A great article on the Shamatha Project by participant Adeline von Waning just came out - link here. Enjoy!
A great article on the Shamatha Project by participant Adeline von Waning just came out - link here. Enjoy!
The second study from the SP was just posted (here) in the "in press" section of Psychneuroendocrinology yesterday. The scientific team includes Elizabeth Blackburn, who recently won the Nobel Prize, and is the first study to show a link between meditation and positive psychological change with telomerase activity.
Telomerase regulates telomeres in cells, which play a role in two important areas: aging and cancer. At the risk of jumping ahead of what Western science has validated: it's hard not to wonder if there is a real link between meditation and slowing down aging. Spend time in the presence of long-time practitioners (His Holiness the Dalai Lama, at 76 years old, is good example) and one can't help but be struck by their youthfulness - both in spirit and body. Phillip Shaver, a senior investigator on the Shamatha Project, notes (in this article): “Some of our research results even suggest that meditation also has desirable physiological effects that might increase a person’s lifespan.”
We quite literally gave our blood (and in some cases sweat and tears) for this one - happy to see the study come to fruition ...
More on the SP's first study, although the project's Principle Investigator writes: "Hi all - good coverage in Time magazine today - though don't agree with all conclusions of article"
Cliff Saron, the Shamatha Project's Principle Investigator, writes: "here is a video now on abc news about our recent Psych Science paper (MacLean et al). Also the web has lots of articles from a recent press release - all over the world - search google news for 'meditation boosts attention span'
Hello all, hot off the press from Cliff: the long-awaited first study to emerge from The Shamatha Project: here (twenty more in the pipeline, apparently). For those of you (like me) who go a bit cross-eyed reading the science-speak, Cliff, the study's principle investigator, dashed off an email for me with his layman's summary of the study's findings here (drum roll please ... ):
Basically people's visual system changed and perception got more finely discriminating. That made differences between long and short lines pop out more after the retreat. This made the task easier - (we kept the short lines the same at the beginning and end of the 2nd retreat) and hence it was easier for determine long from short over the long time of the task. This shows up as better vigilance, less decrement in accuracy. To the extent people's perception improved, this measure of vigilance also improved. In the first retreat we did not see improvements in vigilance because we changed to short line to be at each person's perceptual threshold at each testing session. This resulted in the retreat group doing a harder task overall. It's of note that perceptual improvements were maintained at the follow-up testing if folks kept up a daily practice.
Or, in science speak:
Our results add to a growing body of evidence that medita-
tion training can improve aspects of attention (Lutz, Slagter,
Dunne, & Davidson, 2008), while specifically suggesting that
the enhanced sustained-attention ability that has been linked to
long-term meditation practice (Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007;
Valentine & Sweet, 1999) most likely reflects plasticity in the
adult brain. Our findings also add to reports of training-
induced improvements in other core cognitive processes, such
as working memory capacity and nonverbal intelligence (Jae-
ggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008; Olesen, Westerberg,
& Klingberg, 2004). Together, these findings suggest that it is
possible to produce general improvements in mental function
that can benefit daily activities.
When Michelle and I went into retreat in 2007 as part of The Shamatha Project, most people reacted as if we'd decided to grow antennae on our heads. We were surprised, coming out of retreat in 2009, at how attitudes had started to shift. Case in point: last summer, I went to the Mindfulness in Education conference at the Omega Institute - and was happy to see 300 people from around the country, all
Hi Nick - first study has recently been accepted in Psychological Science, a top, high-impact journal in academic science. The paper describes improvements in perception over the course of the retreat that result in improvements in measures of vigilance during the infamous line task. There will be a press release to coincide with it's epublication - which will be in about 2-3 months. We'll post the paper then to the google site you set up, but you can post this. We're very happy about it - the paper went through 3 rounds of incredibly rigorous peer review.
Another paper is under review. A third nearly done. many more in the pipeline.
Congratulations to Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the scientists in The Shamatha Project, who received the Nobel Prize today. Blackburn shared the award with two others for their work on telomeres, which have deep relevance to cancer and aging. In this 2007 NYT interview, Blackburn alludes to her work with The Shamatha Project:
Q. Is your goal to find a drug to repair the telomeres?
A. Or an intervention. We know that stress is bad for cells. What about alleviating it? We’ve been collaborating on studies looking at the telomerase levels in people who practice meditation. We are looking at whether or not telomerase changes after a three-month program of meditation. We’ll know more soon.
One of the really interesting things about doing research these days is how interdisciplinary it has become. A few years ago, I never thought that I would be collaborating with psychologists. Ten years ago, if you’d told me that I would be seriously thinking about meditation, I would have said one of us is loco.
Blackburn's work on the effects of meditation on cellular aging should be approaching publication soon. Rumor has it her work will show exciting results ... we'll find out soon!
The New York Times ran a long article a couple of days ago (it's still the #2 most emailed article) on the growing hope that there may be techniques to improve what neuroscientists have termed "executive function." This is exciting stuff, and sets the stage for the growing body of work (from The Shamatha Project and elsewhere) on how contemplative training improves executive function. From the article:
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.
There is a popular belief that executive-function skills are fixed early on, a function of genes and parenting, and that other than medication, there’s not much that teachers and professionals can do to affect children’s impulsive behavior. In fact, though, there is growing evidence that the opposite is true, that executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period.
This article focuses on a program called Tools of the Mind as a potential way to boost executive function, and doesn't mention meditation. What's exciting here is that The Shamatha Project scientists are focusing on how meditation alters (ok, I'll say it: dramatically improves) executive function, from a number of angles that are highly relevant to addressing key societal problems, including those highlighted above. When Joan Halifax, who caught a preview of the project's unpublished results, writes that they're "stunning," I suspect that the findings on executive function are part of what she's referring to. Results are currently being prepared for publication. Stay tuned (which, I suppose, is another way of saying "Keep that executive function switched on") ...
Tags: ADHD, Depression, education, Executive function, meditation, neuroscience, New York Times, The Shamatha Project, Tools of the Mind
The Fetzer Institute (a major funder of The Shamatha Project) has posted a summary of prelimlinary results on the Shamatha Project. Cliff Saron, the project's principal investigator, has noted that this info is outdated (see next post for an update). A pretty technical description, but the short of it is:
Here's a link to the first foray by a major op-ed columnist into the convergence of science and Buddhism, from the New York Times. Plenty to quibble with here (which I won't b/c this is a rare & brief moment online), including Brooks' comment that cognitive neuroscience will "challenge faith in the Bible," but the fact that Brooks chose to write on this topic is pretty interesting.
The article's concluding paragraphs:
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other ... We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
Here's a link to the full article.
Selected books by the authors above:
The Mindful Brain
Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique
The Ethical Brain
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong
The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
And a related book, while we're at it, by Tal Ben-Shahar, a professor who teaches the most popular undergrad course at Harvard:
A number of people have asked about what our days are like in retreat.
Ideally, the question'd be what's your day like - not what're your days like. When things are going well and there are few distractions, every day's pretty much the same - no difference between weekdays and weekends. It's basically meditation all day, every day, except for breaks to eat and do chores (during which you're trying to maintain an ongoing flow of mindfulness, so the practice is always at the forefront). I'm practicing 10 hrs a day, sometimes more; Michelle's more like 12 hours. To be more specific: I'll get 1-3 hours of practice in before breakfast, at 7:30. Then I'll walk the dog and check in on our greenhouse (we're growing most of our own veggies, year round). Then practice 3 hours or more before lunch. Make a quick, simple lunch - soup and a sandwich or something - and do chores - batch cooking, vacuuming, laundry, pay bills once a month, chopping wood, etc. Then back to practice, until dinner. Then, you guessed it, about two hours of practice after dinner. I'll also exercise almost every day - walks through the mountains, or visits to a tiny gym nearby (usually I'm the only one there - so it's not distracting) -- that's a nice way to break up the longer sits when restlessness kicks in.
I started this by saying "when things are going well." We've found that there are nice long patches without distraction -- weeks at at time -- but when the distractions hit, they seem to come in waves. The importance of "ruthless simplicity" is a lesson we've learned the hard way. Even a seemingly insignificant interaction with 'ordinary life' has a way of spiralling out into much more complication than you intended. For example, you feel like you need a printer, to make certain tasks easier. So you go online, to find a good, cheap one. Maybe you get distracted, because there's a startling headline that pops up. You buy the printer. It doesn't arrive, so you have to track it down - FedEx accidentally dropped it off at your neighbor's house. You get the printer. Two months later, it breaks down, so you're trying to figure out how to fix it. Then it's a call to the service center, and so on.
We started this retreat in a lodge at The Shambhala Mountain Center, with the other participants. There, we had a staff cooking for us, taking care of issues like plumbing or electricity problems, etc. Here, we don't have this kind of support, so we feel a bit like dolphins - we'll dive down into retreat for extended periods of time, then something will pull us up to the surface for a short period, then we'll dive back in for as long as we can ... When we first got to Crestone, we had a fixed idea of being fully in retreat, as we had been at the Shambhala Mountain Center, and we'd get frustrated when we kept getting pulled out of retreat. After some time, we recognized that this was the rhythm of self-directed retreat, and that these distractions were in fact excellent exercises for bringing the heart-opening and mindfulness-enhancing practices off the cushion and out in the ordinary life - and for letting go of those distractions when it was time to come back to the cushion.
The Lojong trainings (see the right hand column) were invaluable!
Mastering Your Own Mind
Distracted? Angry? Envious? There's growing evidence that attention, emotion regulation—even love—are skills that can be trained through the practice of meditation. Perhaps it's time for you to become a high-performance user of your own brain.
By: Katherine Ellison
link to article: here , text below
Back when my son was 8 years old, he called 911 after I took away his Game Boy. I wish I'd been studying Buddhism back then, because I probably could have handled it a lot better. I suspect I wouldn't have yelled at him while the dispatcher was still listening. And I bet I wouldn't have been quite so wracked by dread when the police were questioning us in separate rooms of the house—at least until I overheard the other officer ask, "She took away your what?"
From: Center for the Advancement of Health
Psoriasis patients who practiced meditation-based relaxation while undergoing ultraviolet (UV) light treatments experienced quicker clearing of their skin lesions than did patients who received UV treatments alone, according to results of a small, randomized controlled trial.
Use of relaxation techniques could speed the rate at which psoriasis clears and cut the number of treatment sessions, potentially decreasing the risk of skin cancers associated with UV light therapy and reducing the total cost of treatment, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School report in the September-October issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
Hello friends, some of you have expressed interest in learning more about what we’ve been up to with the Shamatha Project, so I thought I’d post something here for the brave to wade into. Getting ourselves set up for this year-long intensive, off phone and email, has taken a lot longer than we’d hoped, and we’ve committed to start full time tomorrow morning, so I’m going to try to knock this out quickly – forgive, if this isn’t the most coherent.
Also, I’m pulling liberally from many sources here, including Alan (our teacher) – and in the interest of time, I’m not going to footnote.
I’ll try to answer a few key questions:
People who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don't.
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.
In one area of gray matter, the thickening turns out to be more pronounced in older than in younger people. That's intriguing because those sections of the human cortex, or thinking cap, normally get thinner as we age.
"Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being," says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. "These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice."
Their visit popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West.
Like millions of others who believed there must be more to life than the libertine exuberance of the '60s, the Beatles hoped that the Hindu teacher Mahesh Yogi—known as the Maharishi, or "great saint"—would help them "fill some kind of hole," as Paul McCartney put it years later. So in the spring of 1968, the Fab Four traveled to the Maharishi's ashram overlooking the Ganges River in northern India, where they meditated for hours each day in search of enlightenment, as Bob Spitz recounts in his exhaustive 2005 biography, "The Beatles." The high-profile visit still echoes 40 years later—in, of all places, science, for the trip popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West. Soon the Maharishi was on Time magazine next to the line "Meditation: The Answer to All Your Problems?"
Giving Meditation a Spin
By Katherine Ellison
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; HE01
SAN FRANCISCO -- 2006 wasn't easy. I had thyroid surgery three months after having had brain surgery. Blessed at last with a clean bill of health, I fell off my bike and broke both arms. Meanwhile, my rambunctious sons chased off a series of would-be child-care providers.
Yet together with what are now several millions of other Americans, I've got a new tool to cope with the inevitable adversity of being human. Suffering led me to indulge a long-standing interest in Buddhism, with some surprising payoffs. I've meditated during MRIs, watched my breathing during talks with my rebellious preteen and sometimes even managed to pay full attention to my spouse.
Breaking my promise - I said Michelle would write the next e-mail, but thought I’d give you a sneak preview. I’m back at SMC, for my third and last set of trials, and have been able to see her a bit. You’ll hear from her next week … when she’s out!
Things are wild & crazy at the Mountain Center. Last time I was here, the center was hosting a cremation (an outdoor, all-night bonfire), which lent a certain solemnity and intensity to the staff’s mood. This week, the center’s between their winter and summer seasons, and things are a bit chaotic. Tents are going up, facilities are shifting around, meals seem to be in a different place each time, and the staff had a dance-party kegger the first night.
Things have loosened up in Rigden Lodge, too (where the retreatants and labs are holed up). The last week of the retreat is set up as a transition – a bit like the post-op recovery room. Tuesday (the day I arrived), they lifted the code of silence at meals. Apparently, this was like pulling a cork out of a dam. Lots to catch up on after three months!
When I passed by Rigden the first night, I saw the meditators gathered in the meditation hall. Except this time, you would’ve thought they were screening Caddyshack – instead of the usual silence, fall-out-of-your chair laughter kept bursting out of the hall’s windows.
Alan, like many advanced meditation teachers, has a child-like playfulness about him, and has let his instinct for poking fun of people run free, apparently (Michelle seems to be an target for quite a bit of ribbing). And the group generally seems pretty giddy, now that shore is in sight.
When I saw Michelle Tuesday night, she seemed like she was still adjusting to all the chatter and activity – not surprising – a bit like stepping out of a dark room into the glare of open sunshine. But she’s doing great.
There’s a whirlwhind of activity, so Michelle’s practice has been pretty broken up.
• The project team has drafted Michelle to help them restructure the September retreat’s org structure, so she found herself suddenly back in the Organizational Development game.
• They’ve been holding a series of meetings, like a long one last night titled “Compassionate Action” – an exploration of ways to take what they’ve gained from the retreat out into the world in practical ways.
• This morning, I whisked Michelle off to Fort Collins, to take blood and ship it back to our doctor in NY (we’re exploring IVF) – which meant a lot of racing around and logistical juggling – Michelle’s first time away from the retreat center (and into a bustling city) since March.
• I floored it all the way back, to get Michelle to her interview with the BBC, who are making a documentary on the project.
• A reporter from the Boston Globe is here, interviewing people for a book on attention, and she’s interviewing Michelle, too.
• Some people here have been drafting Michelle into a non-profit dedicated to bringing the practice to schools, so she’s been meeting with them.
• Michelle’s helping set up the good-bye banquet for the group.
So lots going on all of a sudden. Michelle really seems to be flourishing, has connected with a remarkable group of people – and will have lots to tell you in a few days.
See you all soon.
Sharon Begley, Science columnist from the Wall Street Journal, talks on NPR about neuroplasticity, and the convergence of neuroscience, psychology and Buddhist meditation.
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,
In meditation, people sit quietly and concentrate on their breath. As air swooshes in and out of their nostrils, they attend to each sensation. As unbidden thoughts flutter to mind, they let them go. Breathe. Let go. Breathe. Let go.
According to a study published today in the online edition of the journal PloS Biology, three months of rigorous training in this kind of meditation leads to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention.
It appears that the ability to release thoughts that pop into mind frees the brain to attend to more rapidly changing things and events in the world at large, said the study’s lead author, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Expert meditators, he said, are better than other people at detecting such fast-changing stimuli, like emotional facial expressions.
Dr. Ron Mangun, director of the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study, called the finding exciting. “It provides neuroscience evidence for changes in the workings of the brain with mental training, in this case meditation,” he said. “We know we can learn and improve abilities of all sorts with practice, everything from driving to playing the piano. But demonstrating this in the context of meditation is interesting and novel.”
Recent research has shown that meditation is good for the brain. It appears to increase gray matter, improve the immune system, reduce stress and promote a sense of well-being. But Dr. Davidson said this was the first study to examine how meditation affects attention.
The study exploited a brain phenomenon called the attentional blink. Say pictures of a St. Bernard and a Scottish terrier are flashed before one’s eyes half a second apart, embedded in a series of 20 pictures of cats. In that sequence, most people fail to see the second dog. Their brains have “blinked.”
Scientists explain this blindness as a misallocation of attention. Things are happening too fast for the brain to detect the second stimulus. Consciousness is somehow suppressed.
But the blink is not an inevitable bottleneck, Dr. Davidson said. Most people can identify the second target some of the time. Thus it may be possible to exert some control, which need not be voluntary, over the allocation of attention.
In the study, 17 volunteers with no meditation experience spent three months at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., meditating 10 to 12 hours a day. A novice control group meditated for 20 minutes a day over the same period.
Both groups were then given attentional blink tests with two numbers embedded in a series of letters. As both groups looked for the numbers, their brain activity was recorded with electrodes placed on the scalp.
Everyone could detect the first number, Dr. Davidson said. But the brain recordings showed that the less experienced meditators tended to grasp the first number and hang onto it, so they missed the second number. Those with more experience invested less attention to the first number, as if letting it go. This led to an increased ability to grasp the second number.
The attentional blink was thought to be a fixed property of the nervous system, Dr. Davidson said. But this study shows that it can change with practice. Attention is a flexible, trainable skill.
Just ask Daniel Levison, a staff researcher in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin who meditated for three months as part of the study. “I’m a much better listener,” he said. “I don’t get lost in my own personal reaction to what people are saying.”
Click here for a good, brief interview about the Shamatha Project, with Alan Wallace, founder and Contemplative Director.
This piece, which appeared on the front page of the B section of the Wall Street Journal in conjunction with the publication of Sharon Begley's Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, describes The Shamatha Projects' predecessor studies.
How Thinking Can Change the Brain
Dalai Lama Helps Scientists
Show the Power of the Mind
To Sculpt Our Gray Matter
January 19, 2007; Page B1
Although science and religion are often in conflict, the Dalai Lama takes a different approach. Every year or so the head of Tibetan Buddhism invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, in Northern India, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.
In 2004 the subject was neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience. The following are vignettes adapted from "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," which describes this emerging area of science:
The Dalai Lama, who had watched a brain operation during a visit to an American medical school over a decade earlier, asked the surgeons a startling question: Can the mind shape brain matter?
Over the years, he said, neuroscientists had explained to him that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex, for instance, we see; when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.
But something had always bothered him about this explanation, the Dalai Lama said. Could it work the other way around? That is, in addition to the brain giving rise to thoughts and hopes and beliefs and emotions that add up to this thing we call the mind, maybe the mind also acts back on the brain to cause physical changes in the very matter that created it. If so, then pure thought would change the brain's activity, its circuits or even its structure.
One brain surgeon hardly paused. Physical states give rise to mental states, he asserted; "downward" causation from the mental to the physical is not possible. The Dalai Lama let the matter drop. This wasn't the first time a man of science had dismissed the possibility that the mind can change the brain. But "I thought then and still think that there is yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim," he later explained. "I am interested in the extent to which the mind itself, and specific subtle thoughts, may have an influence upon the brain."
Sharon Begley with the Dalai Lama at the neuroplasticity meeting in Dharamsala, India, in 2004
The Dalai Lama had put his finger on an emerging revolution in brain research. In the last decade of the 20th century, neuroscientists overthrew the dogma that the adult brain can't change. To the contrary, its structure and activity can morph in response to experience, an ability called neuroplasticity. The discovery has led to promising new treatments for children with dyslexia and for stroke patients, among others.
But the brain changes that were discovered in the first rounds of the neuroplasticity revolution reflected input from the outside world. For instance, certain synthesized speech can alter the auditory cortex of dyslexic kids in a way that lets their brains hear previously garbled syllables; intensely practiced movements can alter the motor cortex of stroke patients and allow them to move once paralyzed arms or legs.
The kind of change the Dalai Lama asked about was different. It would come from inside. Something as intangible and insubstantial as a thought would rewire the brain. To the mandarins of neuroscience, the very idea seemed as likely as the wings of a butterfly leaving a dent on an armored tank.
* * *
Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg had not endeared herself to the pharmaceutical industry by discovering, in 2002, that inert pills -- placebos -- work the same way on the brains of depressed people as antidepressants do. Activity in the frontal cortex, the seat of higher thought, increased; activity in limbic regions, which specialize in emotions, fell. She figured that cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which patients learn to think about their thoughts differently, would act by the same mechanism.
At the University of Toronto, Dr. Mayberg, Zindel Segal and their colleagues first used brain imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed adults. Some of these volunteers then received paroxetine (the generic name of the antidepressant Paxil), while others underwent 15 to 20 sessions of cognitive-behavior therapy, learning not to catastrophize. That is, they were taught to break their habit of interpreting every little setback as a calamity, as when they conclude from a lousy date that no one will ever love them.
All the patients' depression lifted, regardless of whether their brains were infused with a powerful drug or with a different way of thinking. Yet the only "drugs" that the cognitive-therapy group received were their own thoughts.
The scientists scanned their patients' brains again, expecting that the changes would be the same no matter which treatment they received, as Dr. Mayberg had found in her placebo study. But no. "We were totally dead wrong," she says. Cognitive-behavior therapy muted overactivity in the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis and higher thought. The antidepressant raised activity there. Cognitive-behavior therapy raised activity in the limbic system, the brain's emotion center. The drug lowered activity there.
With cognitive therapy, says Dr. Mayberg, the brain is rewired "to adopt different thinking circuits."
* * *
Such discoveries of how the mind can change the brain have a spooky quality that makes you want to cue the "Twilight Zone" theme, but they rest on a solid foundation of animal studies. Attention, for instance, seems like one of those ephemeral things that comes and goes in the mind but has no real physical presence. Yet attention can alter the layout of the brain as powerfully as a sculptor's knife can alter a slab of stone.
That was shown dramatically in an experiment with monkeys in 1993. Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up a device that tapped monkeys' fingers 100 minutes a day every day. As this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys heard sounds through headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught: Ignore the sounds and pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, because when you tell us it changes we'll reward you with a sip of juice. Other monkeys were taught: Pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes you'll get juice.
Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, undergoing an EEG during a study of compassion meditation
After six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys' brains. Usually, when a spot on the skin receives unusual amounts of stimulation, the amount of cortex that processes touch expands. That was what the scientists found in the monkeys that paid attention to the taps: The somatosensory region that processes information from the fingers doubled or tripled. But when the monkeys paid attention to the sounds, there was no such expansion. Instead, the region of their auditory cortex that processes the frequency they heard increased.
Through attention, UCSF's Michael Merzenich and a colleague wrote, "We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves."
The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.
* * *
Since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain. The idea was not to document brain changes during meditation but to see whether such mental training produces enduring changes in the brain.
All the Buddhist "adepts" -- experienced meditators -- who lent their brains to science had practiced meditation for at least 10,000 hours. One by one, they made their way to the basement lab of Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He and his colleagues wired them up like latter-day Medusas, a tangle of wires snaking from their scalps to the electroencephalograph that would record their brain waves.
Eight Buddhist adepts and 10 volunteers who had had a crash course in meditation engaged in the form of meditation called nonreferential compassion. In this state, the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving kindness toward all living beings.
As the volunteers began meditating, one kind of brain wave grew exceptionally strong: gamma waves. These, scientists believe, are a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung circuits -- consciousness, in a sense. Gamma waves appear when the brain brings together different features of an object, such as look, feel, sound and other attributes that lead the brain to its aha moment of, yup, that's an armadillo.
Some of the novices "showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal," Prof. Davidson explained to the Dalai Lama. But at the moment the monks switched on compassion meditation, the gamma signal began rising and kept rising. On its own, that is hardly astounding: Everything the mind does has a physical correlate, so the gamma waves (much more intense than in the novice meditators) might just have been the mark of compassion meditation.
Except for one thing. In between meditations, the gamma signal in the monks never died down. Even when they were not meditating, their brains were different from the novices' brains, marked by waves associated with perception, problem solving and consciousness. Moreover, the more hours of meditation training a monk had had, the stronger and more enduring the gamma signal.
It was something Prof. Davidson had been seeking since he trekked into the hills above Dharamsala to study lamas and monks: evidence that mental training can create an enduring brain trait.
Prof. Davidson then used fMRI imaging to detect which regions of the monks' and novices' brains became active during compassion meditation. The brains of all the subjects showed activity in regions that monitor one's emotions, plan movements, and generate positive feelings such as happiness. Regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, as if during compassion meditation the subjects opened their minds and hearts to others.
More interesting were the differences between the monks and the novices. The monks had much greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. They also had stronger connections from the frontal regions to the emotion regions, which is the pathway by which higher thought can control emotions.
In each case, monks with the most hours of meditation showed the most dramatic brain changes. That was a strong hint that mental training makes it easier for the brain to turn on circuits that underlie compassion and empathy.
"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."
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Hi guys, Michelle called last night. Trend seems to be continuing in the same direction. She sounds terrific, exceptionally so. April is re-coloring the landscape daily, "magical" by Michelle's description.
The good news is that Michelle’s sleeping well – averaging 5 hours a night, deep sleep, and all she needs by her account. She’s stopped eating dinner, which apparently has made all the difference to her practice, and, she suspects, to her ability to sleep. At the Goenka center we’ve gone to a few times, which operates by traditional Theravadan code, returning students don’t eat anything after noon. Goenka’s explanation for this rule is that, over the centuries, it has been found to be helpful to the practice. It's no coincidence, I suspect, that many religious traditions associate fasting with a period of introspection. Interestingly, Michelle has come to the same conclusion by her own experience. One more note on this: when Michelle and I were in Cambodia, we found that many Cambodians only ate one or two meals a day (including those in the city, who were employed and well educated). I suspect that "three meals a day" is relatively new to our species, ushered in by the era of the super-rich West.
An interesting anecdote: a yoga instructor noticed that Michelle was collapsing on one side during a particular move, and recommended that she see the massage therapist, to get rid of the tightness on one side of her lower back. The therapist not only succeeded, he noticed that one of her ribs was caught under her diaphragm, and he popped it out. It was a revelation for Michelle. As long as she can remember, she’s had a constricted feeling on deep breaths that she thought was normal. She says she feels like she’s doubled her lung capacity.
The good news is that Alan has counseled people to cherish these days as an precious opportunity to practice – not read. Michelle has taken this to heart, and doesn’t sound concerned with playing academic catch-up anymore. Michelle and I are used to the Goenka retreats, which operates by monastic rules: no speaking, no passing notes, no eye contact, no mixing of men of women. People are there to practice, and you see intensity of purpose grow during a 10-day, as people's movement slows down, becomes more balanced, and their mind turns deeper and deeper inward. When I went into Rigden Lodge a few times (for testing) a few weeks ago, I was struck by how casual things seemed, relative to Goenka. Don't get me wrong - it was pretty quiet. But people didn't seem to carry themselves with the same sense of solitary focus. Their stride was more casual, somehow. If they passed you, they'd nod, smile. Now, it sounds like things are starting to trend more towards Goenka-like focus - people are really hooked into the practice, and are letting go of the talking, the note-passing.
Michelle's spending most of her time in the third of the three key practices, which is called “Shamatha without a Sign.” There are 10 clearly delineated stages along the path of Shamatha (each successive stage entails a higher degree of relaxation and attentional stability and vividness). In the first three stages, where your ability to focus is weak, Wallace recommends the first of the three practices, called “Mindfulness of Breathing”. Mindfulness of breathing is probably the most popular technique in the West, and entails trying to keep your focus on (you guessed it) your breath. The second key practice is the one I described in my last update, called “Settling the Mind in its Natural State.” Here, sharpened awareness and a higher degree of relaxation allow you to turn to the subtler game of focusing on “Mental Objects” – thoughts, feelings, inner voices and images, etc. This second practice is supposed to be a fast lane to the tenth stage (acheiving Shamatha). The third practice, “Shamatha without a Sign,” entails an even subtler object of focus: your awareness itself. Awareness of being aware. One way to think of it: imagine that you’ve just had a few espressos, and you go into a perfect sensory deprivation chamber: no sense of touch, smell, sight, sound, taste. You’re lying there, and you’re paying attention to your thoughts (that’s “Settling the Mind in its Natural State”). Now imagine that your thoughts calm down. What are you left with? Awareness itself. This is the object of your attention. If this idea sounds trippy, it is. I wrote those words (adapted from Wallace), but I’m not sure I completely understand what they mean. The key point: it’s a breathtakingly subtle practice. And if “Settling the Mind in Its Natural State” is supposed to be the fast road to Shamatha, then this practice is supposed to be the turbo speedway. So Michelle is cruising.
Another note: those nyam I referred to in the last post - it sounds like they're descending on the retreatants in full force now. The scientists have shuttled a few people to the health clinic, concerned about the physiological effects they're seeing, like high blood pressure. Things are getting pretty crazy in Rigden Lodge.
That’s all I know for now. Michelle sends her love, as always.
Here’s my update on Michelle, from when I was in Colorado a couple weeks ago. Sorry for the delay.
So … how is Michelle? Let me begin by saying that this meditation business is doing strange things to my wife. I learned the first night that Michelle has neither gone for a run nor eaten chocolate since she’s been at the center. You heard that right. As far as I’m concerned, case closed: meditation is a radically transformative process. They can end this crazy experiment and send everyone home. Especially my wife.
Before I ramble, here are the Michelle headlines: she says she’s doing great, she’s glowing, and seems like she’s flourishing. She sends you all her love – and thanks for your words of support.
I arrived, after the full-day gauntlet of trains, planes and shuttle buses, on Tuesday evening, March 27th. I settled in that evening in my room, in the Shambhala Lodge. The geography was a bit tantalizing. Just a few feet away, I could see the neighboring Rigden Lodge, where Michelle and the other retreatants are sequestered – pretty much everything they do is there: dining hall, meditation hall, their rooms, the testing labs.
The set-up couldn't be better for Michelle and the retreatants - the scientists and staff are completely focused on being supportive to the meditators' practice, the accomodations are excellent, the grounds couldn't be more quiet. And the expansiveness of the landscape provides a nice stretching exercise for the mind that's spending most of its day looking inward. As Alan Wallace wrote in his welcome letter to us: "I have meditated in many places on three continents, but never have I found a more conducive place to practice than this."
I've set up Flickr account here, where you can see some pics of Michelle and the landscape.
Crazy as it sounds, Michelle’s schedule’s quite packed, and I was only able to see her for an hour in the evenings. She’s practicing 8 hours plus a day – mostly in group sessions. In the morning, Alan leads a session, his interns lead sessions throughout the day, and Alan leads one in the evening, followed by Q&A. Everyone gets a weekly one-on-one interview with Alan. On top of the practice, she performs her daily chore – cleaning the women’s bathroom – plus she participates in the daily yoga class (important not only for exercise and to deepen the practice, but also to avoid injury), plus she has reading on the practice (a terrific list of books), plus she participates in the scientific trials, which includes filling out a long (read: endless) nightly journal/questionnaire. My schedule was pretty jammed while I was there – juggling work by remote (which, between having to dial 30+ digits to get a line out, phone lines going down in flash floods and intermittent internet, was kind of a nightmare) plus the study trials, and we agreed to see each other each night after her last session. She would come over at 8:30, and we’d have an hour together, before she had to go back to her dorm to work on her nightly questionnaire and produce a saliva sample.
We’d agreed to meet the first night and go for a hike up the mountain, to the stupa, a magnificent meditation hall, recently spruced up to honor a visit by the Dalai Lama.
Other nights, Michelle came over to the Shambhala Lodge to see me. I was so excited to see her each night, and I’d wait, heart skipping every time footsteps passed my door around the appointed hour, but I have to confess that seeing her was hard. We’re already stretching the study’s guidelines by spending time together. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a friend, who, with her boyfriend, are the only other couple in the study, and learned that they’ve gone cold turkey: they’ve chosen for him not to know when she was there for her control group visits, and have planned on not speaking until the retreat’s over. As I described in my earlier report, interactions, even benign ones, throw off the practice, and make it almost impossible to keep going deeper. When you go into retreat (dang it – expedition), you starve the brain of the daily stimuli it’s addicted to, and it can grow desperate, greedily devouring any scrap it can find. Give the hungry brain a conversation, and words’ll rattle around and around and around (and around and around …) for the following day’s sessions. To try to soften this problem, I’ve censored what I tell her – basically, no chit-chat, give her very little specific daily life info to grab onto -- no headlines, no news on friends, no … well not much. Furthermore, she can’t talk about her inner experience except in a generic way (this is not only important for the study, it’s important generally for one’s practice), and as part of the study’s guidelines, I’m not supposed to talk about my experience in the trials with any other participants, Michelle included. Which means that we have to keep our conversation to a pretty superficial level.
By wishful thinking, we’d convinced ourselves that my presence wouldn’t have too big an effect on her practice, but of course it did. Michelle admitted that her practice had been pretty shallow since I’d arrived -- which tinged our time together, knowing that I was doing neither her nor the study any favors. And the whole time we’re together, I’m keeping a corner of my brain on the time, like someone on the other side of the glass in a prison’s family room.
A long way of saying, I don’t have a ton to tell you beyond what I have already. It sounds as if Michelle, and everyone in the retreat, has been on a pretty wild ride. Michelle did make one comment, that people were experiencing what in Tibetan are called nyam (in Pali: sankharas) – crazy psycho-physiological experiences considered to be a rebalancing of your neuro-muscular system and possibly a flushing out of your deepest mental complexes. I’m obviously no psychologist, but my layman’s interpretation of these nyam is that when you meditate, you trick the brain, in some sense, into behaving as if you’re dreaming, and it starts to flush out all kinds of crazy fears, memories and desires from the limbic system (i.e. the primal brain). Here are some examples of nyam, (taken from various sources, including The Vajra Esssence, a seminal text on the practice) to give you a feel for what Michelle might be going through:
· The impression that all your thoughts are wreaking havoc in your body and mind, like boulders rolling down a steep mountain, crushing and destroying everything in their path;
· An ecstatic, pleasant feeling, as if your entire body has dissolved into microscopic bubbles and you experience everything with complete equanimity and clarity, as if you had been viewing the world through frosted glass previously, and now someone has pulled the frosted glass away;
· A sense of panic flowing through you as if from without, combined with dramatically increased heart rate and sweating and muscle twitching;
· The experience of visions, which you know to be hallucinations, but which are as vivid in the mind’s eye as if they were real. Often these visions take on frightening forms, such as skeletons, giant spiders or venomous snakes;
· The sensation of external sounds and voices of humans, dogs, birds, and so on all piercing your heart like thorns;
· Unbearable anger due to the paranoia of thinking that everyone around you is gossiping about you and putting you down;
· The perception of all phenemona as brilliant, colored particles;
· Such unbearable misery that you think your heart will burst.
Michelle didn’t stay with me at night, although she tried once. The problem is that she’s going through fitful, restless nights, only getting three or four hours of sleep a night. I should qualify my comment earlier: Michelle is glowing, but she's glowing the way someone halfway up Everest might be glowing - this isn't an easy journey. I was supportive of the idea that she sleep in her own bed at night, for her, and for the study. But at a primal level, there’s something a little unsettling about your wife leaving your bed …
Sleeplessness is a very common side effect of the practice (compounded, I suspect by the 8,000 foot altitude). It sounds as if many people in the retreat group are facing this issue. Sometimes, this sleeplessness can be a very pleasant experience, akin to the second bullet point above. At other times, the sleeplessness can be less pleasant, closer to garden variety insomnia – full of discomfort and nightmares. It sounds like Michelle’s had both kinds of sleeplessness. Unfortunately, for the past ten days or so, she’d had more of the latter. The good news is that she says maintaining equanimity in the face of these nightmares – watching them as if they’re moving on a screen but not reacting to them – remaining calm, peaceful. Nightmares in sound and image, but not emotional content.
In fact, Michelle had her first lucid dream a few days before I got there. Lucid dreaming, well-studied in the West and a long tradition in Tibetan practice (where it’s called Dream Yoga), is when you dream, but know you’re dreaming. It’s a pretty common side-effect of Shamatha practice and is a crazy experience (I’ve had a couple lucid dreams, although both times I got so excited when I realized what was going on that I woke up pretty quickly). As you examine the dream world, it seems completely real – tables are solid, windows cold to touch, people rich with idiosyncrasies and emotional subtleties and knowing and saying things you can’t imagine have come out of your own psyche. You actually have to convince yourself that you’re a body lying in a bed in some so-called reality (there are specific techniques to help you do this). Besides being a really cool, exciting experience, lucid dreaming can play an important role in the practice. Essentially, it allows you to continue your meditation while you’re sleeping.
To understand Lucid Dreaming’s significance, it helps to be familiar with one of the key practices on this retreat, known as “Settling the Mind in Its Natural State.” This practice entails turning your attention to what might be called the ‘movie screen’ of the mind. You watch ‘mental objects’ (thoughts, emotions, images, sounds, etc.) arise and pass in the mind without reacting to or getting carried away by them. It’s like letting a movie play on a TV screen while making sure that your awareness is bigger than the frame of the screen – you keep your attention on the whole room, perceive the sound and images playing across the TV as sound and images without meaning, and you don’t get caught up in the movie. You don’t let yourself get lost in the story, the characters, the reactions to happy or sad moments – you watch these images and sounds like an impartial scientist, in a viewing booth above the lab. Lucid dreaming is the nighttime analog to “Settling the Mind in its Natural State.” You watch the dream, but your awareness is bigger than it – you know it’s just a dream playing across the screen of the mind. With a key twist: you can choose to get involved in the story, with the bonus of knowing that it’s only a dream, so there’s no downside. Forgive the cheesy analogy, but for those of you who’ve seen “The Matrix,” it’s a bit like Neo’s constant reminder to himself that “there is no spoon.” Once he’s convinced of this, he’s able to fly and do all sorts of other groovy things. Same concept here. In the dream world, you can bend the rules in trippy ways, once you've convinced yourself that you’re in a dream. And most importantly, when demons and monsters and other unpleasant characters arise (presumably manifestations of your deepest anxieties), you can turn and face them with total equanimity and kindness, and dissolve them. Which is what Michelle did with her lucid dream. She half woke up from a normal nightmare, full of anxiety, then slipped back into it, knowing it was just a dream. And she stayed in the dream, and faced the demons – whatever they were – head on, without fear, anger, or other ugly nightmare stuff. Pretty wild. And, I suspect, healing.
I mentioned the daily yoga class. Three of the retreat’s participants are leading them – two different styles of yoga, and one that is actually Qigong (not completely sure what that is, except that it’s Chinese and Tai-Chi like). Michelle’s loving this part of the daily routine – physical exercise that connects closely to the practice – and is particularly fond of Qigong.
One thing I worry about a little bit about in the way Michelle talks about the experience is her tendency to be a bit hard on herself. Michelle and I are definitely among the least advanced in our practice and in our scholarship around it. Every night, Michelle sits in a Q&A session where she’s reminded of how much other people seem to know. I think she feels a bit like she’s playing catch-up – and is working extra hard, especially on the reading. Unfortunately, working extra hard can be counterproductive in this practice, because it can bring up tension. It’s a bit like golf, where you hit the ball farther by relaxing and not trying to hit the ball harder. She seems to be doing so well for now, I hope she doesn’t set herself up for a cycle of frustration.
One humorous side-note: I have a little bit of a running joke with Michelle, ribbing her for her enjoyment of clothes shopping (not because she’s much of a shopper, but because she’s so self-conscious about it when she does go shopping). There’s a little store on the grounds, open for all of two hours a day (apparently French work rules apply in the Rockies), and I went in one day to get shampoo, and there was Michelle, in the clothes section, sorting through the racks. She gave me a big, embarrassed “whoops!” look and I burst out laughing. So busted. Turned out the joke was on me: she was standing at the men’s t-shirt rack and she was trying to surprise me with a gift ...
What else can I tell you about Michelle? Can I see the effects of the practice? Yes, of course. She’s still my wife, thankfully. But there’s something … different. Elation, but without the nervousness that usually defines that state. Elation grounded in exceptional calm.
Sunday morning, Michelle snuck out for a few minutes to see me off. She said something that I’ve kept with me. The long questionnaire that Michelle has to fill out each night includes a page that says at the top: “Today, I generally felt …” and then lists 42 emotions. She has to rate the emotions from 1 (Disagree strongly), to 7 (Agree strongly). “One of the emotions is grateful,” Michelle said. “Every night, I put a 7.”
She sends her hugs to all.
Plenty more to write on, especially about all the crazy trials she – and all of us – have been going through, but there’s my update for now. Again, sorry to take so long to get this out. I've getting a little crushed by a couple of work projects.
*BELIEF IN THE BROADER VALUE OF PROJECT
The practice is effective
* SCIENCE CRITICAL TO BROADER ACCEPTANCE OF THE PRACTICE
* VALUE OF THE PRACTICE FOR PERSONAL AND SOCIAL FLOURISHING
* VALUE TO THIS MOMENT IN HISTORY
* PERSONAL OPPORTUNITY
Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left
THE NEW YORK TIMES
February 4, 2003
By DANIEL GOLEMAN
All too many years ago, while I was still a psychology
graduate student, I ran an experiment to assess how well
meditation might work as an antidote to stress. My
professors were skeptical, my measures were weak, and my
subjects were mainly college sophomores. Not surprisingly,
my results were inconclusive.
But today I feel vindicated.
To be sure, over the years
there have been scores of studies that have looked at
meditation, some suggesting its powers to alleviate the
adverse effects of stress. But only last month did what I
see as a definitive study confirm my once-shaky hypothesis,
by revealing the brain mechanism that may account for
meditation's singular ability to soothe.
The data has emerged as one of many experimental fruits of
an unlikely research collaboration: the Dalai Lama, the
Tibetan religious and political leader in exile, and some
of top psychologists and neuroscientists from the United
States. The scientists met with the Dalai Lama for five
days in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000, to discuss how
people might better control their destructive emotions.
One of my personal heroes in this rapprochement between
modern science and ancient wisdom is Dr. Richard Davidson,
director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at
the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Davidson, in recent
research using functional M.R.I. and advanced EEG analysis,
has identified an index for the brain's set point for
The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are
emotionally distressed - anxious, angry, depressed - the
most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on
the amygdala, part of the brain's emotional centers, and
the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for
the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.
By contrast, when people are in positive moods - upbeat,
enthusiastic and energized - those sites are quiet, with
the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex.
Indeed, Dr. Davidson has discovered what he believes is a
quick way to index a person's typical mood range, by
reading the baseline levels of activity in these right and
left prefrontal areas. That ratio predicts daily moods with
surprising accuracy. The more the ratio tilts to the right,
the more unhappy or distressed a person tends to be, while
the more activity to the left, the more happy and
By taking readings on hundreds of people, Dr. Davidson has
established a bell curve distribution, with most people in
the middle, having a mix of good and bad moods. Those
relatively few people who are farthest to the right are
most likely to have a clinical depression or anxiety
disorder over the course of their lives. For those lucky
few farthest to the left, troubling moods are rare and
recovery from them is rapid.
This may explain other kinds of data suggesting a
biologically determined set point for our emotional range.
One finding, for instance, shows that both for people lucky
enough to win a lottery and those unlucky souls who become
paraplegic from an accident, by a year or so after the
events their daily moods are about the same as before the
momentous occurrences, indicating that the emotional set
point changes little, if at all.
By chance, Dr. Davidson had the opportunity to test the
left-right ratio on a senior Tibetan lama, who turned out
to have the most extreme value to the left of the 175
people measured to that point.
Dr. Davidson reported that remarkable finding during the
meeting between the Dalai Lama and the scientists in India.
But the finding, while intriguing, raised more questions
than it answered.
Was it just a quirk, or a trait common among those who
become monks? Or was there something about the training of
lamas - the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a priest or
spiritual teacher - that might nudge a set point into the
range for perpetual happiness? And if so, the Dalai Lama
wondered, can it be taken out of the religious context to
be shared for the benefit of all?
A tentative answer to that last question has come from a
study that Dr. Davidson did in collaboration with Dr. Jon
Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress
Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical
School in Worcester.
That clinic teaches mindfulness to patients with chronic
diseases of all kinds, to help them better handle their
symptoms. In an article accepted for publication in the
peer-reviewed journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Drs. Davidson
and Kabat-Zinn report the effects of training in
mindfulness meditation, a method extracted from its
Buddhist origins and now widely taught to patients in
hospitals and clinics throughout the United States and many
Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught mindfulness to workers in a
high-pressure biotech business for roughly three hours a
week over two months. A comparison group of volunteers from
the company received the training later, though they, like
the participants, were tested before and after training by
Dr. Davidson and his colleagues.
The results bode well for beginners, who will never put in
the training time routine for lamas. Before the mindfulness
training, the workers were on average tipped toward the
right in the ratio for the emotional set point. At the same
time, they complained of feeling highly stressed. After the
training, however, on average their emotions ratio shifted
leftward, toward the positive zone. Simultaneously, their
moods improved; they reported feeling engaged again in
their work, more energized and less anxious.
In short, the results suggest that the emotion set point
can shift, given the proper training. In mindfulness,
people learn to monitor their moods and thoughts and drop
those that might spin them toward distress. Dr. Davidson
hypothesizes that it may strengthen an array of neurons in
the left prefrontal cortex that inhibits the messages from
the amygdala that drive disturbing emotions.
Another benefit for the workers, Dr. Davidson reported, was
that mindfulness seemed to improve the robustness of their
immune systems, as gauged by the amount of flu antibodies
in their blood after receiving a flu shot.
According to Dr. Davidson, other studies suggest that if
people in two experimental groups are exposed to the flu
virus, those who have learned the mindfulness technique
will experience less severe symptoms. The greater the
leftward shift in the emotional set point, the larger the
increase in the immune measure.
The mindfulness training focuses on learning to monitor the
continuing sensations and thoughts more closely, both in
sitting meditation and in activities like yoga exercises.
Now, with the Dalai Lama's blessing, a trickle of highly
trained lamas have come to be studied. All of them have
spent at least three years in solitary meditative retreat.
That amount of practice puts them in a range found among
masters of other domains, like Olympic divers and concert
What difference such intense mind training may make for
human abilities has been suggested by preliminary findings
from other laboratories. Some of the more tantalizing data
come from the work of another scientist, Dr. Paul Ekman,
director of the Human Interaction Laboratory at the
University of California at San Francisco, which studies
the facial expression of emotions. Dr. Ekman also
participated in the five days of dialogue with the Dalai
Dr. Ekman has developed a measure of how well a person can
read another's moods as telegraphed in rapid, slight
changes in facial muscles.
As Dr. Ekman describes in "Emotions Revealed," to be
published by Times Books in April, these microexpressions -
ultrarapid facial actions, some lasting as little as
one-twentieth of a second - lay bare our most naked
feelings. We are not aware we are making them; they cross
our faces spontaneously and involuntarily, and so reveal
for those who can read them our emotion of the moment,
Perhaps luckily, there is a catch: almost no one can read
these moments. Though Dr. Ekman's book explains how people
can learn to detect these expressions in just hours with
proper training, his testing shows that most people -
including judges, the police and psychotherapists - are
ordinarily no better at reading microexpressions than
someone making random guesses.
Yet when Dr. Ekman brought into the laboratory two Tibetan
practitioners, one scored perfectly on reading three of six
emotions tested for, and the other scored perfectly on
four. And an American teacher of Buddhist meditation got a
perfect score on all six, considered quite rare. Normally,
a random guess will produce one correct answer in six.
Such findings, along with urgings from the Dalai Lama,
inspired Dr. Ekman to design a program called "Cultivating
Emotional Balance," which combines methods extracted from
Buddhism, like mindfulness, with synergistic training from
modern psychology, like reading microexpressions, and seeks
to help people better manage their emotions and
A pilot of the project began last month with elementary
school teachers in the San Francisco Bay area, under the
direction of Dr. Margaret Kemeny, a professor of behavioral
medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.
She hopes to replicate Dr. Davidson's immune system
findings on mindfulness, as well as adding other measures
of emotional and social skill, in a controlled trial with
120 nurses and teachers.
Finally, the scientific momentum of these initial forays
has intrigued other investigators. Under the auspices of
the Mind and Life Institute, which organizes the series of
continuing meetings between the Dalai Lama and scientists,
there will be a round at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology on Sept. 13 and 14. This time the Dalai Lama
will meet with an expanded group of researchers to discuss
further research possibilities.
For more than a year, researchers at UC Davis have been trying to find the best way to frame a provocative question: How good can human beings get - how focused, how calm, how kind?
In seeking the answer, they plan to use an audacious tool. Think of it as a little like brain science meets reality television.
They will gather 30 people for a yearlong meditation retreat and then watch what happens.
"Is attention plastic? We have a hunch that it's trainable, but there is very limited research on training of attention," said Clifford Saron, an assistant research scientist at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain.
Saron is coordinating the project, which at this early stage is already a simmering esoteric brew.
There is the encouraging note from the Dalai Lama's personal secretary. There is a French filmmaker who wants to chronicle the effort for her "Monks in the Lab" documentary. There is seed money from the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which got it through a donation from actor Richard Gere.
And there is interest from other researchers, who have seen the project mentioned in the journal Science or heard about its scope through the grapevine.
"We have people clapping us on the back,' " said G. Ron Mangun, head of the Center for Mind and Brain. "It's like when you say, 'Well, I want to go to the moon,' and they say, 'Well yeah, it's gotta be done. ... Good luck, pal.' "
Dr. Bennett Shapiro, who follows meditation research as a board member of the Mind and Life Institute, a collaboration of scientists and Buddhists, calls the upcoming study "pioneering work."
It's uncommon to sequester 30 people for a year and probe them so intensively, said Shapiro, a retired physician.
At least another 30 people will be monitored equally closely as a control group, although they won't be taken away from their daily lives.
Researchers will look for differences between the groups as meditators are trained in a technique of refining their attention that has its roots in India and is known in Tibet as Shamatha.
The claims for Shamatha - that its practitioners can increase the stability and vividness of their attention as a way to improve their emotional balance - makes it especially fascinating for some neuroscientists.
Attention is vital to who we are and how we cope with the world.
The act of paying attention to something, picking it out of the stream of sensations that bombards our brains, is critical to remembering it, said Ewa Wojcuilik, a UC Davis assistant professor who specializes in visual attention.
But paying attention can be tough. Give people something simple and boring to do, and their distractibility zooms. Ask them to be alert to small, sporadic changes in a stream of data, and they manage for 10 or 20 minutes, then fumble badly.
But is this truly the best we can do, or can some specially trained individuals go further, breaking through mental barriers the way Olympic athletes surge past physical ones?
"Within the science of attention, we have formed certain ideas about what our limits are," Wojcuilik said. "If the cognitive apparatus can be pushed beyond what we expect ... we are on to a new beginning."
She is among more than a dozen researchers who have met regularly to design the Shamatha project, a collaboration of a half-dozen arms of UC Davis and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.
While the group's primary focus is on attention, it also will explore whether meditators become calmer, kinder and more compassionate, as tradition holds.
Phil Shaver, who chairs the UC Davis psychology department and specializes in the study of emotions, will look at how quickly meditators get their equilibrium back after viewing upsetting movie scenes, whether disturbing words disrupt their focus and whether their health seems to indicate lower stress.
With the team still nearly two years away from its target start date of Sept. 22, 2006 - the autumnal equinox - many details remain to be resolved, but some general outlines are emerging.
B. Alan Wallace, who has trained as a Buddhist monk and has a doctorate in religious studies from Stanford, will take 30 people to some quiet corner of California.
There, they will rise at 6 a.m. for cycles of group and private meditation that continue until 10 p.m., punctuated by silent meals and a couple of two-hour breaks of unstructured time.
Their goal will be to cultivate a stable, vivid attention, because "this is going to bring you to a much, much higher platform of mental balance, mental well-being," Wallace said.
Wallace, who heads the Santa Barbara institute, has recruited participants from shorter retreats he leads in Europe, Mexico and the United States.
They will be people with a contemplative bent, eager to pay $1,000 a month to be sequestered for a year, away from homes and jobs, family and friends, to explore the reaches of their own consciousness.
As often as every two weeks, live-in research assistants will take some study participants to an on-site lab to probe their minds and hearts, their health and behaviors.
Their performance will be tracked on standard attention tasks and on some created specifically for the project.
Sometimes, they'll be plugged into EEG caps that monitor electrical impulses in their brains, listening to the simultaneous firing of millions of nerve cells. Their blood or saliva will be checked for stress hormones and their immune systems subjected to allergens to see how robustly they respond.
And in a twist that brings a whiff of being voted off the island, they may be asked to report on each other, assessing who is the most compassionate or how fellow participants' behaviors change over time.
With so many measures, over so many months, "you're going to have a very, very rich data set," said Emilio Ferrer, an assistant professor whose specialties include quantitative psychology.
First, though, the research team has more groundwork ahead, in refining the experimental design, conducting pilot studies and nailing down funding. The team is hoping to raise $1.5 million to $2 million from foundations, the National Institutes of Health and donors.
While the thrust of the project is pure science, simply to learn what a highly trained brain may be capable of, it someday could have implications for attention deficit disorders or other ills - if the project finds that training can make a difference.
It is a big if.
"Most research comes to naught. That's the rule. Getting definitive results is the exception," said Paul Ekman, an expert on emotional expression and deception.
"This is really an extremely exciting adventure that UC Davis is taking," he said. "This collaboration between top-rank neuroscientists, psychologists concerned with behavior and a Buddhist scholar and practitioner is in many ways quite unique.
"We don't know if it's going to be productive, but if you knew it was going to be productive, then it wouldn't be exciting."
Jocelyn Sy, left, and Dorothee Heipertz apply a co
http://www.alanwallace.org/profile.htm -- Alan organized the Project and is leading the retreat
http://sbinstitute.com/research_Shamatha.html -- Alan founded SBI; here's their (shorter) description of the Project
www.mindandlife.org -- The Shamatha Project emerged from a number of studies inspired by the MLI's work.
http://www.shambhalamountain.org/shamatha/ - brief blurb on the site of the facility that's hosting the study
A Proposal for a Longitudinal Study of the Cognitive-Behavioral, Neural, and Emotional Effects of Sustained, Intensive Meditative Attentional Training
Aims and Overview
To the Western mind the promise of ancient knowledge from Eastern philosophies has been an enduring lure. Perhaps the most captivating topic has been that of how meditation may affect mental and physical health. There is currently renewed and vigorous interest in these questions and modern tools from a host of disciplines are aimed at understanding whether meditation holds the keys for self improvement on all dimensions. In this proposal, we describe an ambitious project – the Shamatha Project – that brings together leading authorities in social and cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, and Buddhist meditative practices to conduct a longitudinal study of how a specific form of meditation affects human perception, cognition and emotion.
Over the past 30 years there have been numerous studies of the psychological and physiological effects of meditation training, but most of such studies have been based on fairly simple pre-post (rather than longitudinal) research designs; focused on state rather than trait (i.e., long-lasting) changes in mental abilities; focused on physiological changes, such as indicators of relaxation, rather than cognitive, sensorimotor, neurological, emotional, and ethical changes; and were conducted before the advent of contemporary social-cognitive and brain-imaging techniques, which allow researchers to track changes in the mind and brain associated with meditation training. In addition, the meditation techniques under study were often not firmly grounded in a deep understanding of ancient meditation traditions and not conducted over an adequate period of time by an experienced instructor. For these reasons, we still do not know a great deal about how professionally administered meditation training of a particular kind, followed over an extended period of time (as is common in the traditions from which the meditation techniques are drawn), affects attentional, sensorimotor, and emotion-regulation skills or ethical responses to human suffering.
We propose here a unique study designed to remedy many of the shortcomings of previous studies – a detailed longitudinal examination of the neural, cognitive, and socio-emotional effects of intensive training in a specific class of Buddhist meditation techniques called shamatha (meditative quiescence) meditation, aimed at enhancing the stability and vividness of attention. Our research team includes experts in the cognitive and neuroscientific study of attention, visualization, cognitive control, and sensorimotor processing; emotion and mental health; compassionate, prosocial behavior; longitudinal statistical analyses; and Buddhism. Several of the investigators are skilled in the use of modern, noninvasive neuro-imaging techniques; most have been engaged for years in conferences, seminars, and work groups related to establishing conceptual and methodological connections between Buddhism, psychological science, and neuroscience. The proposed meditation teacher, Dr. Alan Wallace, brings to this project decades of experience as a scholar, translator, and contemplative in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, including many years of collaboration on various projects pertaining to the scientific study of meditation. He is also the founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, which is co-sponsoring this project. The proposed research project, the Shamatha Project, will be coordinated by the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, headed by Dr. George R. Mangun, an international leader in the cognitive neuroscience of attention, and involves the collaboration of the UCD Department of Psychology, chaired by Dr. Phillip Shaver, one of the world’s foremost social psychologists, and the UCD Imaging Research Center, directed by Dr. Cameron Carter, a renowned expert in cognitive neuroimaging in mental health. The meditation training itself will take place at a retreat facility organized by Alan Wallace in California. The study will take place over one year, as 30 full-time trainees devote themselves to 8-10 hours of meditative attentional training every day. Dr. Clifford Saron of the Center for Mind and Brain will serve as research coordinator for the project.
According to the Buddhist tradition, which includes very detailed descriptions of training for and attaining shamatha, the achievement of meditative quiescence involves a state of sustained, voluntary attention, characterized by unusual stability and vividness and free of even subtle excitation and laxity (all terms and concepts that are carefully described in Buddhist literature). The achievement of shamatha is not unique to Buddhism, but over the past 2,500 years that tradition has developed techniques for refining attention that can be utilized by anyone, regardless of their philosophical beliefs or religious orientation. The techniques could therefore be used in a wide variety of educational, personal development, and clinical contexts.
The proposed research project would involve assessment of both cognitive and socio-emotional variables at several points in time across the one-year study. The cognitive tests would assess sustained and selective attention, sensory discrimination, and mental efficiency, using both behavioral tasks and brain-imaging procedures. The socio-emotional tests would assess mood, emotion-regulation, compassion, and personality changes. There would be more assessments early in the year, when changes might be more rapid and dramatic. Assessments would be staggered, and more numerous for some participants than others, so that we can evaluate the effects of repeated testing, as distinct from actual change (a common problem in longitudinal studies). Behind the specific assessments lay two major questions:
We are also interested in the trainees’ subjective experiences and self-understanding over the course of the year, so we will ask them to keep daily journals (perhaps using computerized survey techniques) that can be coded in various ways later on and analyzed in conjunction with their more objectively assessed cognitive, behavioral, and socio-emotional development.
The Shamatha Project is expected to have a number of benefits for the study participants, other people who take advantage of what we learn from the study, and for an array of psychological and neuroscientific disciplines that study attention, emotion, emotion regulation, and personal development. Some of these anticipated benefits are outlined briefly in the following sections.
Anticipated Benefits for the Participants and for Human Beings Generally
The intensity and duration of the 12-month Shamatha Project can be compared to the training of athletes. Only a small number of individuals have the time and inclination to devote themselves to such training, which can appear at first glance to have little relevance for the diverse practical problems facing humanity today. But research on serious athletes has yielded many valuable insights concerning diet, exercise, and human motivation that are relevant to the general public. While the training of athletes is focused primarily on achieving physical excellence, the Shamatha Project is concerned with achieving optimal levels of “mental excellence," via improved attentional performance, defined specifically in terms of stability and vividness. "Stability" refers to the ability of the mind to focus unwaveringly on an object or sequence of objects as when performing a complex task. "Vividness" refers to the degree of brilliance, focus, and precision of attention. This kind of training is traditionally held to be of great benefit in terms of enhancing not just cognitive performance but also emotional health and well-being.
Our brain-imaging and behavioral findings should be useful for treating people with a variety of cognitive and emotional disorders, such as ADHD, excessive anger, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. All of these mental problems are closely related to the ability to control attention and regulate emotion. We expect that relatively soon after shamatha training begins, measurable changes will occur in these abilities, suggesting that certain aspects of the training could be relatively easily incorporated into daily life situations for persons outside a retreat setting.
It will be of great value to determine ways in which attention can be refined—through enhanced stability and vividness—that may be useful in the workplace, educational settings, and interpersonal relationships. For many human endeavors, it is vitally important to be able to direct one’s attention to a particular object, situation, or task, and this project will reveal ways in which people can cultivate this ability. It is also extremely important to be able to focus on one’s own and other’s needs, avoid being overtaken by destructive emotions, and carry prosocial actions through to completion. By obtaining reliable and valid data from a group of 30 shamatha trainees over a 12-month period, we will gain considerable insight into the nature of attention, attentional plasticity, and their relation to emotions and social behavior.
Benefits for Scientific Understanding
Few scientific studies of attentional and emotion-regulation processes are based on highly trained individuals. Almost no neuroimaging studies have been done on this topic. Thus, the proposed study will look closely at the plasticity of processes (e.g., maintaining attention, controlling emotional reactions to frustrations and disappointments) that cognitive and affective neuroscientists know are important but which have not been studied in connection with deep training.
A further benefit of the proposed project is training a group of individuals to become expert witnesses of their own mental states while developing skills for engaging in a variety of demanding mental tasks that go beyond the abilities of average subjects. Behavioral psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists commonly rely upon relatively untrained subjects—often student volunteers from introductory psychology courses—that they recruit to perform various tasks and then report on their firsthand experience. While these scientists bring great levels of theoretical and technological sophistication to their research, the subjects on whose participation and observations they rely are usually amateurs. This implies that scientific conclusions about a wide range of mental strategies and emotional processes have a partially non-scientific basis, namely the participation and reports of non-scientists who bring few if any professional skills to their participation in the research. The people who have successfully completed this training program can be called upon by psychology and neuroscience laboratories to collaborate in unprecedented research into a wide range of mental processes. With the introduction of sophisticated first-person participation in scientific research in mind/behavior and mind/brain correlations, whole new fields of research into the human mind may open up.
Benefits for Contemplative Understanding
Shamatha can be practiced regardless of one’s religious, philosophical, or scientific beliefs. These practices were first developed in ancient India, but over the centuries they have spread throughout Asia and become associated with a wide variety of ideologies. Thus, this training serves as a bridge among all contemplative traditions, enhancing the efficacy of other practices that are unique to these many traditions. Whether religious practitioners are primarily concerned with supplicatory prayer, discursive meditation, the contemplative use of mental imagery, or formless meditation, the attentional skills developed in shamatha practice are certain to be of great value.
Benefits for Global Cultural Enrichment
The specific shamatha techniques to be used in this study are drawn primarily from Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist contemplative traditions. The 20th century witnessed a Buddhist holocaust at the hands of communist regimes in many Asian countries, resulting in the destruction of many centers of contemplative inquiry. It is our hope that the successful completion of the Shamatha Project will contribute evidence concerning the practical and scientific value of the Buddhist contemplative heritage.
Participants (Trainees and Controls). The study requires the participation of men and women who are willing and able to commit themselves to a one-year intensive training and assessment project. While conducting shorter-term retreats over the past year, Alan Wallace has already identified more than 80 interested individuals, so we know it will be possible to recruit the 30 needed for the Shamatha Project. We will also recruit 30 control participants who are matched on age, gender, SES, etc. (We expect that the control participants, on average, will not show significant changes in attention or emotion regulation during the year-long study.) We can also recruit additional controls for particular experiments or assessments from the large college-student subject pool at UC Davis.
Over the proposed 12-month period, participants will reside in a contemplative research facility optimally suited for scientific and contemplative research. Alan Wallace will serve as their resident instructor, providing them with ongoing instruction and guidance in meditation training. They will also receive instruction on physical exercise that is conducive to such mental training. The 12-month training program will include:
Behavioral, questionnaire, and neuro-scientific evaluations will occur before the training begins (for both prospective trainees and controls), at regular intervals throughout training, and at the end of the training period (for both prospective trainees and controls). The evaluations will include measures of:
Some of the evaluations will be based on behavioral measures of cognitive functioning, such as accurate task performance and fast reaction times; others will involve EEG and fMRI measures of brain activity. Some of the evaluations of socio-emotional functioning will be based on self-report measures and performance on tasks; others will involve surface psychophysiology (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, . . .) and brain imaging. Stress hormones will be assessed through various means, e.g., cortisol measures. Immune functioning will also be assessed.
The study’s findings will be submitted for publication in major, international scientific journals such as Science, Nature, and major APA psychological journals. Articles in these journals and presentations at major professional societies will reverberate throughout the popular media, bringing the findings to a wide international audience. A study website will also make the study and training materials widely available.
The Shamatha Project has been conceived and organized by B. Alan Wallace, President of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. Psychological and neuroscientific evaluations will be made by researchers at the Center for Mind and Brain, the Department of Psychology, the Center for Neuroscience, the Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Neurology, the Research Imaging Center, and the Center for Genomics at the University of California, Davis, in addition to collaborators at the University of California Santa Barbara.
This project is currently in the advanced planning stage. A suitable contemplative training facility has been located, and the team of investigators has met numerous times over a period of one year to develop ideas for the design, measures, and statistical analyses. We currently are in a fund-raising stage. To help the Shamatha Project please see http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/content/ShamathaSponsor
Well, I just did it. I dropped Michelle off at the airport. For six months, we’ve known that we were going to parajump into this adventure together, but man, it’s a whole other thing when the day arrives and the cargo door opens and the leap is right in front of you. Will the parachute open?
A few up-front comments. First: the title of the ‘blog – which I’ve stolen from a comment by Alan Wallace (who's leading the retreat, and is the project's originator). I’ve never been a big fan of the word retreat – with its implications of failure and giving up, as in: “I can’t deal with reality anymore, I’m going into retreat.” That notion couldn’t be farther from the spirit of this journey, which is about running straight into reality. As Bhante Gunaratana (a leading Western teacher) writes:
Meditation doesn’t insulate you from the pain of life but rather allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier and go beyond suffering … [It] is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with exactly what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and free yourself from all the polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. (from Mindfulness in Plain English).
In fact, Vipassana meditation, often translated as Insight meditation in fact means, by its etymology, “perceiving reality with clarity and precision," to pierce all the way to its most fundamental qualities. And a three-month journey into these depths is going to take more than a little discipline and courage. Expedition’s as good a metaphor as I know. And, as Wallace notes, the word – derived from ex and ped – implies "moving your feet from", removing them from where they’re stuck – which also gets to the heart of the endeavor (in fact, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns & Encountering Naked Reality is the name of a book by Pema Chodron, another leading Western meditation teacher).
Second, forgive the rambling ahead. Many of you have asked questions (“What in the world are you guys thinking?” for example), which I’ll try to answer along the way (I'll also add links to background information on the Project in separate posts). Also, for personal reasons, I’d like to record the journey for both of us, and so I’m going to use this ‘blog as a forum to do so at times. And, yes, maybe I’m using this exercise as a bit of a crutch while Michelle’s gone. To make things easier for those (most?) of you who want to skip the ramblings and cut to the Michelle parts, I’ll bold those. I’m only going to get half a dozen connects with Michelle until June, so I won’t bug you with too many updates in any case …
Now, to the relevant part: Michelle.
She's going off in great shape. She’s well prepared, has everything she needs (startlingly little), and most of all, she feels like she has full support from the people she cares about. That makes such a huge difference, and will be like a guardian angel in moments where the journey gets rough. Going into an intensive practice is a bit like performing surgery on the mind. Except you’re wide awake and you’re actually the one wielding the scalpel. And the complexes you’re hoping to uproot have a nasty way of hanging on for dear life, kicking and screaming. All to say, the operation can get rough, which is why the mental equivalent of a clean room – a tranquil, monastic environment – is so critical to a successful practice. The good news is that Michelle has that monastic environment. But even so, if you go in with negative reactions from loved ones reverberating in your brain, it’s a bit like bringing a nasty bacteria into the operating room. It can really infect everything you’re trying to do, and rattle around in your head and make you crazy (-er). So it means a ton to Michelle that she’s going in with all your support, and her practice will really benefit. Even people who she was a bit nervous to tell about this have turned out to be terrifically encouraging.
We went for a beautiful run in the dawn mist with Samma, and then headed off to the airport. At Laguardia, a terrific moment together having breakfast in the Food Court. Maybe it was Pavlovian, but sitting here I felt like I was about to go on the journey with her. We’ve sat here together before: the day we came back from France and bounced up to Toronto, and just before we left for Cambodia last year, another life-changing journey. Before I met Michelle, I lived in the same place and worked in the same job for ten years. I guess that’s what happens when you marry into the long history of wandering Limantour adventurers (at least this time, there’s no risk of getting drunk, running aground off the coast of California and having a beach named after you) …
Yesterday, we had a terrific, quiet day together. If one of this process’ goals is to develop a deep-seated equanimity, free from destructive impulses, then it seemed to backfire a few times yesterday. Pangs of fear and sadness definitely hit, and the reality of the next few months sank in …
We were going to go out for dinner, but decided that we had to include Samma in our plans, so we stayed home. Samma is so closely bonded to her morning running partner. There’s something particularly heartbreaking about not being able to explain the whole thing to her. Over time, I’ll more or less get my brain around the concept that Michelle’s gone for three months. But as much as Michelle has tried to explain to Samma that she isn’t leaving for good, it’s not clear the words have sunk in …
Will Samma be sad? Hard to say. Out of sorts, maybe. Samma’s a Shepherd, she takes her job description pretty seriously, and we’re the closest thing she has to sheep. And each night, when Michelle comes home, you’d think by the kisses and leaps of joy and figure 8's around Michelle that she likes having her Mom around. So at the very least, Samma won’t have those moments of joy for a while. Normally, Samma sleeps up in our bedroom. If she’s true to form, she’s going to park herself in the kitchen for the next few nights, waiting for Michelle to come home.
This morning, I was happy to see that Michelle had let her hair do its natural curly thing. Whenever she works in a corporate environment, she straightens her hair rigorously every morning. When we lived in France, she let the Boticelli curls spring to life. For the next few months, the unstraightened Michelle is back.
One of her bags is this big, leather bag a scam artist in Florence sold to friends, they gave it to us as a gift. I rib Michelle about going to a Buddhist retreat with a leather bag. One of the most interesting things to me about Buddhism is the fact that it’s an ethical framework grounded not on commandments dictated from without, but on the empirical observation of direct inner experience – a direct inner experience that turns out to be universal. A good example of this ethics-from-within is Buddhism’s attitude towards all living beings, including animals. This attitude is grounded in large part on direct, inner experience. One of the first things you realize when you try to meditate is that, well, you’re crazy. The task sounds so simple – focus attention on your breath -- and turns out to be maddeningly difficult, impossible. You’re trying to attend to something that’s happening in the present, and the mind flops all over the place, into memory, anticipation of the future, all the things you want and don’t want. So they teach you a helpful technique: begin the practice with what’s known as metta, lovingkindness. In essence, you evoke an intention of kindness, directed first towards yourself, then outward in concentric circles to loved ones, acquaintances, strangers and so on, until your intention spreads to all creatures great and small. Ethics is inner practice, and, magically, this practice acts like a balm. It soothes the mind. You’re still more or less crazy, but it’s a few degrees easier to practice now. In fact, the first of the three steps towards a successful practice – before you even hit the meditation cushion – is sila, ethics. Not ethics because someone said you should. Ethics because living by ethical intention sets the condition that allows the cultivation of an exceptionally stable mind which can then be turned, like an electron microsope, inward.
At the Food Court, there were rifle-toting soldiers everywhere. None of their patches looked familiar – I wasn’t even sure they were American – and we asked one soldier who looked like he was about fourteen years old what the patch was. It’s his unit’s symbol, he explained. We thanked him for everything he’s doing, and his face lit up. “Thanks,” he said, “I don’t think many people look at it that way.”
We procrastinated as long as we could (I have to confess that a part of me hoped Michelle’d miss her plane and we could wait on standby together … ). At the security line, I almost got myself shipped off to Guantanomo for stepping across the line to give her one last kiss.
A sweet man in his sixties, grizzled hair and barely five feet tall, saved me from having to stand there and watch her fade down the security line by showing up at my side. "It's the craziest thing," he started in. "We came in for her six o'clock flight but they decided to go through all my wife’s stuff, and by the time she got through, they'd just closed the door on her." She was on her way down to her aunt’s funeral, in Atlanta. "She's only gone three days," he said. "Boy, I'm gonna miss her …” They’d been married forty-five years. He was a building contractor, she was a caterer. He talked about his life, growing up in a project in Jersey City. “Things were different back then,” he said, sounding like a cliché from a Ken Burns documentary about civil rights. Except he meant the opposite. “We used to keep our doors unlocked.” He reminisced about how everyone in the neighborhood used to know the local beat cops as friends, and now, because of the drug war, cops had to look at everyone like an enemy and come at you aggressive. He’d just been to a school meeting where they’d warned the community not to flash back their highbeams when someone flashed theirs at you. Local gangs were using that as an initiation ritual. If you flash back, the initiant is tasked with murdering you. True? Hard to know, but the fact that it’s credible enough for a school meeting is disturbing. I asked him what he thought about legalizing drugs. He saw the logic in it, and admitted that it would put the drug gangs out of business, but he said he was Christian and couldn’t condone allowing something so wrong as doing drugs to be legal.
He introduced himself, Al was his name. He held up a plastic grocery bag half full with change. "She had this in her pocket book.” Every time she sees her grandkids, she always gives them change. That’s why she couldn’t get on the plane.
“Flying’s a little different than it was a few years ago, huh?”
“Yeah, flying’s not so fun these days,” I said. There was something touching about the sweetness and naivte of a pocketbook full of a nickels and quarters, juxtaposed against the sinister reasons for the heightened security.
That led to a discussion about what a big contributor airplane pollution was to climate change, and how with flying such a pain and things like free videophones, maybe people will choose to fly less (scout’s honor – it wasn’t me who brought that one up). Al was convinced that we’d have much more fuel efficient cars if it weren’t for greedy oil and car companies lobbying against it. “Everything’s so different today,” he said. “When I was growing up, people went to church, they feared God. There was a sense of community. Today, we’ve made God dead, and things, I don’t know, they go downhill when you do that. I mean, growing up, my father, he was home every night. I found out – I mean long after I was married – that he had some things going on the side, but I mean, he was there every night. He was a real father, you know?”
Michelle was out of sight now and Al watched his wife disappear through the metal detector. “She’s a perfect lady for an imperfect guy,” he laughed, shaking his head. “I’m busy. I’m workin’ on two jobs. I’ll just get my work done these next couple days, I guess.” Amen.
Michelle called. She made it onto her plane. Damn. I mean: good for her. Al and I said good-bye. It was nice talking to him, I was thankful for a buddy in that moment.
The first stepping stones into Buddhist philosophy are known as the Four Noble Truths. The Pali and Tibetan languages are to mental states and philosophical concepts what Eskimo languages are to snow. When original texts get translated into English, subtle gradations are invariably lost. A classic example, as Wallace and others note, is the first of these Noble Truths, often translated as: “Life is suffering.” A more accurate translation: “Tainted (i.e. unenlightened) experience includes dukkha (i.e. a broad range of unpleasant elements, from mild annoyances all the way up to the grand afflictions of sickness and death).”
I drive home. I hit a half-hour dead stop at the Triboro tolls. The rumor going up and down the line as people got out of their cars was that a prisoner had escaped from a nearby institution. Wow.
So there it was. To my left, Manhattan. A pile of money has fallen onto this town in the last twenty years, everyone seems stylish and on the move, and every twenty feet, a fancy boutique or cafe has opened. Today began with Michelle, a sunrise run through morning mist and a blissful breakfast moment and, as she left, a chance connection with a kindly stranger. My belly's full and outside, fifty degrees and clear blue skies, the first glimpse of spring. Even on the Triboro, you can hear birds chirping. Not yet ten o’clock, and already the day has brought hints of: delusion, in the form of an unfounded Hollywood-sounding belief quickly accepted by a cranky group of commuters waiting for tolls to open; war; adultery; gang murder; corporate greed; addiction; a prison population that’s off the charts relative to other countries; a climate of fear and security searches created among other things by a gaping disparity between extreme wealth and extreme poverty and rabid fundamentalists in the Levant traditions. And a husband missing his wife. As beautiful a morning as you could imagine, and, nibbling at the edges, hints of Dukkha.
I come home and turn the key in the door, a lump in the throat. I'd signed up to moderate a panel discussion this afternoon on climate change at a local community center, which I was grateful for. Like Al, my goal is to keep myself as busy as possible while my morning running partner's away ...