neuroscience of meditation

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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Buddha Lessons (Newsweek)

Claudia Kalb, Newsweek International: A technique called ‘mindfulness’ teaches how to step back from pain and the worries of life.

At the age of 39, Janet Clarke discovered that she had a benign spinal tumor, which caused her unremitting back pain. Painkillers helped, but it wasn’t until she took a meditation course in Lytham that Clarke discovered a powerful weapon inside her own body: her mind. Using a practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Clarke learned to acknowledge the aching, rather than fight it. “It was about getting in touch with your body, rather than your head,” she says. “Mindfulness gives you something painkillers can’t—an attitude for living your life.”

With its roots in ancient Buddhist traditions, mindfulness is now gaining ground as an antidote for everything from type-A stress to depression. At the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts, where MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, 15,000 people have taken an eight-week course in the practice; hundreds more have signed up at medical clinics across the United States. Now scientists are using brain imaging and blood tests to study the biological effects of meditation. The research is capturing interest at the highest levels: the Dalai Lama is so intrigued he has joined forces with the Mind & Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which supports research on meditation and the mind. Next month, scientists will meet with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, for a major conference on the neuroplasticity of the brain. “People used to think that this was a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo,” says psychologist Ruth Baer, of the University of Kentucky. “Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, we should start paying attention’.”

Paying attention is the very essence of mindfulness. In 45-minute meditations, participants learn to observe the whirring thoughts of the mind and the physical sensations in the body. The guiding principle is to be present moment to moment, to be aware of what’s happening, but without critique or judgment. It is not easy. Our “monkey mind,” as Buddhists call the internal chaos, keeps us swinging from past regrets to future worries, leaving little time for the here and now. First attempts may provoke frustration (“I’ll never be able to do this”), impatience (“When will this be over?”) and even banal mental sparks (“What am I going to make for dinner?”). The goal, however, is not to reach nirvana, but to observe the cacophony in a compassionate way, to accept it as transient, “like bubbles forming in a pot of water or weather patterns in the sky,” says Kabat-Zinn.

The keystone of mindfulness is daily meditation, but the practice is intended to become a way of life. At Stanford University, Philippe Goldin encourages patients battling social-anxiety disorder to take “meaningful pauses” throughout the day as a way to monitor and take charge of their fears and self-doubts. Inner control can be a potent tool in the fight against all sorts of chronic conditions. In a pilot study of 18 obese women, Jean Kristeller, director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion and Spirituality at Indiana State University, found that mindfulness meditation, augmented with special eating meditations (slowly savoring the flavor of a piece of cheese, say), helped reduce binges from an average of four per week to one and a half.

Mindfulness takes you out of the same old patterns. You’re no longer battling your mind in the boxer’s ring—you’re watching, with interest, from the stands. The detachment doesn’t lead to passivity, but to new ways of thinking. This is especially helpful in depression, which plagues sufferers with relentless ruminations. University of Toronto psychiatry professor Zindel Segal, along with British colleagues John Teasdale at Oxford and Mark Williams at Cambridge, combines mindfulness with conventional cognitive behavioral therapy, teaching patients to observe sadness or unhappiness without judgment. In a study of patients who had recovered from a depressive episode, Segal and colleagues found that 66 percent of those who learned mindfulness remained stable (no relapse) over a year, compared with 34 percent in a control group.

The biological impact of mindfulness is the next frontier in scientific research. In a study published several years ago, Kabat-Zinn found that when patients with psoriasis listened to meditation tapes during ultraviolet-light therapy, they healed about four times faster than a control group. More recently, Kabat-Zinn and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, found that after eight weeks of MBSR, a group of biotech employees showed a greater increase in activity in the left prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain associated with a happier state of mind—than colleagues who received no meditation training. Those with the greatest left-brain activation also mounted the most vigorous antibody assault against a flu vaccine.

There’s more in the pipeline. Stanford’s Goldin is taking brain images to see if mindfulness affects emotional trigger points, like the amygdala, which processes fear. And at the University of Maryland, Dr. Brian Berman is tracking inflammation levels in rheumatoid arthritis patients who study mindfulness. One of them, Dalia Isicoff, says the payoff is already clear: “I’m at peace,” she says. Mind and body, together.

With Clint Witchalls in London

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Meditate the stress away (Los Angeles Daily News)

Mariko Thompson, L.A. Daily News: David Perrin couldn’t let go of his anxious thoughts. If he dealt with a cranky guest at the hotel where he works, the encounter weighed on him for the rest of the day.

Now when that happens, he just says, “Om.”

The 29-year-old Glendale resident took up the ancient practice of meditation six months ago. By stilling the turbulent thoughts that preyed on his mind, Perrin took control of his emotions and discovered a sense of balance.

“I’m not as reactionary as I used to be,’ says Perrin, who studies meditation at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center in Silver Lake. “I’d blame the other person for making me feel upset. Now I’m much more calm and have more patience.’

Meditation still elicits its share of navel-gazing wisecracks and Zen-master jokes (just ask former Lakers coach Phil Jackson). But these days, meditation is seen as more than a spiritual tool. In a 24-7 society where stress overload has become a natural state, a mini-vacation for the mind might be just what the doctor ordered.

“It’s about time, don’t you think?’ says Dr. Gary Davidson, an oncologist who leads meditation classes at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. “Ever since Descartes split the mind and body, we’ve been trying to put them back together.’

Tools for tranquillity

Chronic stress has been linked to increased risk for hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses. Since most of us can’t retreat to a cave or a monastery, managing stress — not avoiding stress — has become the mantra. Most people try meditation, yoga or tai chi on their own, not from a doctor’s recommendation. Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, director of the UCLA Center for East West Medicine, would like that to change.

Hui says there’s plenty of evidence to show that mind-body therapies such as meditation are beneficial and should be recommended alongside conventional treatments. For example, a patient with hypertension who meditates might be able to take a lower dose of medicine, he says.

“Anything that increases our ability to handle different types of stress in our lives will be beneficial,’ Hui says.

Dr. Jeffrey Brantley of Duke University Medical Center credits Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson for laying the scientific foundation for mind-body medicine. Back in the 1970s, Benson studied the effects of meditation on the body, including heart rate and blood pressure. He coined the term “relaxation response,’ a deep, restful state that serves as a counterbalance to the adrenalin rush known as the fight-or-flight response.

Benson, who founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, provided evidence on how meditation affects the body. Now scientific research is giving clues as to why meditation affects the body, says Brantley, a psychiatrist and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine.

A preliminary study in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin Medical School compared brain activity in participants who meditated to those in a control group. The meditation group showed an increase in electrical activity in the left frontal region of the brain. According to the researchers led by psychiatry professor Richard Davidson, this area of the brain is associated with low anxiety levels and positive emotional states.

In other words, the reason meditation makes people feel good may be based in biology.

Time to practice

Like learning to play the piano or golf, meditation takes dedication and practice. Beginners may not experience an immediate calming effect as they sit with their eyes closed. Some people experience discomfort at first because the flood of thoughts becomes more intense. By being still, the person is simply more aware of the anxious thoughts, says Brantley, author of “Calming Your Anxious Mind.’

“It’s the natural fruit of paying attention,’ he says. “We tell people who come to our program that the first few weeks might be more stressful.’

Gen Kelsang Lekma, a Buddhist nun who teaches meditation at Khandakapala Buddhist Center, compares the novice’s experience to a radio blaring in the background. The noise has been there all along. With practice, the student learns to switch off the radio.

For the true student of meditation, calming the mind represents only the first step of the spiritual journey. But it’s a crucial one.

“We realize how many thoughts we have — and it’s a shock,’ she says. “We have to know we have the thoughts before we can let them go.’

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The Science of Meditation (Psychology Today)

Cary Barbor, Psychology Today: Meditation may help squash anxiety. The practice brings about dramatic effects in as little as a 10-minute session.

In the highlands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, people look at life differently. Upon entering the local Buddhist monastery, there is a spectacular sculpture the size of a large oak. The intricate carving of clouds and patterns are painted in powerful colors. But as soon as winter gives way, this magnificent work will melt to nothing. The sculpture, in fact, is made of butter, and it is one of the highland people’s symbols of the transient nature of life.

And life here is not easy. Villagers bicycle to work before dawn and return home long after sunset. Many live with nothing more than dirt floors and rickety outhouses. Upon entering these modest mud-brick homes, you’ll find no tables or chairs—just a long platform bed, which sleeps a family of eight. However, when the people invite you in for tea, their smiles are wide and welcoming. How do they possess such inner calm in conditions we would call less than ideal?…

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The Pursuit of Happiness (CBC News)

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 happiness�if 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 Gus�someone 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 � 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 measured�and 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.”

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Buddha’s way is best if you want to combat stress (The Times, London)

Stefanie Marsh, The Times, London: In case more than 20 centuries of gruelling spiritual journeys towards harmony and balance have not persuaded you, scientists have now proved that Buddhist meditation relieves stress.

Researchers at Wisconsin University monitored the brain activity of 25 randomly chosen individuals and concluded that Buddhist meditation causes a significant reduction in anxiety and correspondingly increased levels of positive emotions.

Members of the group, who meditated for 14 hours over an eight-week period, exhibited a dramatic increase in levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that is most commonly associated with well-being and happiness.

The only problem now is to resolve which form of meditation is the most successful in combating what has been labelled Britain’s “stress epidemic”. Nine out of ten workers claim to suffer from stress and almost a million people claim incapacity benefit for mental strain.

While transcendental meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, “mindfulness training” is reported to decrease symptoms in those with confirmed psychiatric diagnoses.

According to the Tibetan spiritual teacher, the Venerable Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, it is specifically Buddhist meditation that yields the most positive results. Other forms of meditation, such as the form practised in yoga where yogis attempt simply to clear their minds, were less effective.

“Buddhist meditation is different from other forms of meditation because it attempts to rid the mind of what we call the five poisons — desire, attachment to material things, pride, jealousy and anger,” he said.

“Other forms of meditation say that in time you will find inner peace but do not treat the root cause of unhappiness, and the same can be said for various other forms of so-called stress-busting. Even karate or swimming require the mind to be active, so there is no fundamental change occurring.”

The Venerable Lama, who has a large following in Britain, including bankers, lawyers and government officials, accused the British of being too negative.

“Physically a lot of people have become incapable of enjoying their lives because they do nothing but sit in front of the television,” he said.

“They have become so focused on their professions, which often require very boring repetitive skills, that they lose motivation for everything. A lot of people in Britain are very negative and are very happy to judge other people and also themselves. They have become paralysed and don’t know how to be positive.

“They have become so focused on their professions, which often require very boring repetitive skills, that they lose motivation for everything. A lot of people in Britain are very negative and are very happy to judge other people and also themselves. They have become paralysed and don’t know how to be positive.

“In Buddhism you learn to use meditation as a target. You need to find out your poison and transform that into a positive.”

The Venerable Lama came to Britain in the 1960s and is now the abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland. He is a meditation master and specialises in bringing meditation into everyday life.

Buddhist Lamas, or teachers, recommend 15 minutes of meditation every day, preferably in the mornings. In the “seven-point posture”, for example, which can be held either cross-legged on the floor or sitting in a chair, the focus moves from the seat to the eyes, spine, shoulders, back of the neck, mouth and tongue.

“Sit down and prioritise what it is you want from your life and try to target the weakest point in your life.”

Tibetan Buddhism dates back to AD173, when Buddhist scriptures arrived in southern Tibet from India during the reign of Thothori Nyantsen, the 28th king of Tibet.

There are 152,000 Buddhists in Britain. The elimination of hatred, greed and ignorance are core to the Buddhist faith.

Lama Zangmo is the first western female Lama in Britain. She is also the spiritual director of the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in London.

She said: “Meditation is about the present moment and learning to live our lives to the full in the present moment.

“What’s special about Buddhism is that it enables you to bring something with you into your everyday life. It’s very different from becoming calm through yoga or acupuncture.”



Anathema to many until recently, chanting, especially in yoga classes, has a new following among those keen to “let it all out”.

It is believed that the sounds caused by chanting have a healing effect on the nervous system. The two main types are Gregorian and overtone. The word “Om” is rarely heard in class: it is a recluse mantra for those who wish to renounce the world.

Transcendental meditation

The most controversial form is still in relative infancy after being introduced to the world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1959. But more than four million people, including the Beatles, Clint Eastwood and the film director David Lynch, enthusiastically took it up in their search for Nirvana.

TM involves the repetition of a Sanksrit mantra, a short word or phrase which is said to have a soothing effect and to allow a deeper level of consciousness while remaining fully alert. Harmful effects include physical tics and emotional volatility.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness, vipassana or insight meditation, requires practitioners to focus on the details. A person attempting vipassana should try to be aware of thoughts, sounds, smells and sensations as they happen.

Someone practising mindful meditation will sit quietly and try to “witness” whatever goes through the mind, not reacting or becoming involved with thoughts, memories, worries, or images. A focus on the breath and patience are often key components in this form of meditation.

Yogic gaze

Practitioners often choose to focus their “gaze” on a candle, although any other relatively stationary object can be used.

The candle, which is placed at arm’s length and at eye level, is gazed at for several minutes. The eyes are then closed and the practitioner attempts instead to focus on the image of the candle inside the head.

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Study Shows Positive Impact of Meditation on Brain, Antibodies (Epoch Times)

Katherine Combes, The Epoch Times: A University of Wisconsin-Madison research team has found, for the first time, that a short program in “mindfulness meditation” produced lasting positive changes in both the brain and the function of the immune system. The findings suggest that meditation, long promoted as a technique to reduce anxiety and stress, might produce important biological effects that improve a person’s resiliency.

Richard Davidson, Vilas Professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, led the research team. The study, conducted at the biotechnology company Promega near Madison, will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

“Mindfulness meditation,” often recommended as an antidote to the stress and pain of chronic disease, is a practice designed to focus one’s attention intensely on the moment, noting thoughts and feelings as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings. The intent is to deepen awareness of the present, develop skills of focused attention and cultivate positive emotions such as compassion.

In the UW study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The experimental group, with 25 subjects, received training in mindfulness meditation from one of its most noted adherents, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a popular author of books on stress reduction who developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This group attended a weekly class and one seven-hour retreat during the study; they also were assigned home practice for an hour a day, six days a week. The 16 members of the control group did not receive meditation training until after the study was completed.

For each group, in addition to asking the participants to assess how they felt, the research team measured electrical activity in the frontal part of the brain, an area specialized for certain kinds of emotion. Earlier research has shown that, in people who are generally positive and optimistic and during times of positive emotion, the left side of this frontal area becomes more active than the right side does.

The findings confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis: The meditation group showed an increase of activation in the left part of the frontal region. This suggests that the meditation itself produced more activity in this region of the brain. This activity is associated with lower anxiety and a more positive emotional state.

The research team also tested whether the meditation group had better immune function than the control group did. All the study participants received a flu vaccine at the end of the eight-week meditation group. Then, at four and eight weeks after vaccine administration, both groups had blood tests to measure the level of antibodies they had produced against the flu vaccine. While both groups had developed increased antibodies – as expected – the meditation group had a significantly larger increase than the controls, at both periods.

“Although our study is preliminary and more research clearly is warranted,” Davidson said, “we are very encouraged by these results. The Promega employees who took part have given us a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate a real biological impact of this ancient practice.”

Davidson, who is integrally involved with the HealthEmotions Research Institute at UW, plans further research on the impact of meditation. He is currently studying a group of people who have been using meditation for more than 30 years. His research team is also planning to study the impact of mindfulness meditation on patients with particular illnesses.

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Educating the Heart: Vancouver welcomes the Dalai Lama in April

Michael Buckley, Phayul, Tibet: In a world largely lacking peace and compassion, the Dalai Lama is a beacon in the darkness. His advocacy of a nonviolent approach to resolving conflicts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. But more than this, the Dalai Lama has become an international icon for peace, an inspiration to millions who believe in nonviolence. He promotes what he calls “secular ethics”: living so that people can achieve a certain degree of happiness and cultivate compassion through “the warm heart”. These, he maintains, are values that should be promoted irrespective of one’s religion.

In April, Vancouverites will get a chance to welcome this charismatic thinker. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama has been invited to inaugurate a contemporary Tibetan studies program-the only one of its kind in Canada-to be launched under the auspices of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. Spinning off from this will be a two-day academic conference, a roundtable dialogue, and two public talks, one on universal responsibility and the other on cultivating compassion. (The talks are on Sunday, April 18, at the Pacific Coliseum. Tickets for each event go on sale Friday, February 20, through Ticketmaster.)

And what does the ancient and arcane Tibetan culture have to offer the modern world? Victor Chan, chair of the event’s visiting committee, elaborates in an interview: “The Tibetan Buddhist view and perception of reality is significantly different from that of the West. If you look at the monastic education of Tibetans, people go into that system when they are a few years old, and their whole training is to produce a person with heightened awareness of empathy and compassion, who can make a contribution to help others and alleviate suffering. So this is a highly focused education in mind science.”…

High in the Himalayas, isolated for more than a millennium from the West, Tibet fostered a culture without parallel. Central to the Tibetan world-view is the concept of accruing merit through performing good or compassionate deeds, or by going on pilgrimage to sacred sites. It is believed that this karmic energy can be carried through to the next incarnation.

The most famous graduate of the Tibetan monastic system is the Dalai Lama himself. He debated his way to attain the highest philosophy degree-that of geshe-while in Tibet, before fleeing into exile in India in 1959, following the Chinese invasion. Although he claims to be nothing more than a “naughty monk”, the Dalai Lama has become Buddhism’s first global celebrity, cutting across barriers of race, religion, and creed. Remarkably, for someone who has experienced the loss of his nation, he is famed for his offbeat sense of humour and his hearty laugh.

The 68-year-old Dalai Lama will give the keynote speech at a roundtable dialogue that involves Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi and Desmond Tutu, former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel (a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (scholar of Jewish mysticism), and Jo-Ann Archibald (B.C. First Nations leader). The moderator will be Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham of Vancouver. The dialogue is a collaboration between UBC and SFU. The discussion topic is Balancing Educating the Mind With Educating the Heart. The warm heart is one of the Dalai Lama’s core convictions. “He has always thought that regular education-going through high school, getting a degree, and so on-should be paralleled with ways to develop the warm heart so that young people have a perspective on the world around them, especially in ways that they can be of service to the people around them,” Chan says.

With this in mind, an essay-writing competition, open to grades 11 and 12 in B.C. and to students at SFU and UBC, has been initiated. Organizers will select six winners to ask questions at the roundtable dialogue, and runners-up will be present at a simulcast session. The 800-word essay is to focus on an aspect of balancing mind-heart education in the context of sustainable development or community-building. Chan sees this as inspirational. “For the students to be in the presence of these luminaries would be the kind of memory that they would take with them for a long time, and hopefully would have beneficial, far-reaching consequences.”

The Dalai Lama believes in promoting harmony between religions, thus reducing violent conflicts due to religious intolerance. Shirin Ebadi is the first Iranian to win the Nobel Prize (in 2003), and the first Muslim woman to do so; she has worked tirelessly to improve the status of women and the rights of religious minorities. “She is a dynamic advocate of basic human rights and nonviolence. We are extremely pleased she will share her vision and her time with us,” Chan says. Chan draws on September 11 as an instance of missing heart: “Basically, the way the Dalai Lama sees it, some highly educated people were able to put together a very complex set of logistics and devise a very complicated plan of a level sufficient to bring down the towers. These are highly intelligent, highly educated people, but because they do not have what he calls a warm heart, they are using this knowledge, this capability, in a very destructive way. That’s why it’s important to parallel education of the mind with that of the heart.”

“The Dalai Lama thinks that in some ways we would all be better people and the world would be a better place if we have this kind of parallel component in which we can somehow develop a heightened degree of compassion toward our fellow human beings, to instill in people a stronger sense of moral values, and a sense of doing the right thing,” Chan says. “The Dalai Lama has often said he is not a specialist on education. He would not presume to suggest very concrete ideas on how these things can be implemented. When the Dalai Lama talks about these things, there is a reasonable chance that people will listen. He is casting a little pebble into the pond, and hopefully the ripples would reach some of the right people who can do something about it.” The Dalai Lama has done his fair share of casting pebbles in ponds. In the 1980s, he initiated an ongoing dialogue with western scientists, meeting with them mostly in India every year, and thus catalyzing an interest in Buddhist philosophy. He once said that while western science pursued the physical world (such as in its quest for outer space), Tibetan Buddhism has turned inward, in a quest to understand the workings of the mind (inner space).

Western scientists have long been leery of anything to do with mysticism, but over the past decade some scientists have taken an interest in Tibetan Buddhist practices. Neuroscientists at a handful of U.S. universities have used sophisticated brain-imaging techniques to track activity such as blood flood in the brains of accomplished meditation masters. Research suggests that meditation practices reorient the brain from stress-induced mode to one of acceptance, a shift that increases contentment and calmness. The potential applications for this are wide-ranging: meditation practices have been effectively used by NBA teams to improve concentration and as a stress antidote by those with attention-deficit disorder.

The Dalai Lama’s invitation to Vancouver was somewhat casual: it was delivered in person by Chan on behalf of the Institute of Asian Research. Chan, now in his late 50s, is a research associate with the institute. Since 1999, he has followed the Dalai Lama around the globe in the course of co-authoring a book with him and about him.

Chan grew up in Hong Kong before moving to Canada, where he eventually graduated as a physicist. But that career took a strange turn in Afghanistan. In the course of driving overland from Turkey to India, Chan was kidnapped in Kabul in early 1972, along with two young women, one from Munich, the other from New York. Their Afghani captors were interested in the women, and Chan was simply unlucky. When the car they were riding in crashed, the three scrambled out and managed to escape, departing quickly from Kabul. The woman from New York, Cheryl Crosby, was a student of Tibetan Buddhism and was on her way to interview the exiled Dalai Lama at his seat in Dharamsala, in northern India.

Chan followed her. During the interview, the Dalai Lama kept casting glances at Chan’s long hair, droopy mustache, Moroccan pants, and black Spanish cape. He was giggling because he had never seen a Chinese hippie before. “I asked him whether he hated the Chinese for what they had done to Tibet, and he told me emphatically that there has been no hatred or resentment on his part; and that has always been his wish, to make friends with the Chinese. So I am sure this concept of nonviolence has been with him for a long time, and in spite of what has happened in Tibet, he has always adhered to this Gandhian philosophy.”

Enthralled by his visit to Dharamsala, where he experienced Tibetan culture for the first time, Chan became increasingly drawn to the Tibetan world. From 1984 to 1988, he made 11 trips to Tibet. Research from these forays resulted in the publication of Tibet Handbook: A Pilgrimage Guide, an epic tome weighing in at 1,100 pages. On a tour to promote the book in London in 1994, he met the Dalai Lama again and presented him with a copy.

Chan’s next book, to be published this fall, promises to be an unusual and intimate look into the life of the Dalai Lama. Chan was even allowed to sit in on the Dalai Lama’s morning meditation sessions in Dharamsala. “He meditates from 3:30 or 4 in the morning until 8 or so; most of that time is taken with sitting cross-legged in his inner sanctum, in his meditation room. It’s a good-sized room, with an altar, statues, thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings), and picture windows of the mountains. Even when he is being served breakfast, he will not get up from this meditation posture.”

Chan’s portrait of the Dalai Lama will take in both his serious and lighthearted sides. “At one meeting in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama, myself, and Pierce Brosnan were joking around and talking about reincarnation. Pierce Brosnan said he would like to be reincarnated as a bald-headed eagle. And the Dalai Lama said he would probably be reincarnated as a caterpillar because when he was young he was awfully afraid of caterpillars. So there was a great deal of daughter and hooting around. This forms one of the chapter titles in the book.”

Chan-working with Pitman Potter, director of the Institute of Asian Research-was able to arrange degree-conferral ceremonies for visiting Nobel laureates by both UBC and SFU. On April 19, honorary doctor of laws degrees will be conferred on the Dalai Lama, Ebadi, Tutu, and Havel at UBC. The following day, the same degrees will be conferred by SFU.

During the Dalai Lama’s visit, a two-day academic conference, titled Tibet in the Contemporary World, will take place at UBC. Top Tibetan research scholars have been invited to participate in discussions. Among them will be Robert Thurman, who is an ordained Tibetan monk, a widely published Tibetan scholar, and father of actor Uma Thurman. He is chair of religious studies at Columbia University, which is also initiating a Tibetan studies program.

Potter is hoping for input from these visiting Tibetologists on shaping UBC’s new Contemporary Tibetan Studies Program. “We have not entirely defined the syllabus,” Potter says. “It’s part of a graduate program: the principal component is to study aspects of Tibetan culture, encompassing socioeconomic, cultural, and political issues. Another dimension will concern the application of Buddhist principles of compassion and cross-cultural understanding associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to contemporary issues such as sustainable development, community building, economic and social change, security, women and development, governance, and human rights.” Potter is hoping, too, that this new program will encourage bridge-building and interaction between Tibetan, Chinese, and western scholars and specialists.

The Dalai Lama last visited Vancouver in July 1993, giving several public lectures. When he lectures in April, Chan said, he will be reaching out to Chinese Buddhists in Vancouver, to connect with what he terms his “Chinese brothers and sisters”. But the Dalai Lama’s visit is bound to be a high point for B.C.’s tiny Tibetan community. There are about 100 Tibetans living in the Lower Mainland, according to Tenzin Lhalungpa, president of the B.C. chapter of the Canada Tibet Committee. “And Tibetans from Alberta and from Seattle and Portland will come to Vancouver to attend the talks, and for a special audience. They are eagerly looking forward to this visit,” Lhalungpa said.

The Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the universal bodhisattva of compassion. To many others, he is a source of great inspiration. He is a superstar without the trappings of stardom: he doesn’t care if he stays in a five-star hotel or a tent. He teaches that wealth isn’t on the exterior of the self; it is on the interior. He himself may well be the greatest living example of those teachings. And as Chan puts it, “The Dalai Lama’s concept of educating the heart may prove to be one of his greatest legacies.”

–Michael Buckley is author of Tibet: the Bradt Travel Guide (2003), and Heartlands-Travels in the Tibetan World (Summersdale, 2002).

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Hard-wired for God (The Globe and Mail, Toronto)

ANNE McILROY, The Globe and Mail, Toronto: Only something extraordinary could entice the Carmelite nuns of Montreal to break their vow of silence and venture out of the cloister, ANNE McILROY says. They have joined forces with science to look for a concrete sign from God — inside the human brain.

The Carmelite nuns live a life of silent prayer, separated from the modern world by the high stone wall that surrounds their monastery in an industrial part of Montreal. Except for medical care, they rarely leave their sanctuary. But that changed late last month, when they began to make periodic visits to, of all places, a science lab.

The sisters arrive at the neuro-science laboratory in the University of Montreal’s psychology department two at a time, wearing habits sewn from thick, dark cloth, high white collars and veils that frame their faces and flow down their backs. On their feet are sensible brown laceups that appear to have never seen the outdoors before.

They come to take part in an experiment that will probe a mystical and very private part of their lives. Sister Diane, the monastery’s prioress, and Sister Teresa admit to being nervous as they peer curiously into a dark chamber about the size of a walk-in closet and equipped with an old barber’s chair.

It is here that they have agreed to try to relive unio mystica, a religious experience so intense that Christians profess to sense their Lord as a physical presence. The nuns hope to help Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard uncover just what happens in their brains when they feel the hand of God.

Their openness to scientific examination is a sign of a relatively recent rapprochement between science and religion, especially in the new field of neurotheology, which uses the tools of psychology and neuroscience to probe the neural underpinnings of religious experience.

This is only a dry run, but the formidable Sister Diane suddenly looks vulnerable as she takes off her veil and loosens her thick grey hair. Research assistant Vincent Paquette gently helps her put on what looks like a red bathing cap full of holes. Inside the cap, electrodes below each hole will be attached to her scalp to measure the electrical activity of her brain.

“This isn’t,” she says, “what we are used to.”

Indeed, life inside the monastery has changed little since the Carmelites founded it in 1875. Sister Diane and her nuns rise at 5:20 for breakfast and an hour of silent prayer that they liken to meditation. The days are filled with chanting the Psalms, attending mass and more silent prayer.

When they aren’t praying, they are working; cooking, gardening, baking hosts for communion, washing and sewing habits, making crafts to earn money. They are permitted to talk to each other only during two 20-minute recreation periods, after lunch and after supper. In the evening, they must write notes if they have something pressing to say.

“We are hermits, living in a community,” Sister Diane explains. They even pray in separate wooden compartments.

There are 19 nuns now in the monastery and all plan to stay until they die.

Now, they have agreed not only to venture out of the cloister, but also to relive perhaps the most intimate moment of their lives while researchers watch what happens to their brains.

Sister Diane says unio mystica, the mystical union with God, is difficult to put into words. St. Teresa of Jesus, the Spanish nun who established the Carmelite order in 1526, described it as talking lovingly to God as though He were a friend and sharing a divine intimacy. The experience happens only once or twice in a lifetime, typically before a person turns 30. Sister Diane had it happen twice in the same year — 1977, when she was 29 — and not again since. She has never talked about it before, she says; it was too private, too intimate. She was at a religious retreat, praying silently and recalls entering an altered state, with an intense sense of God’s physical presence. She lost herself in it.

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how much time had passed. It is like a treasure, and intimacy. It is very, very personal. It was in the centre of my being, but even deeper. It was a feeling of fullness, fullness, fullness.”

Sister Teresa, 43, also experienced her unio mystica when in her 20s. “It is more than a feeling,” she says. “It is more intense than feeling, but you sense God is physically there. It brings intense happiness, even bliss.”

When Dr. Beauregard and Mr. Paquette, his doctoral student, first approached Sister Diane about using three of the most powerful brain-imaging tools available to learn more about unio mystica, she was intrigued. She had heard about other experiments investigating the biological basis of religious experience.

The researchers were hoping the nuns would have a mystical experience right in the lab. Sister Diane told them that this would be impossible — God can’t be summoned at will. “You can’t search for it. The harder you search, the longer you will wait,” she says.

So the scientists came back with an alternative: Would the nuns be able to remember what it felt like? Dr. Beauregard is certain that when they recall such an intense experience, their brains will operate the same way as when the nuns actually felt God’s physical presence.

He says there is plenty of evidence that this is likely. When we think about doing something physical, such as hitting a forehand in tennis, the same parts of the brain are active as when we are actually make the shot.

Similarly, he has conducted experiments with actors and found that dramatizing a sad experience causes intense activity in the parts of the brain that process emotion.

This approach pleased the nuns, and so far six have agreed to participate in the experiments, which will take two years to complete.

The first step is to measure their brain waves, or electrical activity, using an electroencephalographic (EEG) recording device as they re- live unio mystica as best they can.

The second, using functional magnetic imaging, will provide a living picture of their brains at work by showing which regions of their brain are active and which aren’t.

In the third experiment, the nuns will be injected with a low-level radioactive chemical so that the scientists can use positron emission tomography, better known as a PET scan, to measure levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in different parts of the brain. Serotonin is involved in regulating a person’s moods, and there is evidence that psychedelic drugs such as LSD mimic it to produce hallucinations.

Some cultures use hallucinogens to communicate with God, and Dr. Beauregard believes that serotonin may play a role in unio mystica. Not that he is trying to prove that unio mystica is all in the head. Every human experience occurs in the mind, he says. The “experience is real, but the manifestation is in the brain.”

When the analysis of all three experiments is done, he hopes to have a clear biological picture of an experience that mystifies even those who have lived it. Ultimately, he would like to know enough about how it works to be able to offer the same experience to anybody seeking spiritual growth.

Sister Diane says she is certain that Dr. Beauregard will discover a biological basis for the Carmelites’ spiritual experience, one she says is shared by all human beings. God equipped people with the brains they need for a spiritual life, she insists. “Our body has a spiritual component. To be a human being is to be a spiritual being. I’m convinced this will show in the results.”

Sister Teresa seems less sure. “It will be up to God,” she says.

Dr. Beauregard is not the only researcher probing the neurobiology of belief. In September, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, took part in a high-profile meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held to compare Buddhist and scientific views about how the mind works.

Buddhists believe that they can regulate their emotions through meditation, and studies conducted on Buddhist monks have shown intense activity in specific parts of their brains when they meditate. Which part of the brain appears to depend on the type of meditation — whether the person is focusing on compassion or on the details of a mental image of Buddha.

The sold-out MIT session attracted many respected scientists, including a researcher from the Royal Ottawa Hospital who is interested in whether meditation may be useful in treating anxiety disorders.

The study of meditation is no longer considered the flaky fringe of science, thanks to researchers such as Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who helped to organize the session with the Dalai Lama.

In 1992, he travelled to northern India equipped with electrical generators, computers and machines that could measure the electrical output of the brain. In the foothills of the Himalayas, he wired up monks to learn more about their brains.

New, more powerful brain-imaging equipment has drawn other researchers to the field, including scientists at Harvard, the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Beauregard at the University of Montreal.

They are trying to answer a number of intriguing questions: Are humans hard-wired to have religious or spiritual experiences, which are common to almost every culture on Earth? What happens in the brain when they do have them? Is it something that non-religious people might be able to replicate with the right stimulation? Is a transcendent Buddhist experience, often described as feeling connected to everyone and everything in the universe, the same as Christians’ unio mystica? Can religion and spirituality make people healthier, as some studies suggest?

Work with the Buddhist monks shows that meditation results in decreased activity in the parietal lobes, which are located at the top and back of the brain, and help to orient a person in time and space. (For example, they tell you that your hands are on the steering wheel and you’re driving to the store.)

The theory is that a lack of parietal activity reduces the sense of self, and makes a person feel there is no boundary between his or her body and the rest of the universe. As well, there appears to be increased activity in the limbic system, which helps to process emotion.

Dr. Beauregard says Christian mysticism may involve a different biological mechanism. His is the first study to use three techniques for monitoring the brain activity of religious subjects. The two-year, $100,000 (U.S.) project is financed by a foundation created by John Templeton, the mutual-fund titan who is now in his 90s and wants to know more about God.

Mr. Templeton is investing $16-million to $30-million (U.S.) a year in the scientific study of spirituality, everything from whether prayer can heal to how primates exhibit forgiveness.

Dr. Beauregard’s goal is to understand the neurobiology of Christian mysticism, and he has won over the Catholic establishment. Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the Archbishop of Montreal, has written in support of the project in a publication read by Quebec’s other contemplative orders. The researchers hope to attract as many as 15 volunteers from four other Carmelite communities in the province.

It is not clear, however, that God is on-side. Sister Diane and Sister Teresa arrived at the neuroscience lab for their EEG tests only to find that someone had broken in and stolen key pieces of equipment. Although frustrated, the researchers walked the nuns through the process so they would know what to expect. The more relaxed they are, Mr. Paquette says, the easier it is to monitor their brains. A week later, the researchers were ready to go, but Sister Diane called in sick at the last minute, prompting another delay.

But the two nuns already tested were moved by the experience. One in particular, Sister Nicole, seemed to come especially close to recapturing unio mystica while perched in the barber’s chair (used because it is comfortable — and solid, even more vital to the research results).

When Mr. Paquette opened the door to the soundproof chamber, she was surprised that 20 minutes had passed sp quickly. Asked what it was like, she began to describe the unio mystica she achieved as a child; the two experiences had become blurred in her mind. She also told him that she had heard music, Pachelbel’s Canon.

In the tape Mr. Paquette made of their conversation, her voice sounds dreamy and content. “I have never felt so loved,” she says.

It is far too early to draw many conclusions from the experiments, but the researchers say they already find the data intriguing. “We are seeing things we don’t normally see,” says Marc Pouliot, an engineer who is analyzing the EEG results.

The two nuns experienced intense bursts of alpha waves in the brains, common in a reflective and relaxed state such as meditation. They also had intense activity in the left occipital region at the back of the brain — which is not what the scientists were expecting in the wake of research by Michael Persinger, a controversial researcher at Laurentian University in Sudbury who has developed the so-called God helmet. He uses the device to stimulate the right side of the brain, including the parietal lobe, with low-level electromagnetic radiation. In 80 per cent of subjects, this induces the sensation that there is a presence in the room. Many weep and say they feel God nearby.

However, the real “God experience” may be different, according to the nuns. Rather than crying, they say they felt intense joy and looked forward to the lab experience since there is little chance they will ever enjoy a true mystical union with God again.

This may seem sad, but Sister Diane compares her love for God to the way two people love each other. When they fall in love, they feel a physical rush. They blush. They feel tingly. That, she says, is the kind of love young nuns feel for God when they experience unio mystica. But over time, the love deepens and matures. It isn’t as thrilling, she says. It becomes more of a day-to-day relationship.

This is an intriguing observation, because some researchers have speculated that the human capacity for mystical experiences may have co-evolved with the brain networks involved in sexual pleasure.

At 55, Sister Diane describes her relationship with God as more like a marriage, solid, secure, but without the rush. She says she knows God has been present by the peace he leaves behind, not from the excitement of a mystical union.

“That feeling of peace flowing through you — pacification — tells you He has been here.”

Anne McIlroy is the Globe and Mail’s science reporter.

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Healing thoughts

Elizabeth Large, Baltimore Sun: A funny thing happened to meditation on the way to the 21st century. It got demystified, and in the process became acceptable to mainstream America.

You won’t hear people talking about Nirvana much with today’s Westernized meditation, and there’s hardly a crystal in sight. Instead scientists are studying Buddhist monks with electroencephalographs and magnetic resonance imaging. Health care professionals are recommending meditation when drugs and other therapies don’t work, and sometimes when they do — they may call it a “relaxation technique,” to avoid the m-word.

Meditation, a discipline nearly as old as human life and a mainstay of Eastern spirituality, has gained reluctant acceptance as a treatment for everything from high blood pressure to attention deficit disorder. By sitting quietly and concentrating on a word, breath or image, meditators can put themselves into a state of deep relaxation. Recent scientific studies have shown the process may boost the immune system, control pain and lower stress.

“Its effectiveness has been fairly well-established with controlled research,” says Glenn Schiraldi, who is on the stress management faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park Department of Public and Community Health. Schiraldi meditates 10 or 15 minutes every morning. “It creates changes in the body opposite in every way to stress, and it’s intrinsically pleasant to do.”

Several months ago, an unusual conference took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tibetan Buddhist monks and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, met with leading U.S. neuroscientists and behavioral researchers to plan future studies. The conference sold out to an audience of 1,200 (most of them scientists) and had a waiting list of 1,600.

“Meditation works,” a cover story in Time magazine proclaimed this summer, detailing the scientific research that shows it can profoundly affect the body and actually reshape the brain. Millions of Americans seem to agree. As alternative medical treatments go, meditation seems to have the most clear-cut benefits, the kind that can be demonstrated in the lab (although the article also poked fun at the process, expressing the ambivalence many Americans still feel about it).

While it’s true that meditation is being stripped of the mystical trappings that make Westerners uneasy — the chanting, incense and Sanskrit mantras (a repeated word or phrase to quiet the mind) — people who start practicing for health reasons often end up finding the spirituality of meditation on their own. Reaching Nirvana might be even better than, say, controlling migraines.

A few months ago, Bob Parrott, a 49-year-old car salesman who lives in Abingdon, Md., was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. He started to meditate daily, using a bargain-table book he picked up at a Barnes & Noble as a guide. When he talks about the benefits of meditating, he doesn’t mention pain or stress, or the fact that he’s able to tolerate the radiation treatments better.

“The system has helped me live in the here and now,” he says. “I’m not wearing any of my hats. I’m not a car salesman. Not a husband. Not a father. The discovery of a deeper self erases a lot of the fear of mortality.”

The short-term positive effects of meditation on the nervous system have been generally accepted in the United States ever since the best seller “Relaxation Response” by a Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, was published in 1975. The latest science suggests meditation can have long-term health benefits, maybe even life-extending ones. Sophisticated scans have shown it can actually rewire the brain.

You don’t need any special equipment to practice, although a whole industry has sprung up in the last few years selling cushions, clothes, audio and videotapes, books and focusing aids like meditation crystals. You don’t have to wait for an appointment or worry about whether your health insurance will pay for it. And you don’t have to be a New Age kook.

Lisa Sanders, a Towson, Md., graduate student whose field is human resources development, has been practicing for the last three years. Three or four evenings a week she goes into her bedroom, puts on a compact disc of meditation music she bought at Best Buy, sits with her legs crossed and meditates for 15 or 20 minutes.

“I relax, I get a new start on whatever I’m into, it calms me down,” she says.

If scientists were recording the 23-year-old’s EEGs as she focuses on her breathing, shuts out the outside world and enters a meditative state, they would find that the activity in the areas of her brain that process sensory information slows down. Conscious thought decreases and relaxation increases.

In a small but intriguing study, Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found that “mindfulness meditation” — focusing on the present moment and appreciating it fully — seems to increase activity in the area of the brain associated with lower anxiety and a more optimistic outlook in general, a result that lasts after the meditation practice ends. His research team also studied immune function by giving participants in the study flu shots. Two months later those who meditated had developed significantly more antibodies to the vaccine than the control group.

So why isn’t everyone meditating? For one thing, it isn’t easy. Getting your mind to focus on the present and become quiet isn’t something Westerners are comfortable doing – oms or no oms. Meditating takes patience and perseverance. Buddhists call it “meditation practice” for a reason. To get good at it, you have to do it daily.

But meditation does have a major advantage over other alternative medicines. Doctors and hospitals are comfortable suggesting patients try it because the only downside is feeling foolish or getting bored. No one is sticking needles in patients or manipulating their spines. They aren’t taking herbal supplements not regulated by the FDA. Even the sickest patients don’t require supervision, just a little gentle instruction and an open mind.

“There are a thousand ways to meditate,” says stress management expert Glenn Schiraldi. You don’t have to sit cross-legged or empty your mind of conscious thought.

And there are a thousand different reasons to meditate. Tibetan Buddhists believe that you can connect with your “true, happy nature” by meditating — all the things that make humans good. Other schools of thought feel meditation can put you in touch with divine nature, or God. Most cultures have used meditation in some form, including Aborigines and American Indians.

You may want to try meditating simply as a relaxation technique, because you’re feeling stressed out or you’re not sleeping well. Whatever your reason, getting started is the easy part.

Here’s how:

  • Get some help. It might be a book or a tape or the Internet, but another person is best. “We all have misconceptions when we start out,” says Chris Kreeger, a meditation instructor at the Shambhala Center in Baltimore. For instance, he says, “It’s not about not having thoughts. It’s more about not being attached to them.”
  • Find a place to practice. It should be quiet, and you should be comfortable there. “Setting up a place cues us,” says Baltimore psychologist Elaine Yamada. “It tells our bodies this is the time to be in that quiet way.”
  • Make a commitment to practice on a daily basis, even if only for a few minutes.
  • Close or half close your eyes and pick a word or a phrase to say over and over. Its rhythm will help you focus. It could be in the form of a prayer if that appeals to you, such as one of Kreeger’s suggestions, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or it could be a syllable like “om.” “Any phrase that resonates with you will do,” says Yamada.
  • Or pay attention to your breath. Concentrate on the sensation of breathing to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Let any thoughts that intrude float away like a leaf on the river. With practice, distracting thoughts will subside.

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