Sorry I've been so bad about relaying updates, things have been a little crazy with work. Just got back from the lab in the sky, where I went for my second control group visit. My update on Michelle’s a bit brief. Her days are pretty much the same as ever, we continued to keep the conversation at a maddeningly superficial level (as I described in earlier entries : we can’t really talk about the practice; we’re not allowed to talk about the scientific trials we’re going through; and I can’t tell her day-to-day things that her mind’ll fixate on b/c they’ll ruin the practice) and we chose to see each other a bit less this time. Instead of every night, every other night (although Sun was my birthday, so she kept cheating and coming over with little surprises).
In my last e-mail, I noted:
Saw Michelle last night. She’s doing amazingly well, really flourishing. As she put it: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been, happier than I ever thought I could be.” She asked Alan Wallace how much of that might be attributable to the fact that she’s in a beautiful environment, away from work, and with a group of people that she loves. His response: “Certainly, this is a environment is conducive to a successful practice. But plenty of people could have all those things and still be miserable. What you’re experiencing is coming from within you.” That, in some sense, gets to the heart of the matter.
That night, Michelle also noted that she was lucky: while most people were experiencing unpleasant nyams (see earlier), hers were almost all pleasant. Well, apparently the meditation gods ruled hubris on that one, and right afterwards rained a shower of nyams down on her – so when I saw Michelle last night, she’d just been through a 48 hour horror show, the whole psycho-physiological firestorm, and was pretty drained. So much for the bliss trip.
(Warning to any fellow Shamatha participants who may have stumbled across this: I’m going to mention some of the trials in the paragraph that follows).
One note on the scientists: what has come through for me these past two visits is how intensely focused and committed they are to the project, and how careful and thorough they seem. They built the labs inside the Rigden Lodge in a couple of weeks, and are working 14 hour days, 7 days a week. Last time I was there, Michelle mentioned that she’d lost hearing in one ear since she’d arrived (which actually helped the meditation by blocking out distractions!). She said a doctor (fellow participant) had told her that she might have punctured her eardrum, and that there was nothing she could do except wait for it to heal. When I went in for my trials, at one point they set me up for a (particularly unpleasant) trial where they put earplugs into my ears and, over the next half hour, shot bursts of static into my ear at high volume (at random, while I watched a slideshow that began pleasant – a dolphin playing, kids, etc. – and quickly turned into a barrage of the most horrific photos imaginable – graphic images of war, car accidents, maimed animals and people, etc.). So I figured that this was where Michelle had developed her problem and I mentioned it to the scientists – thinking her issue was no big deal and, as Michelle noted, her eardrum would heal naturally. Over the next few hours, half a dozen scientists must have come up to me, explaining that the decibel level was well below the eardrum-bursting threshold, but they were going to take Michelle away to the clinic the next morning to check, just to be safe. Sure enough, it turned out that the experiment had pushed wax into her ear canal – this is why she’d lost hearing – and the eardrum was fine. Michelle left the clinic with her hearing restored.
Last night, Michelle mentioned that the BBC was making a documentary on the Shamatha Project and that they were supposed to come film the last week, but hadn’t been able to get funding yet, so Cliff Saron (the project’s lead scientist) was going to shoot some video for them. I mentioned at breakfast to one of Cliff’s colleagues that I had a little experience as a shooter, and would be happy to help out if I could be useful (that’s the week I’ll be there). Cliff walked by, and when we brought it up in front of him, his face fell. He was disturbed that participants were chattering and explained that there was no way they could ask me to do that, as it would put me in a different position from the rest of the participants.
When Cliff sat down and joined us, we started to talk about another meditation study -- by a leading group of highly respected scientists -- which has gotten some attention. He and his colleagues proceeded to dissect the study – noting all sorts of places where the team hadn’t been as rigorous as they could have been. A lot of the things Cliff and his team are doing – matching the retreat group & control group along a host of parameters, doing all kinds of pre-screening, measuring participants from numerous angles (they're going to have 3 terabytes of data by the time this is done), keeping groups separated and communication to a minimum, continuing this study over a long period of time, etc. – are ground-breaking, and, with any luck, should lend a new kind of credibility to the field.
Anyway, back to Michelle. More than anything, she seems focused on making the most of the last stretch – she only has a few weeks left. I’ve had to switch my last visit b/c of work conflicts, and am heading back on the 29th. We’ve decided not to speak until then. But the good news is that I get to bring her home from that one. At last. Let me write that again, becuase it's so fun to say: I get to bring her home. At last!
Warmest to you all,