At the Intersection of Science and Mindfulness
Meditation should change our perspective and awareness in relation to our thought patterns, external conditions, and responses, in order to reformulate them and our relationship to them. Meditation, the constant, active discipline of awareness-building, modulates the brain so that its cells are at peak performance levels. Such single-pointed meditative practice, leading to what is known as “insight mediation,” spurs further inquiry and, ultimately, mental breakthroughs and clarity. This brain activity releases hormones of “positive stress” that promote wakefulness, awareness-building, and lucidity.
This distinctly scientific explanation for the effects of sitting quietly on a cushion on a regular basis was one of the primary messages delivered by the Dalai Lama and a score of other presenters at a thought-provoking three-day conference last fall called “Science & Clinical Applications of Meditation.” The conference was held here in Washington and hosted by the Dalai Lama, who in addition to his commitment to peace and kindness is known for his curiosity about many scientific subjects. The conference included presentations and round-table discussions by leading neuroscientists, contemplatives and Buddhist authors and experts, who demonstrated the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on mental and physical health. Their evidence and data were based on years of clinical trials, neuroscientific studies and research on the convergence between scientific and spiritual practices.
In support of the scientific link between mindfulness and brain activity proffered during the conference, the Dalai Lama emphasized that meditation is an active state that leads to clarity, lucidity, attentiveness and awareness; it is not to be mistaken for relaxation or “inactive peace.” Rather, meditative practice can be viewed as the acquisition of a skill that helps reduce pain, though it will not eliminate it. While the pushing away of, or aversion to, mental or physical pain leads to pathological suffering, meditation helps the sufferer explore and embrace that pain. Gently investigating pain, processing it as a passing mental formation, can reduce the state of suffering, he said.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, distilled the notion of mindfulness to a “moment” of self-compassion in which we stop, breathe, and smile. He also distinguished between the concepts of “pain” and “suffering.” Pain is a normal part of the human condition, part of life, he said, while suffering can be seen as resisting pain. Prolonged aversion to or denial of pain leads to suffering. Thus, joy can be achieved by exploring and accepting pain just as it is, a passing mental formation.
Some suffering comes from grasping for and craving external pleasures, added Alan Wallace, of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. By recognizing the distinction between the pursuit of pleasure and the pursuit of happiness, he said, we can come to know the true meaning of life. The cultivation of happiness promotes the development of compassion and empathy, in which we integrate happiness, truth and virtue.
Various presenters at the conference offered scientific studies to support the importance of meditation for maintaining a healthy mind, brain, and perception of our lives. One study established a connection between so-called “positive, short-term stress” experienced by meditation practitioners and the increased production of the hormone dopamine that increases awareness and mental clarity. However, “negative, long-term stress” can eventually reduce the brain’s quantities of dopamine, increasing hopelessness, depression and suffering. In this situation, science has shown meditation to be an effective practice. As a response to long-term stress, meditation with discipline can help a person transform his or her mental state to clarity, motivation, joy and freedom. Meditation is not a substitute for other science-based treatments such as cognitive therapy or medication, some presenters noted; it is only an enhancement.
Richard Davidson, a research professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that healthy suffering is a valid concept, but it differs from mental illness or depression in distinct, clinical ways. Brain patterns, which vary in each individual, may lead some to be overly reactive to sadness triggers. The brain may try to correct the overreaction by over thinking, and excessive rumination becomes a coping mechanism. Others may experience extreme inactivity or numbness. Both of these reactions differ from meditation, which seeks a balance between extreme activity on one end of the spectrum and the need for stillness on the other. Cognitive therapy and medication are both common scientific responses to these extremes experienced by people with depression or mental illness. Meditation and mindfulness techniques can work with those approaches, Davidson said, to help retrain the mind.
In addition to mental health, presenters explored the connection between mindfulness and suffering in the context of a person’s relationships to a partner or spouse, to money, and to his or her body or physical health. Scientific research shows, for example, a direct correlation between “self-centeredness” and heart-related diseases. The solution: providing service to others, participating in community-building activities, and practicing active compassion and outreach to others. The resulting sense of harmony and community generated by these efforts enables a person to deal more optimally with external stress stimuli and threats, making the social environment, the sangha, a form of preventive medicine.
To make mindfulness practice effective, we must understand the role of intention, according to author Jack Kornfield. Intention works in split seconds and affects each perspective and action a person experiences, whether he or she is aware of it or not. With the improved awareness cultivated through meditation, we can see that a subtle shift in intention will shift our thought, mental formations, response and action. Thus we must examine our contemplative practices to understand how they affect our joy, equanimity, gratitude, compassion, and love, Kornfield said. We must examine the state of the brain as a response to, not as the cause of, illness. By retraining the mind, we can retrain the brain.
James Figetakis will gladly share his notes from the Science and Meditation conference and discuss its implications. E-mail him at jfigetakis(at)aol.com.