corpses, grieving widows, and orphaned children as its foundation. Disgusted, Ashoka disbanded his armies, sent missionaries of peace around the world, imported medicinal plants to help his people, established a public health care system for people and animals, and abolished capital punishment. As H.G. Wells put it, “Amidst the tens of thousands of names of monarchs that crowd the columns of history … the name of Ashoka shines, and shines almost alone.”

Nonviolence then is a powerful tool that has been passed down the millennia and that has transformed societies and saved millions of people from death, injury, and injustice. But it’s not the only powerful idea in the world, as we can easily see by reading newspapers or catching the news on the radio or TV. In the world around us we see a profound conviction that violent retaliation (or acts of preemptive violence) is a valid and effective strategy for attaining political and social goals: from the 9/11 attackers and suicide bombers in the Middle East, to the US-led invasion of Iraq and the genocide in Darfur.

It’s true; violence is sometimes necessary and justified. The most clichéd but nonetheless valid example is the rise of Hitler. At the time his ill-equipped army made its tentative march into the Rhineland he could have been stopped by even a minimal show of force. His poorly-armed troops had orders to flee at the least sign of opposition. But the European powers, still revolted by the carnage of the first World War, decided to let the matter slide, and in doing so gave the Third Reich access to the industrial tools and raw materials it needed to build a near-unstoppable military force. The rest, as they say, is history.

But more often violence represents the triumph of the reptilian brain over the higher cortex, the primacy of the fear/anger response over reason, more broadly strategic thinking, and a rational consideration of the consequences of our actions. Ironically, the example of the Allied Powers failing to act to oppose Hitler’s rise was the self-same reptilian brain trumping higher thought, although in this case the brain-stem produced a paralyzing fear accompanied by wishful thinking that ignored the clear evidence of a looming menace.

Turning to our own time, it was obvious to me, and to millions of other ordinary people, that the results of invading Iraq would be far more catastrophic than those of continuing to contain Saddam’s Baathist regime with sanctions and the ongoing United Nations inspections. But apparently that was not obvious to those who wielded power.

Perhaps the further away we are from the actual decision-making process the easier it is to think rationally without the reptilian brain-stem screaming that we must do something.

The clarity that living at a distance from power brings is, I believe, the reason why ordinary people — and especially those who profess to live a life of reflection and of commitment to spiritual values — need to voice their concerns to those in power. We’re in many ways more in touch with the world. It’s our children, after all, whose lives will be put at risk. We have to become the conscience of our leaders when they are too overwhelmed by primitive impulses (including, unfortunately, not just fear and pride but also the profits to be made from their investments in oil and Halliburton) to think clearly.

It’s a major undertaking requiring a great deal of self-awareness and commitment when we decide to practice nonviolence in our own lives — eschewing not just the grosser forms of violence but also subtler forms of manipulation, verbal abuse, and even violent thoughts. But it’s not enough that we simply practice a kind of “personal spirituality,” a form of practice that affects only ourselves and those with whom we are in direct contact. Our silence in the political and social realm is what enables governments, corporations, and other collective bodies to make bad decisions. Nonviolence — love — is not a passive virtue but one that seeks to transform the world in which we live.

So I urge all who believe in the power of nonviolence, who reflect even dimly the shining light of the Buddha, Asoka, Gandhi, and Dr. King, to act: to write to the editor, to donate to campaign groups, to email our political representatives, to write in blogs or to comment on the blogs of others — even to march in the streets. We’ve been indoctrinated to think that we are unimportant, and that our voices do not count. And as long as we believe that it will be true. But Gandhi and Martin Luther King refused to believe those lies. They spoke up, they acted, and they changed the world. Let’s see if we can too.

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Altruism hard-wired to pleasure centers in brain

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman

Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the US government National Institutes of Health have shown that helping others makes us happy and that altruism is hard-wired into the brain, according to the Washington Post.

When volunteers were asked to imagine two scenarios — keeping a large amount of cash for themselves or giving it away — the more generous scenario activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex.

Altruism, the study suggests, arises not as the result of high-minded philosophy, but is wired into the brain.

The study represents one more way in which scientific research — and particularly brain-imaging — is illuminating the way in which human beings are inherently wired for moral decision-making. Research by Professor David Richardson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has shown that cultivating lovingkindness and compassion leads to a greater sense of wellbeing.

Neuroscientist neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio and his colleagues have also recently shown that patients with damage to an area of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to feel their way to moral answers. Such brain-damaged patients lacked the moral qualms most people experience when making choices that harm some people but bring benefits to others, and adopted a cold and clinical form of decision-making.

As a results of other studies Harvard researcher Marc Hauser has proposed that people in all cultures have similar moral processing mechanisms, although the way that these manifest is culturally conditioned.

The sum total of these research studies suggests that empathy is not only the key to moral behavior, but that it is also a way of becoming happier. By performing or even just imagining acts that benefit others we directly benefit ourselves. This confirms the experience of generations of meditation practitioners who have found that lovingkindness and compassion meditation brings feelings of happiness and even bliss.

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The Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama

While it’s quite clear that others may benefit from our compassionate activity, the second part of His Holiness’s observation flies in the face of an assumption that is, for most of us, extremely deep-rooted: that is, the assumption that my individual welfare is best served if I primarily focus on my interests.

But recent scientific research on happiness and brain function suggests that we do help ourselves — by becoming happier — when we help others.

Time magazine recently named Professor Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. For years Davidson has been researching happiness, sometimes studying Buddhist monks in his lab, the Brain Imaging Laboratory, to examine how feelings of well-being correlate with activity in the brain.

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In experiments run by Davidson and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied the brain functions of experienced meditators. Each of the practitioners – six were Buddhist monks and two were lay people – had completed over 10,000 (and up to 50,000) hours of meditation, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become expert in a musical instrument.

These experienced meditators were compared with a group of 10 students who had undertaken a week of meditative training involving 45 minutes of practice a day.

Davidson’s principal tool for examining the meditators was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which reveal in real time which parts of the brain are most active. In earlier experiments Davidson had shown that fMRI can image where different emotional states take place in the brain. When people experience negative states such as anxiety or depression, brain areas that are most active are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When people experience positive emotions — happiness, love, confidence, etc — activity in the left prefrontal cortex is heightened. So remember: left is positive, right is negative.

In the more recent study, brain activity was studied both when the meditators’ brains were in a neutral state and while they cultivated unconditional loving-kindness (metta) and compassion. For the beginners there were only minor changes in brain activity between the neutral state and the meditation on lovingkindness, but for the experienced meditators there were massive changes — the degree of change being correlated with the number of hours of meditation each individual had done.

When the experienced meditators generated strong feelings of compassion there was a strong increase in activity in the left (or positive) side of the prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity on the right (or negative) side. Developing compassion, then, results in the same kinds of brain activity that are shown when someone is in an particularly strong state of wellbeing and happiness. Meditators of course have long known experientially that feelings of love and compassion are accompanied by feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and even of bliss, but in scientific circles these subjective observations have to be backed up by measurements before they can be trusted as reliable data.

But why does compassion make us happy?

Three reasons spring to mind: diversion, perspective, and connectedness.

  1. First is “diversion.” As His Holiness wrote in Ethics for the New Millennium, “When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.” Taking our focus away from what’s wrong in our lives helps us to be less self-obsessed. Compassion therefore diverts our attention away from problems which, when focused upon, loom large in our minds. Compassion in effect displaces negative emotions from the mind because we can only focus on one primary emotional state at a time.
  2. Second, concern for others reminds us that we are not alone with our problems, and that others have even greater difficulties. From time to time in our lives we’ll be struggling with our normal quotient of suffering — worrying about paying bills, bickering over some disagreement, for example — when we encounter real suffering, such as bereavement or a serious accident. At such times we realize that we’ve been giving undue attention to problems that are, in reality, not such a big deal. So compassion helps us to put our own difficulties into perspective.
  3. But third, the very act of connecting with others in a compassionate way enhances our lives in a very positive way. We are at heart social beings, and we cannot be truly happy unless we establish positive connections with others. Compassion and love give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, and compassion is inherently pleasurable and rewarding. When we are caught up in our own anxieties and longings we are not fully able to connect with others and so our experience is impoverished. Compassion is therefore enriching.

This doesn’t of course mean that we should neglect ourselves and be concerned only with others. Compassion for others is ideally an extension of a healthy self-cherishing attitude in which we take our own needs seriously. In Buddhist practice compassion is developed for all beings, including ourselves, and in fact in meditations such as the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and karuna bhavana (development of compassion) we begin by cultivating love towards ourselves. Ultimately, however, the best hope we have for attaining happiness ourselves is to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others.

Finally, for anyone daunted by the thought of 10,000 hours of meditation (that’s three hours a day for nine years, in case you’re wondering) remember that even those who had been meditating for 45 minutes a day for only a week showed greater happiness and even improved immune function. That’s a big reward for a modest effort.

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Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman

Available from and

Don’t be put off by the title: this book should really be called “Positive emotions and how to develop them.”

A new book from Buddhist author Daniel Goleman (“Emotional Intelligence”) is always going to be an exciting event. More so in this case because of the extraordinary background out of which the book emerged.

The Dalai Lama, a fan of science since boyhood (he famously enjoys tinkering with watches and has been known to rubberneck when passing electronics stores) annually gathers the world’s eminent minds in order to educate himself about the latest scientific findings and in order to promote cross-cultural dialog. The resulting discussions are like a cross between darshan (the traditional act of sitting at the feet of a spiritual master) and the best Discovery Channel documentary on brain science that you’ve ever seen.

The particular gathering that forms the basis of this book includes some fascinating characters and presents some astonishing scientific findings about the effects — the very positive effects — of meditation and spiritual practice on the human brain.

As the Dalai Lama explains, “With the ever-growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play in reminding us of our humanity.”

Goleman’s role was both as host of the dialogs and as editor of the highlights. He skillfully presents dialogues between the Dalai Lama and a group of eminent psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers that probe the challenging questions:

Can the worlds of science and philosophy work together to recognize destructive emotions such as hatred, craving, and delusion? If so, can they transform those feelings for the ultimate improvement of humanity?

The Dalai Lama is the big name star of the show, but the strong supporting cast, including psychologist Paul Ekman, philosopher Owen Flanagan, the late Francisco Varela, neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

This Amazon bestseller is a must-have book.

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“A General Theory of Love,” by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon

a general theory of love

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Every book, if it is anything at all, is an argument: an articulate arrow of words, fledged and notched and newly anointed with sharpened stone, speeding through paragraphs to its shimmering target. This book–as it elucidates the shaping power or parental devotion, the biological reality of romance, the healing force of communal connection–argues for love. Turn the page, and the arrow is loosed. The heart it seeks is your own.

Not my words, unfortunately (would that I could write so well), but the concluding paragraph of the introduction to this extraordinarily well-crafted book on the neurophysiology and developmental psychology of human bonding. As someone who teaches meditation practices that augment our powers of connectedness I was fascinated to come across this distillation of the latest understanding of how love emerges and functions, but even more I was delighted by the beauty of the writing.

Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon — all professors of psychiatry at the UCSF School of Medicine — look at the evolution of the human brain and convincingly demonstrate that an ability to sense the emotions of others is an inborn faculty of all mammals, including (of course) ourselves. They show how this connectedness shapes the very structure of the brain (not to mention our lives) and influences the body on the level of cellular chemistry: without human touch, for example, the immune response of young children falters and they simply die. They build their case in gripping detail, somehow managing to weave the clinical results of scientific studies into the fabric of their breathtakingly elegant prose. This arrow is well-crafted indeed: not only useful but ornamental.

The arrow of the text is aimed not only at our hearts, but at western society’s (and especially America’s) emotional dysfunction, with a thorough, if somewhat sweeping, analysis of the “reptilian” nature of modern corporations, which are frequently incapable of reciprocating to the bond that workers develop with them over years of effort; a critique of the curious assumption that parenting is something to be squeezed in to what little time remains after work; and an insiders look at the warped healthcare system that exists in the US, where Health Management Organizations (corporations with both eyes on the bottom line) rather than doctors decide on what treatments a patience can receive.

The authors make a strong case that it is the future of our very humanness that is at stake when our society ignores the emotional basis of the brain and overlooks how loving bonds quite literally shape the structure of our neuronal connections. When we neglect the emotional fabric of our society the individuals that society produces are no longer completely human.

The authors are convinced that the sometimes self-defeating neural pathways laid down in early life in the brain under the influence of malformed relationships can be rerouted. Old habits can be changed and the structure of the brain itself can be reinvented. Although as psychiatrists their primary model for neural realignment is therapy, it has been shown in scientific studies that pathways in the brain can be rewired through meditation as well.

But the overall message of the book is not hopeful. There are vast forces at work in modern society that ignore the importance of human relatedness in the ongoing quest from greater efficiency at work and in healthcare, and few signs that these trends are being much acknowledged as problems, never mind corrected. One can only hope that the powerful case the authors make for the importance of relatedness in the shaping of happy healthy human beings will provide a wake-up call and encourage us to value the heart as much as we do our intellects.

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Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t

Dennis Overbye, New York Times: I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There was one of those molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being dragged into a vortex, swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked toward the edge of a black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father’s heart attack danced before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face.

The outcome, endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I can imagine what you’re thinking. There but for the grace of God.

Having just lived through another New Year’s Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we’re free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole “sting and excitement” of life comes from “our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago.” Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.

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As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place.

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Professors study the science of happiness (The Daily Princetonian)

wildmind meditation news

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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Derek Walcott: “You will love again the stranger who was your self”

Derek Walcott

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott asks us to imagine a time when we meet ourselves, with elation, at the door, and invite ourselves in to become reacquainted with this “stranger who has loved you / all your life.”

It’s a beautiful image, and one that has strong resonances for those who practice meditation. We are often strangers to ourselves.

Consider this: How often do we, in our lack of integration, tell ourselves that we’re going to do one thing and yet, a day, or perhaps mere seconds later, we find ourselves doing another? The self who made the first decision is in some way a different self from the one who actually caused the action — whether it be to eat that cookie after saying “enough” or to skip the gym session we committed ourselves to — and the two selves are strangers to one another.

Consider this: Scientists have shown that unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede our conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts. In other words a “stranger within” makes our decisions some seconds before we become consciously aware of the intent to act, while the conscious mind merely claims in retrospect to have initiated volitional acts.

But there are deeper resonances than these. Some Buddhist teachings draw a distinction between mind and consciousness, the former being comprised of the more or less deluded stream of thoughts, feelings, and other mental constructions, while the latter consists of innate, pure awareness. Consciousness is said to be like a mirror, while mind is like the images reflected in the mirror. The mirror, being inherently pure, is never touched by the images it reflects, no matter how impure they may be. The images, although we may take them to be real, are merely illusions.

We all have the tendency to identify with mind — with the illusory and transitory images — rather than with the mirror, despite the fact that the images are fleeting and insubstantial, while the mirror itself is primordially present and enduring. And so we are caught up in our own experience, believing that the judgments and evaluations we impose on our experience represent how things really are, thinking that our thoughts and emotions define us, and thinking in fact that they are us.

But some day, if we practice looking in the mirror and see through the images, looking deeply into their transitory and illusory nature nature, we may catch a glimpse — perhaps more than a glimpse — of the mirror itself. And to see that mirror will be to see the stranger who is our own deeper nature, our own uncontrived purity, and the stranger that is ourselves will be a stranger no more.

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Meditation study aims to leap over mental barriers (Sacramento Bee, California)

Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, Sacramento Bee, California: Volunteers will spend one year exploring minds.

For more than a year, researchers at UC Davis have been trying to find the best way to frame a provocative question: How good can human beings get – how focused, how calm, how kind?

In seeking the answer, they plan to use an audacious tool. Think of it as a little like brain science meets reality television.

They will gather 30 people for a yearlong meditation retreat and then watch what happens. With electroencephalogram (EEG) caps, attention measurements, emotion testing and a form of meditation practice called Shamatha, researchers hope to answer a key question about the brain systems that regulate attention and emotion. How much can those systems change with effort, how much – in the Silly Putty neuroscience term applied to our malleable brains – is plasticity at work?

“Is attention plastic? We have a hunch that it’s trainable, but there is very limited research on training of attention,” said Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain.

Saron is coordinating the project, which at this early stage is already a simmering esoteric brew.

There is the encouraging note from the Dalai Lama’s personal secretary. There is a French filmmaker who wants to chronicle the effort for her “Monks in the Lab” documentary. There is seed money from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which got it through a donation from actor Richard Gere.

And there is interest from other researchers, who have seen the project mentioned in the journal Science or heard about its scope through the grapevine.

“We have people clapping us on the back,’ ” said G. Ron Mangun, head of the Center for Mind and Brain. “It’s like when you say, ‘Well, I want to go to the moon,’ and they say, ‘Well yeah, it’s gotta be done. … Good luck, pal.’ ”

Dr. Bennett Shapiro, who follows meditation research as a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration of scientists and Buddhists, calls the upcoming study “pioneering work.”

It’s uncommon to sequester 30 people for a year and probe them so intensively, said Shapiro, a retired physician.

At least another 30 people will be monitored equally closely as a control group, although they won’t be taken away from their daily lives.

Researchers will look for differences between the groups as meditators are trained in a technique of refining their attention that has its roots in India and is known in Tibet as Shamatha.

The claims for Shamatha – that its practitioners can increase the stability and vividness of their attention as a way to improve their emotional balance – makes it especially fascinating for some neuroscientists.

Attention is vital to who we are and how we cope with the world.

The act of paying attention to something, picking it out of the stream of sensations that bombards our brains, is critical to remembering it, said Ewa Wojcuilik, a UC Davis assistant professor who specializes in visual attention.

But paying attention can be tough. Give people something simple and boring to do, and their distractibility zooms. Ask them to be alert to small, sporadic changes in a stream of data, and they manage for 10 or 20 minutes, then fumble badly.

But is this truly the best we can do, or can some specially trained individuals go further, breaking through mental barriers the way Olympic athletes surge past physical ones?

“Within the science of attention, we have formed certain ideas about what our limits are,” Wojcuilik said. “If the cognitive apparatus can be pushed beyond what we expect … we are on to a new beginning.”

She is among more than a dozen researchers who have met regularly to design the Shamatha project, a collaboration of a half-dozen arms of UC Davis and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

While the group’s primary focus is on attention, it also will explore whether meditators become calmer, kinder and more compassionate, as tradition holds.

Phil Shaver, who chairs the UC Davis psychology department and specializes in the study of emotions, will look at how quickly meditators get their equilibrium back after viewing upsetting movie scenes, whether disturbing words disrupt their focus and whether their health seems to indicate lower stress.

With the team still nearly two years away from its target start date of Sept. 22, 2006 – the autumnal equinox – many details remain to be resolved, but some general outlines are emerging.

B. Alan Wallace, who has trained as a Buddhist monk and has a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, will take 30 people to some quiet corner of California.

There, they will rise at 6 a.m. for cycles of group and private meditation that continue until 10 p.m., punctuated by silent meals and a couple of two-hour breaks of unstructured time.

Their goal will be to cultivate a stable, vivid attention, because “this is going to bring you to a much, much higher platform of mental balance, mental well-being,” Wallace said.

Wallace, who heads the Santa Barbara institute, has recruited participants from shorter retreats he leads in Europe, Mexico and the United States.

They will be people with a contemplative bent, eager to pay $1,000 a month to be sequestered for a year, away from homes and jobs, family and friends, to explore the reaches of their own consciousness.

As often as every two weeks, live-in research assistants will take some study participants to an on-site lab to probe their minds and hearts, their health and behaviors.

Their performance will be tracked on standard attention tasks and on some created specifically for the project.

Sometimes, they’ll be plugged into EEG caps that monitor electrical impulses in their brains, listening to the simultaneous firing of millions of nerve cells. Their blood or saliva will be checked for stress hormones and their immune systems subjected to allergens to see how robustly they respond.

And in a twist that brings a whiff of being voted off the island, they may be asked to report on each other, assessing who is the most compassionate or how fellow participants’ behaviors change over time.

With so many measures, over so many months, “you’re going to have a very, very rich data set,” said Emilio Ferrer, an assistant professor whose specialties include quantitative psychology.

First, though, the research team has more groundwork ahead, in refining the experimental design, conducting pilot studies and nailing down funding. The team is hoping to raise $1.5 million to $2 million from foundations, the National Institutes of Health and donors.

While the thrust of the project is pure science, simply to learn what a highly trained brain may be capable of, it someday could have implications for attention deficit disorders or other ills – if the project finds that training can make a difference.

It is a big if.

“Most research comes to naught. That’s the rule. Getting definitive results is the exception,” said Paul Ekman, an expert on emotional expression and deception.

“This is really an extremely exciting adventure that UC Davis is taking,” he said. “This collaboration between top-rank neuroscientists, psychologists concerned with behavior and a Buddhist scholar and practitioner is in many ways quite unique.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be productive, but if you knew it was going to be productive, then it wouldn’t be exciting.”

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