Philippe Goldin

Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan

The cover of Search Inside Yourself is a clever riff on Google’s famous multicolored logo, and this is appropriate given that the author is a long-term Google employee and that the material is based on a course developed for Google’s staff.

Meng, as he is called, is a long-term meditator. Quite how long I’m not sure, but he refers to meditating before he joined Google (which was in 1999). Google’s workers are allowed to spend 20% of their time on personal projects, and so Meng and some of his colleagues spent that time developing a personal-development course which had meditation and mindfulness at its core.The course was jokingly called Search Inside Yourself, and the name stuck. This book is the result. SIY (the course) has been taught at Google since 2007, and has been taken by hundreds of people.

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Search Inside Yourself is in some ways an odd book, no doubt because it’s written by an eccentric person. Meng seems irrepressibly jokey. (His Google business card describes his job title as “Jolly Good Fellow.”) The book is peppered with goofy cartoons and constant quips. At times these provoked chuckles, but mostly I found it all a little wearying. Quite literally I found my energy to be drained by Meng’s jokes, which I think is to do with the jokes taking my attention away from Meng’s more serious points, and thus requiring me to have to re-engage. I’ve had a similar sense of weariness overcome me at times when talking with people who can’t stop joking.

Which is not to say that the book is not valuable — in many ways it is, and I’ll come to that shortly. But at one point I almost put the book down for good. One of Meng’s traits is constant name-dropping and a lack of modesty that some might find refreshing but which to me is distasteful. Here is the point at while I nearly abandoned my reading:

[E]ven though I am very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. I watched the video of myself speaking at the United Nations, and I was amazed how confident I appeared.

In the very next paragraph Meng mentions “interacting” with Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton. It was several days after reading that particular passage before I could persuade myself to pick up SIY again.

What kind of book is this? It’s a guide to achieving success and happiness, according to the subtitle. Inside we learn that we do this by developing greater emotional intelligence. It’s therefore not just a meditation book. Meditation here is just one tool to develop emotional intelligence. As the book went on I became increasingly enthusiastic and interested in Meng’s approach. The later material is more connected with empathy, lovingkindness, and compassion, which is for me inherently more interesting than the earlier material on mindfulness.

Who is the book aimed at? At times it seems that the target market consists of managers and CEOs, and often it’s reminiscent of Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — and in fact Covey’s book had a big influence on me. But some may find the recurring references to the corporate world a little off-putting if that’s not part of their experience.

I present what I didn’t like first, because my experience of reading the book was of being tripped up on the way to reading about an interesting program of personal development. And there is a lot of useful material in the book, and Meng has a number of strengths as a guide.

One strength Meng has is that he is an engineer and likes to know what works and what’s the science behind what works. And so there’s a lot of scientific backing for the meditative methods he outlines. For a meditation geek like me this was a delight. He’s also keen on taking systems to pieces and putting the back together again. So he breaks down the skills of mindfulness, empathy, compassionate communication, motivation, etc., and presents them very clearly.

I found myself looking forward to the gray boxes that contained the actual exercises. These were very stimulating and sometimes suggested exercises that I’d never thought of, such as the “meditation circuit training” on page 73. There’s an exercise on dealing with memories of “success” and “failure” (pp. 149–151) that’s similar to exercises I’ve taught in dealing with painful memories generally, but never with regard to that particular topic. His lovingkindness meditation (pp. 169–170) is very brief, and very familiar, but laid out in a very clear and concise way.

(As an aside, talking of familiarity, Meng uses a diagram on page 36 of his book that’s almost identical to one I devised for my own teaching twenty years ago, and use on this site. He referenced this to researcher Philippe Goldin, who used the diagram in a lecture he gave at Google, and I’m intrigued to know whether Goldin read my book, saw this site, or maybe happened to come up with the same schema independently.)

Another of Meng’s strengths is that he is not shackled to a particular ideology. The very common, almost standard, mindfulness-based stress reduction model, for example, that tends to downplay lovingkindness and compassion meditation (although it integrates those qualities into the meditation it teaches). Meng is prepared to take whatever works and to go with it. And so his approach is refreshingly varied and creative, including mindfulness, compassion, tonglen, communication exercises, etc.

One of the other things I admire about Meng is that he is a big thinker. In discussing motivation and “higher purpose” he says,

If you find yourself inspired by your ideal future, I highly recommend talking about it a lot to other people. There are two important benefits. First, the more you talk about it, the more real it becomes to you … The second important benefit is the more you talk to people about your ideal future, the more likely you can find people to help you.

This is something practical I’ll certainly take away from Meng’s book, and for that teaching alone I felt deep gratitude for having spent time with his writings. I realized how much I keep my vision to myself, as I work on from day to day trying to bring the benefits of meditation to more people. How sad! And how limiting! I’ll be spending more time reflecting on this.

The conclusion to SIY is in fact an outline of how Meng plans to make meditation accessible to the world. He wants to get to the point where everybody knows as a matter of course that meditation is good for them (just as they know that exercise is good for them), where everyone who wants to meditate can find a way to learn it, where companies value meditation and encourage their employees to do it, and where, in short, meditation is taken for granted. Or as Meng says, people will get to the point where they think, “Of course you should meditate, duh.”

SIY (both the course and the book) is part of Meng’s strategy for achieving these goals. He wants to make the SIY course “open source,” and to “give it away as one of Google’s gifts to the world,” although it’s not clear what he means by this. The book itself is not free. Even the Google Books preview limits how many pages can be read, which is rather ironic. And given that the book is under traditional copyright, it’s not strictly legal for people to copy and possibly even teach verbatim the exercises in it without permission. I wonder if Meng could have published the book under a Creative Commons license rather than traditional copyright, making the material freely available on a non-commercial basis, so encouraging others to spread the word?

Still, I wish Meng well. He’s a crazy dreamer, but when has anyone but a crazy dreamer ever pulled off anything big?

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Catherine Kerr on the Science of Meditation

Alex Knapp, Forbes: Dr. Kerr received her BA in American Studies from Amherst College and her PhD in History and Social Theory from the Johns Hopkins University, but in 2006 received a K Award from the National Institutes of Health to be retrained as a neuroscientist. Since then, her research primarily focused on the effects of meditation the brain.

***

Recently, I wrote up a paper that had some interesting results regarding the mechanisms through which the practice of meditation might lead to pain relief. Namely, the results suggested that meditation can lead to changes in alpha wave behavior, which in turn may lead to the pain relief through the inhibition communication in the brain. Since that time, I’ve had a chance to communicate with Catherine Kerr, formerly the Lab Director at the Neuroscience of Meditation, Healing and Sense of Touch Lab at the Osher Research Center at Harvard, and who is now associated with Brown University. Dr. Kerr received her BA in American Studies from Amherst College and her PhD in History and Social Theory from the Johns Hopkins University, but in 2006 received a K Award from the National Institutes of Health to be retrained as a neuroscientist. Since then, her research primarily focused on the effects of meditation the brain.

***

Tell me about your background. What got you interested in studying meditation?

The route that I took on the way towards my study looking at the effects of meditation training on alpha rhythms in somatosensory cortex has been circuitous.

My interest arose out of my early work on the placebo effect in chronic pain. It’s sort of a long story that has to do with a specific theoretical interest that I developed. It began in 2001 with my earliest research, in which I investigated placebo effects, working closely with Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School. I helped Ted design and implement several large cutting-edge clinical trials that investigated placebo effects (published in BMJ in 2006 and 2008).

What we learned from these studies was that healing is more likely to come about when there is a tactile or somatic “body-based” placebo (like a tactile-sham needle) administered by a warm, confident practitioner. What these placebo studies suggested to me was that there might be a common factor – something like body-based attention — that was being manipulated by confident healers in many different modalities such as acupuncture, light touch massage and other ritual treatments.

Interestingly, body based attention to touch sensations, and more generally the sense of touch, are disordered in chronic pain and IBS. And the disorder seems to be mediated by a cortical mechanism. So, what I intuited from my work on placebo was that many therapies may elicit healing by using the sense of touch, or more generally the manipulation of somatic attention in order to address a disordered somatic-attention system. One way of thinking about somatic attention is to think of it as a biasing system – in chronic pain patients, attention becomes biased towards the chronic pain percept so that the sensation intrudes on and interferes with everyday life. What acupuncture and other therapies may actually do is to help erase or undo some of these biases so that the sensation, while it might not disappear, is less intrusive and has less of an effect on daily activities.

How did you develop your brain-based approach to meditation?

Although my initial intuition about body-based attention and healing was interesting and promising, it was not framed as a scientific question at the level of brain mechanism. To reframe this idea as a testable brain science question, I was very lucky to work with an incredibly creative, brilliant brain scientist named Christopher Moore at MIT’s McGovern Institute. It turned out Chris had formed some of the same ideas, especially based on his experiences with acupuncture and light-touch massage, except that unlike me, Chris is (1) a sophisticated thinker about the brain and (2) a brilliant experimentalist who is deeply knowledgable about the somatosensory system in animals and humans.

Chris Moore, working with his colleague Steph Jones at Massachusetts General Hospital, helped me reframe my interest in the somatosensory attentional system as a problem in brain dynamics and brain rhythms: how does the brain constantly adjust its “biases” (ie, the likelihood of neurons to fire) in response to new situations? And, how might somatic-attention focused therapies help the brain respond more adaptively to new situations and shed pre-existing, maladaptive biases like those seen in chronic pain?

It turns out that alpha rhythms in the cortex may serve as a useful index for understanding how attentional biases are maintained—many studies have shown that alpha rhythms can be controlled in a precise “map-like” way by attention. That is, alpha rhythms can help to suppress or amplify sensory inputs in a specific location, for example, in your visual field when I cue you about a location where a stimulus is likely to appear.

What aspects of meditation has your research focused on and why did you choose that focus?

We chose mindfulness meditation because, it turns out that mindfulness meditation is not the same as napping or relaxing: instead, the practice actually involves a very strong attentional focus on the breath and body sensations—the cultivation of somatically focused attention is the critical factor for training the attentional system in the earty stages of practice. This is even spelled out in an early Buddhist sutra (which talks about “mindfulness of the body”) although I did not know this when we assembled our hypotheses.

In our brain experiment, we actually looked at what happens in the “body map” in the somatosensory cortex when you are asked to pay attention to your hand versus when you are asked to pay attention to your foot. We tested the effects of a specific, standardized form of mindfulness meditation called mindfulness based stress reduction. Our hypothesis was that after meditation training, meditators would have more attentional control over their brain rhythms in the brain’s map of the hand—meditators would be able to adjust their alpha rhythms more precisely depending on whether they were attending towards or away from the finger. Our hypothesis was proven correct as meditators demonstrated a higher ability to control their brain rhythms than nonmeditators and they were faster (after a cue) in exerting this control.

It’s important to mention that our study had a small sample size (given this size, it’s surprising how strong the statistical significance of the effect was), so this study should be viewed as a “proof of principle” that needs to be replicated in a larger study.

What about meditation research has surprised you the most?

Two things have surprised me and I think they are a little bit related.

First, I was surprised by my experience of the actual practice of mindfulness meditation. My experience came about because I felt that it was important, as a scientist, to actually undergo the same type of training as my subjects.

So after all of my subjects were done with the course, out of curiosity, I actually enrolled in the same 8-week standardized mindfulness course and, on a subjective level, I found it to be very transforming—this surprised me. The course involved daily sitting meditation practice, the core of which involved an attentional focus on the breath and body-related sensations for 20-30 mins per day. This attentional focus was more difficult than I thought it would be. The difficulty wasn’t so much in the beginning. Rather, it was about half way through the 8-week class, I found that the meditation practice actually brought up some charged unresolved emotions from different past experiences. What I found was that, at first these unresolved emotions were difficult but as I continued in the course, they actually became much more easy to deal with – and in general, I just felt more at ease, even in difficult or stressful situations.

But my experience was so complex: were these effects captureable through the brain imaging paradigm that I designed? Having more control over the cortical dynamics of attention should lead to having more ability to regulate cognition, including cognitions related to emotionally charged issues. But, of course, I did not directly test this question.

One reason I tell this story is to emphasize there is always going to be a gap between the subjective effects that people report experiencing during meditation and the putative objective brain mechanisms that are put forth to explain the effects. Skeptics deal with this gap by simply dismissing the subjective experience as “woo.” I understand why they do this – but I think this dismissal is actually quite unscientific since one of the things that’s so fascinating about a practice like mindfulness meditation is the fact that it seems to reliably induce these complex, transformational subjective experiences. In their exit interviews, my subjects spontaneously offered different accounts of personal transformation). Isn’t that interesting?

Of course, the flip-side of this impulse to reject subjective experience that you see in the skeptic community can be seen in meditation enthusiasts and their uncritical embrace of neuroscience—this embrace has been my second surprise.

There has been a kind of mania or madness surrounding the brain and meditation that I see most strongly in studies reporting on brain plasticity. Take the wonderful work (on which I am a coauthor), led by Sara Lazar at MGH, on structural changes in the brain that are correlated with meditative practice. This research is fascinating and very promising but it is also fraught with uncertainty.

When we see differences between experienced meditators and controls on structural MRI images we don’t actually know what is causing that difference. It could be changes in vasculature or in dendritic arborisation. And these differences matter a lot as we consider how structural changes might relate to any possible changes in how the brain processes information. For instance, since these brain changes are not correlated with any measure of function, we don’t know if the reported changes in brain structure are a good thing, since there can be pathological increases in brain structure which have been observed in some diseases!

Yet people take this idea that “meditation grows your brain” (which we never claimed in our early report and which Sara Lazar still approaches cautiously although she has published new data on this question) and run with it, to the point of absurdity—the idea that meditation might change brain structure appears to exert some kind of magnetic power (for an example of this, check out the coverage of Sara Lazar’s recent study in Gawker or a recent Huffpo piece that I flagged on Twitter). Some of the ways in which our 2005 study have been summarized point to a shocking lack of scientific literacy about brain imaging and a poor understanding of what a correlational brain study in experienced meditators can actually tell us.

Stepping back a little bit to meditation in general, it seems to attract a lot of pseudoscience to it. How much do we really know about meditation right now, and what needs to be studied?

I think my two surprises are related to one central problem: because subjective experiences like those felt in meditation practice can be very powerful, there is a strong impulse to try to capture or “bottle” these experiences in a brain image. While I think brain imaging will be and has already been very informative about these practices, it’s important to understand that (1) brain imaging cannot do away with the basic gap between subjective experience and objective measurement (2) complex subjective experiences like those felt in meditation are likely made up of a complex array of brain mechanisms that cannot be captured by the simple sets of hypotheses that can be tested in a single brain experiment.

That being said, I do think that we can draw some conclusions about how mindfulness meditation practice might affect brain processes related to attention and emotion regulation. Work by our group on attention regulation and somatosensory brain dynamics comes in addition to fine work by Amishi Jha showing that mindfulness meditation appears to exert specific effects on well-defined attentional dynamics related to basic sensory processes. Work by Philipe Goldin and coauthors suggests that mindfulness practice may exert effects on the reactivity of the amygdala to emotional challenge. And, work by Sara Lazar and others (including her subsequent study) in replication of her brave initial effort, suggest meditation causes changes in brain structure. I think the most important idea underlying all of these studies, that is now well-established is that the standardized form 8-week format of mindfulness meditation training called MBSR that we and others have studied (which is reported to reduce distress in many patient groups) involves an active process of attentional training and is not the same as relaxing or napping. Although some skeptics might wish this was not true.

What kinds of claims about meditation do you see in your work that don’t seem to be backed by science?

My experience with media coverage of my alpha meditation study has been a little different from that which I observed in coverage of the Lazar meditation-brain-structure study. The mechanism and the paradigm used to test the mechanism are both complex. While the implications of my study are far-reaching (especially the notion that meditators exert more precise attentional control over the “volume knobs” in sensory neurons in the brain) , many media outlets have had trouble understanding really basic aspects of the experiment (what we tested, who were our subjects, etc). There is not much I can do about this.

As a scientist, how do you respond to people who use your research to bolster non-scientific claims?

I don’t respond since response would involve me in endless distraction and since I know that whoever has misunderstood my study has probably been triggered by the current brain-meditation mania rather than the specific details of my own work.

Read the rest of this article…

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Preschoolers practice meditation

Take a breath. Pay attention as the air goes in…and out. There, you’ve just had a moment of mindfulness.

In the 1970s, a young scientist named Jon Kabat-Zinn began introducing mindfulness meditation to people who suffered from chronic pain. He found that bringing awareness to the pain helped them cope with it. The techniques were rooted in Eastern practices taught by the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. And they caught on in the medical world.

Over the decades, mindfulness has become integrated into treatments for physical pain, anxiety and depression. It’s put into practice at esteemed medical centers such as UCSF. And recently, its reach has expanded into some schools. Supporters say it may be just the trick to lower stress in anxious teachers and students. But there’s still a lot to figure out — what to teach children, at what age, and what mindfulness and meditation can actually do.

KALW’s Judy Silber visited a pre-school in Marin County, where children are learning mindfulness during the earliest stages of their education.

*     *     *

KIDS SINGING:

My mind is a clear, blue sky, my mind is a clear blue sky.

And I breathe in, and I breathe out.

And my mind is a clear, blue sky.

My mind is a clear, blue sky. And the feelings come, and the feelings go.

And my mind is a clear, blue sky. My mind is a clear, blue sky.

To meditate, you have to sit still. Stillness and preschoolers ? two words that usually don’t go together. But they do for Lesley Grant, the director of the Marin Mindfulness Cooperative in San Anselmo. Through pictures and stories, she guides kids between the ages of two-and-a-half and five in following their breath.

LESLEY GRANT: And now the moon has set. And the night is gone. And the sun is about to come up. So you are a flower and you are going to breathe in the sunlight, and open your petals?

The kids are hardly perfect meditators. A few have their eyes open. One little boy lies on his stomach. Still, Grant says the deliberate breathing calms them. And it’s teaching them how to be mindful, to be present and aware of their experiences.

GRANT: ?can you ring the bell, Ezra, and let’s see if we can be mindful of the sound. Ring the bell. (bell rings) And let’s listen until the sound stops. Raise your hand when you can’t hear it.

Grant’s meditation practice began 35 years ago, when she was 17. A certified early childhood educator, in 2000 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sikkim, India.

GRANT: I stayed in a monastery where there were a lot of little monks, and I watched them a lot because I had already worked with children. I watched the freedom and the joy in their play…

I met some little nuns, too. And I saw that they were very free and alive and vital in their play. And then when they were in the gompa, the meditation hall, meditating, they could be very still and peaceful.

When she returned to the U.S. in 2002, Grant began a preschool cooperative. She included meditation and mindfulness training for the parents. And then, she decided to pass it on to the kids as well.

EILEEN BROWN: I was kind of surprised, and I was really kind of skeptical. I couldn’t imagine how Lesley was getting these kids to do all of this.

Three years ago, Eileen Brown enrolled her four-year-old daughter in Grant’s co-op.

BROWN: Then when I came in to do my co-oping shift, I was just really amazed at how the kids really meditated, and how they really could. And then, what my daughter was bringing home, like she could just plop down and get in full lotus and meditate, and she’s talking about Buddhist philosophy, and different Buddhas, and that’s Shakyamuni, and that’s Green Tara, and I didn’t know any of that, so she, sort of, started teaching me.

It’s really kind of an experiment because meditation isn’t usually taught to children. The practices are geared toward adults, and that’s where the research has focused, at least until now.

PHILIPPE GOLDIN: There’s an explosion of interest right now from many different areas in society.

That’s Philippe Goldin, a clinical scientist at Stanford University. He runs a research group looking at how various meditations, mindfulness and psychotherapy affect the brain. Goldin says specific forms of meditation can increase attention and emotional awareness ? actually change the psychology of a person. But almost all those studies were on adults. Goldin says, when it comes to mindfulness and children, we know …

GOLDIN: …very little. There are many people who are trying to implement and weave in mindfulness practices into, either the home, or school, perhaps even daycare centers. There are very, very few research studies where people have tried to measure the effects.

So far, the results for children are encouraging, though not stunning. One study out of UCLA showed that mindfulness improves a quality called “executive function,” which is the ability to stay focused and on task. Over a period of eight weeks, second and third graders who started with low scores improved a lot. However, those who started with high scores didn’t change much.

Goldin’s group conducted a study in which families sat in silence for a few minutes each day, together, for eight weeks, connecting with what Goldin calls, “the still quiet place within.” The researchers tested the subjects before and after each trial. The kids, aged 8 to 12, showed improvement in their attention. And the parents?

GOLDIN: The parents additionally benefited on multiple measures of emotion regulation, decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression, increased self-efficacy, or belief in the parents’ ability to work effectively with their kids. So there are many, many benefits to the parents. The one thing we found in the kids that really was reliable was this increased ability to focus and use their attention.

The Centers for Disease Control says attention deficit hyperactivity disorder affects three to seven percent of school-age children in the U.S.Researchers say they are curious as to whether mindfulness can offer a non-pharmaceutical treatment. For adults, there’s a small, but growing body of evidence that says it might. For kids, it’s still an open question, with a lot to sort out, including whether it’s better to train children, their parents, or both.

Back at the Marin Mindfulness Cooperative, Lesley Grant is creating exercises for her students.

GRANT: We might have children open their mind like the ocean. And that’s giving them an image that helps them to bring a sense of spaciousness to their mind. Then we might ask what’s in their ocean, and they might, we might play with it like a game.

            GRANT [demonstrating example]: Yes, Tobias, did you have something in your ocean?

            TOBIAS: um, kitty cats.

            GRANT: You had kitty cats at the edge of your ocean. What are they doing?

            TOBIAS: They’re playing in the sand.

            GRANT: Can you show us how kitty cat moves? And how does kitty cat feel?

            TOBIAS: Mad!

            GRANT: It’s a mad kitty cat. So let’s all move. Tobias will show us how the mad kitty cat moves?

            [Example ends]

GRANT: And the child gets to determine when they’re done moving, and everybody is going to sit down and we see if we let in stillness — when we’re sitting still, can let a feeling move through us.

            [Example continues]

            GRANT: Okay, Tobias. And when you’re ready, ring the bell, and we’ll all sit and see if we can let that kitty cat run through us.

The scientific proof may be lacking, as yet, but Grant has great anecdotal evidence: children who meditated in the back seat of a car in response to a stressed-out parent; a 5-year old girl who used to act out by hitting, and can now catch the impulse of one fist with the other hand.

Then there was a 4-year old with impulse control issues. One day, about a year after he had been at the cooperative, he and a three-year old were making a puppet show. The younger child started knocking things down. Grant was right there.

GRANT: And the older boy who was four, said, “I want to hit him, I shouldn’t hit him.”  And I said, yes, that’s right. And the boy said, “My anger fish is here.” And I said, Oh, what’s it like? And he said, “Anger fish wants to drink up all the water.” Which, to me, was a child having an insight about what anger does in the mind. I mean, isn’t it like that? It really is. When we’re angry, the anger wants to take up all the clarity of our mind, and this is how the child was saying that in a child’s way, in a way of saying it as a picture.

And I said, yes, but can he drink up the whole ocean? And the child said, “No, I’m bigger than the anger fish.” And suddenly, he had this experience that his mind, that his awareness, was bigger than his anger — which was the joy, and the sense of empowerment in him, in that moment — was just amazing.

This kind of emotional awareness is rare, even among adults. So it may take a long time to gather the statistics to support this kind of approach in schools. Young children, especially, are hard to test. But if Grants’ stories are an indicator, teaching mindfulness to preschoolers may have some very practical applications.

The mindfulness song at the beginning of this story comes from Betsy Rose.

[via San Francisco Chronicle]
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Sign of the Times: mindfulness in schools

The New York Times reports on the adoption of Mindfulness-Based Education in schools to help children learn to pay attention and to handle their emotions.

“I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” one student reported to his classmates the day after learning the technique. “The mindfulness really helped.”

Mindfulness-Based Education was featured in Wildmind’s first meditation news podcast, in which we interviewed Dr. Amy Salzman, who was also quoted in the Times article. A point she made in our interview was taken up by Philippe R. Goldin, a researcher at Stanford: “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention. But we never teach them how.”

Institutions like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects as schools across the US train students in mindfulness.

Although mindfulness comes from a Buddhist context, it is not primarily a religious practice and involves focused attention, often centered on the breath, and awareness of the emotions combined with the cultivation of compassion. Because of its secular nature mindfulness has so far avoided the kinds of controversy in which Transcendental Meditation has become mired. Late last year plans to start a TM club in a California school were shelved after an outcry from parents.

Dr. Saltzman, co-director of the mindfulness study at Stanford, said the initial findings showed increased control of attention and “less negative internal chatter — what one girl described as ‘the gossip inside my head: I’m stupid, I’m fat or I’m going to fail math,’ ” Dr. Saltzman said.

According to the article a recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, California, found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia.

The Times article has a healthy skepticism about the notion of mindfulness as the answer to all of life’s problems, with a statements such as mindfulness is “not a magic bullet” being quoted from Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. Mindful Awareness Research Center, and a second grade teacher observing that “some students tapped pencils and drummed on desks instead of closing their eyes.”

Nevertheless, mindfulness in education is an idea whose time has surely come. Children today are massively overstimulated and living under greater levels of stress than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Tools for handling the stress of modern life as a child or teenager are urgently needed.

Bodhipaksa is the founder and director of Wildmind. His personal blog is called Bodhi Tree Swaying.

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In the classroom, a new focus on quieting the mind

Patricia Leigh Brown, New York Times: The lesson began with the striking of a Tibetan singing bowl to induce mindful awareness.

With the sound of their new school bell, the fifth graders at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School here closed their eyes and focused on their breathing, as they tried to imagine “loving kindness” on the playground.

“I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” Alex Menton, 11, reported to his classmates the next day. “The mindfulness really helped.”

As summer looms, students at dozens of schools across the country are trying hard to be in the present moment. This is what is known as mindfulness training, in which stress-reducing techniques drawn from Buddhist meditation are wedged between reading and spelling tests.

Mindfulness, while common in hospitals, corporations, professional sports and even prisons, is relatively new in the education of squirming children. But a small but growing number of schools in places like Oakland and Lancaster, Pa., are slowly embracing the concept — as they did yoga five years ago — and institutions, like the psychology department at Stanford University and the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, are trying to measure the effects…

During a five-week pilot program at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, Miss Megan, the “mindful” coach, visited every classroom twice a week, leading 15 minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The sound of the Tibetan bowl reverberated at the start and finish of each lesson.

The techniques, among them focused breathing and concentrating on a single object, are loosely adapted from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the molecular biologist who pioneered the secular use of mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 to help medical patients cope with chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Susan Kaiser Greenland, the founder of the InnerKids Foundation, which trains schoolchildren and teachers in the Los Angeles area, calls mindfulness “the new ABC’s — learning and leading a balanced life.”

At Stanford, the psychology department is assessing the feasibility of teaching mindfulness to families. “Parents and teachers tell kids 100 times a day to pay attention,” said Philippe R. Goldin, a researcher. “But we never teach them how.”

The experiment at Piedmont, whose student body is roughly 65 percent black, 18 percent Latino and includes a large number of immigrants, is financed by Park Day School, a nearby private school (prompting one teacher to grumble that it was “Cloud Nine-groovy-hippie-liberals bringing ‘enlightenment’ to inner city schools”).

But Angela Haick, the principal of Piedmont Avenue, said she was inspired to try it after observing a class at a local middle school.

“If we can help children slow down and think,” Dr. Haick said, “they have the answers within themselves.”

It seemed alternately loved and ignored, as students in Ms. Graham’s fifth-grade class tried to pay attention to their breath, a calming technique that lasted 20 seconds. Then their coach asked them to “cultivate compassion” by reflecting on their emotions before lashing out at someone on the playground.

Tyran Williams defined mindfulness as “not hitting someone in the mouth.”

“He doesn’t know what to do with his energy,” his mother, Towana Thomas, said at a session for parents. “But one day after school he told me, ‘I’m taking a moment.’ If it works in a child’s mind — with so much going on — there must be something to it.”

Asked their reactions to the sounds of the singing bowl, Yvette Solito, a third grader, wrote that it made her feel “calm, like something on Oprah.” Her classmate Corey Jackson wrote that “it feels like when a bird cracks open its shell.”

Dr. Amy Saltzman, a physician in Palo Alto, Calif., who started the Association for Mindfulness in Education three years ago, thinks of mindfulness education as “talk yoga.” Practitioners tend to use sticky-mat buzzwords like “being present” and “cultivating compassion,” while avoiding anything spiritual.

Dr. Saltzman, co-director of the mindfulness study at Stanford, said the initial findings showed increased control of attention and “less negative internal chatter — what one girl described as ‘the gossip inside my head: I’m stupid, I’m fat or I’m going to fail math,’ ” Dr. Saltzman said.

A recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, Calif., found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia.

Dr. Susan L. Smalley, a professor of psychiatry at U.C.L.A. and director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center there, which is studying the effects on schoolchildren, said one 4-year-old noticed her mother succumbing to road rage while stuck in traffic. “She said, ‘Mommy, Mommy, you have to sing the breathing song,’ ” Dr. Smalley said.

Although some students take naturally to mindfulness, it is “not a magic bullet,” said Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the U.C.L.A. center. She said the research thus far was “inconclusive” about how effective mindfulness was for children who suffered from trauma-related disorders, for example. It is “a slow process,” Ms. Winston added. “Just because kids sit and listen to the bell doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be more kind.”

Glenn Heuser, who teaches a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class at Piedmont, said one student started crying about a dead grandparent and another over melted lip balm. “It tapped into a very emotional space for them,” Mr. Heuser said. “They struggled with, ‘Is it O.K. to go there?’ ”

Although mindful education may seem like a New Yorker caricature of West Coast life, the school district with possibly the best experience has been Lancaster, Pa., where mindfulness is taught in 25 classes a week at eight schools. The district has a substantial poverty rate, with 75 percent of students qualifying for free lunch.

Midge Kinder, a yoga teacher, and her husband, Rick, started the program six years ago at George Ross Elementary, where their daughter Wynne taught.

Camille Hopkins, the principal, said initially she was skeptical. Growing up in South Philadelphia, “I was never told to take an elevator breath”— a way of breathing in stages, taught in yoga — “or hear the signals of chimes to cool down,” Ms. Hopkins said.

But the stresses today are greater, she conceded, particularly on students who lived with the threat of violence. “A lot of things we watched on TV are part of their everyday life,” she said. “It’s ‘Did you know so-and-so got shot over the weekend.’ ”

In after-school detention, children are asked to “check in with their feelings,” Ms. Hopkins said. “How are you really changing behavior if they’re just sitting there?”

Yolanda Steel, a second-grade teacher at Piedmont, said she was hopeful that the training would help an attention-deficit generation better manage a barrage of stimuli, including PlayStations and text messages. “American children are overstimulated,” Ms. Steel said. “Some have difficulty even closing their eyes.”

But she noted that some students tapped pencils and drummed on desks instead of closing their eyes and listening to the bell. “The premise is nice,” Ms. Steel concluded. “But mindfulness can’t do it all.”

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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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