Six Days of Silence in the Desert

I sat in silence for six days in the desert. It was two hours northeast of Los Angles in a unpopulated, sparse landscape surrounded by mountains, bunny rabbits, birds, and sand.

The first fews days were brutally boring and dull. We did not do anything. Reading and writing is not allowed. No swimming. No speaking. Lots of meditating. Eating. Walking. When you arrive they ask you to hand over your phone. After two days I was frustrated and numb from doing nothing. After six days I felt a sense of wonder, appreciation, gratitude and greatfulness for the experience.

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I didn’t exactly rough it, at least physically. Driving there from LA Google suggested the back route. We did not even pass a Starbucks. When you drive near Joshua tree they have vegan roadsite cafes but the Lucerne Valley is different. We passed Route 66 and much deserted landscape.The retreat took place in a valley surrounded by mountains. The place itself was one of the most stunning spaces I have ever visited. The grounds fill with stunning landscaped gardens, fountains, nooks, and fine creature comforts. The rooms were unexpected luxury, the vegetarian food was delicious, and the sunsets, distant mountains, and nature all provided a very special backdrop.

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Why sit in silence ? To many it sounds ridiculous.  They express disbelief and disdain at the thought.  If you mention you are off to climb Mount Kilmajoro they must express a shared excitement.When I told a few people I was off to sit in silence in the desert it was a conversation stopper.

I shared the ride there with Tanya and Rachel. Tanya, a late 40’s mother of teenage kids, college literature teacher and community worker, lives in a university town in Oregon. She wanted six days of silence away from the business of her everyday experiences with everyone depending on her. This was her third retreat in the past 6 years. Rachel, a 27 year old psychologicst from New York, was about to start an internship and wanted the silence to check in with herself. I was there looking for insights. I know of the feeling of gratitude and joy but many days are spend with bouts of anxiety and depression. I have always known these feelings but only labelled them in the past few years. The silence provides a space  to evoke inside ourselves a feeling of wonder and joy.cacti

James, a 40 year rabbi, father of three and recent Phd recipient from the University of Chicago, led the retreat.  He lives with his his family in a one bedroom house on a kibbutz in the Negev, Southern Israel. He began meditating twenty years ago listening to tapes of Jon Kabbat-Zin. It was during a time when he lost movement in his lower body. His body fully recovered.

He explained during the retreat we are not looking for a single truth or idea to believe in. The aim is to find comfort with the dynamic groundlessnes or impermanence surrounding life itself. From that place we can live the fullest.

In private and group meetings during the retreat he provided unabashed guidance and wise techniques to overcome the individuals issues each person experiences while sitting with themselves. Many things can come up. Emotionally charged memories, experiences, histories, and feelings all arise from the mind. In his opening statement he stated that everyone had come for something  they wanted to resolve.

I meditated a few times at age nineteen. Nothing happened. I did not get it. It was boring. I was a spiritual seeker looking for ways to connect but meditation never worked for me. In Toronto I attended a two day seminar on the Kabbalah by Rabbi Phillip Berg. He provided a spiritual language I did not have.Years later Madonna and other celebrities would flock to Rabbi Berg so I may have missed something. It left me intellectually curious but did not provide any practices.In Jerusalem I sought out mystical masters to give answers. I met some people who had amazing glows around them and whose eyes shined of a great light. I never experienced ways to reach the source of their light.

I first experienced a silent retreat in my early twenties. I was doing a film about my spiritual journey. Rabbi Arthur Green suggested I attend a conference at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The small gathering had people such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg speaking about what brought them to meditation and Buddhism, and why they didn’t find relevance in Jewish practices. Goldstein and Salzberg are pioneers of bringing silent retreats and meditation practices to Westerners. Back then I had never tried meditation and did not think of it as a spiritual path. I was still looking for Jewish practices – the “true” way.

The Insight meditation society has a retreat center and a conference center.  I arrived at the retreat center. I walked inside. It seemed weird.  It was lunchtime. The tables were full but there was a strange silence. I asked a few people where I could check in. The first two did not reply. The third person pointed to the sign on the wall saying that they were in silence. The people looked crazy. Twenty years later I attended my first silent retreat.

I imagine how my life might have changed had I done a silent retreat back then.

The mind is a complicated thing. The silent retreat is one way to focus the mind and reboot it, like rebooting a stuck computer. It’s an unclogging of the brain towards our natural inclination to appreciate the wonders of life, the world, and experience gratitude.

With meditation we learn to watch our thoughts and not be reactive to them. The benefits of being able to do this are quite huge.

I teach meditatoin to new students. After sitting in silence for fifteen minutes we discuss the experience. Many remark that they never noticed how many thoughts randomly enter their minds. They are quite stunned by this observation.

Keeping track of the thoughts and focusing the mind becomes a muscle one learns to use. The results of this use promotes overall well being, reduce anxiety, depression, and make us happier, healthier, and maybe even kinder. A study showed that after an 8 week meditation course people acted more generously towards others.

The first two days of the retreat were the hardest for me. It was boring, very boring. You just sit on your cushion all day and focus on your breathe, or some other meditative technique. In between you also do walking meditation walking very slowly for thirty minutes. Like sitting around waiting for two days at a bus stop with no sign the bus will ever come. Each minute seems like ten, and the mind become restless. What is that sensation that happens when you become restless ?

At a retreat you have both personal and group meetings where you speak with the teacher and discuss issues which arise. In my first group Cheryl, a 29 year old woman from Oregon explained she was bored. She did a retreat the previous year with her father and brother. She was missing them not being there and was tired from a long plane ride and drive to get there. She was sleeping through the first two days both to battle the boredom and her already tired state. She came looking for some kind of epiphany but could not get past the tedious sitting and silence. I checked in with her at the end of the retreat and indeed after a few days her boredom lifted and she had her insights.

At another meeting a few days later one woman mentioned she felt guilty skipping some of the meditation sessions. She has been told it was alright to miss some sessions but she felt guilty breaking rules. James recommended that after the retreat she should try and break as many rules as possible to get over her fears. He mentioned she must take into account still being moral and not getting jailed – but it was a pretty wide open suggestion. He mentioned someone he knew who broke into cars just to break his fears – with no intention of causing damage or stealing anything. Another woman spoke about great unease she felt about religious rules and not obeying some of them. Her body gets nervious and she feels tense and uneasy. He worked with her through a short body scan to locate the place in the body where she felt the most tension. In a few minutes he helped relieve her discomfort and guided her to continue the same practice by herself whenever such unease begins to arise.

By the third day you pick up momentum. Like a burst of energy after the first ten minutes of a run you build the equivalent of an adrenalin rush. The boredom recedes. The brain switches gears. Perceptions shift slightly. For me the meditation sits never get easy but the overall effect starts to take hold.

It’s not like a magic pill. You must be open to it. At the desert retreat there was a 33 year old man from Los Angeles who achieved great success with a social media tool he helped create.This was his fourth retreat in the past year. He brought his father, uncle, and some friends with him. Joe’s father, a mathematician at UCLA, left unconvinced. He told one of Joes’s friends this was something for nineteen year olds searching for meaning and not for sophisticated, mature adults. He came in a skeptic and left a skeptic.

What happened for me after my time on retreat ?

I didn’t have any epiphanies. The days following the retreat felt rich and full of great life. I felt more generous.

Four days later I was back in Toronto at a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Clevand Indians. The game lasted over three hours. They Jays finally took the lead in the bottom of the eighth. I do not remember ever feeling so connected and enthralled at a July baseball game in a long while, if ever. I did not want it to end. Often after ninety minutes I go for peanuts and anxiously wait for when we can leave. Every pitch, hit, and catch had great drama and life to it. They told us the immediate effects of the retreat last the same amount of time as you are on retreat. I think I was able to enjoy the ball game as much as I did because of my recent days of silence in the desert. Whether that is the case or not I was very grateful to be at the game and for the Blue Jays to win in such an exciting way.

James mentioned he was not concerned so much about how much people enjoy the retreat as much as how they can use the skills and tools to evoke gratitude, wonder, and be more caring in our day to day lives. When people asked what they might do to tell their family and friends about their experience. He suggested only telling those who showed any interest and really showing them the effects of the retreat by being more attentive, caring, and present.

“Where focus goes, energy flows.” Tony Robbins

Each afternoon of the retreat we did a lovingkindness meditation.

May I be happy and free from suffering
May I be healthy and free from harm
May I be peaceful and full of ease
May I be free

The words seems simple like meditation itself. I do believe if I fill my head with such thoughts of lovingkindness i will be closer to manifesting this from day to day.

I spend six days in the desert in silence. I survived. I left more alive, alert, and awake.

Using Yoga, Meditation and Dance for a Shapeshifting Experience

We did our first Dance/Yoga/Meditation in early May. I was not sure what to expect. I attended a Five Rhythms dance in Costa Rica and an ecstastic dance event a few years ago. I have heard of the Move, and other similar events around the city. People dance without proscribed boundaries.

People move around in ways which made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of crazy people. I can’t let myself go like that. I am afraid of looking silly and foolish. But everyone else moves with a great truth which shines and glows.

Like children they unabashedly move around wherever their inclination takes them. This is generally not dancing like Drake in Hotline Bling. People move around making shapes of their bodies, as the music takes hold some begin to move in and out of yoga poses, roll on the floor, and move around towards a deeper rhythm. And it all makes sense.bachannal

When the session in May ended there was a hush in the room. Afterwards we sipped tea and lingered for a good amount of time. It felt blissful. I aspire for every class and event at the studio to create such a transformational shift. It felt like all of the ingredients combined to create something special beyond ordinary.

One person remarked the final shivansana song sounded like something from the 11th dimension, never mind a 3rd or 4th dimension. Another woman noted in shivasana she felt herself leaving her mat in way she had never experienced before. Theses event are drug and alcohol free. The rhythm and movements tingled the senses and let a beautiful feeling flow thorugh us and the room.

Come this Saturday ane experience it with us. Celebrate the summer solstice. What exactly happens ? The evening starts with an intention setting exercise with Liz. Following this we do some heart opening yoga to open our bodies and get the energy flowing. Then we dance to a masterful soundtrack set by Liz. We dance for an hour. She leads us through high energy moments and back down. We then move towards some restorative yoga poses. We end with a shivasanam guided meditation, and reiki done on us as we rest. Afterwards we gather, sip tea, and savor the moments and experience.

Register here.

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Kyle Lowry and the Dalai Lama

What do Kyle Lowry and the Dalai Lama have in common ? They are both commited and focused in very powerful ways.

Practice. Practice. Practice. “Do your practice and all is coming.” This a famous quote by Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga. But what kind of practice ? How much practice ? 10,000 hours ?

The Dalai Lama meditates 4 hours every morning.

“By nine a.m. … the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people”

My first thought is “hasn’t he gotten it yet ?” After meditating for so many years has he not reached the top of the mountain and no longer needs to climb ? Why does he still need to practice so long every day ? What would happen if he meditated a little less or even skipped a day ? Would he become grumpy, short tempered, and lose his contagious smile ?

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The same focus applies to professional athletes.The Toronto Raptors lost game one of their Eastern Conference semi final match against the Miami Heat. Commentators chided the performance the Raptor’s star player Kyle Lowry. With less than a second remaining in Game 1 Lowry scored a breathtaking 3 pointer from the half court to tie the game. It was not enough. Throughout the game he had not performed up to his expectations. The team lost in overtime. After everyone left Lowry returned to the court. From 11pm till 1am he practiced shooting. He wanted to gain back his best game. He commented later, “It was just about being out there and having time to just reflect on things, think about the game that I grew up as a kid playing, the game I love. It’s been countless nights where I’ve done that back in North Philly.” He led the Raptors to victory in the next game and helped them win the series.

To keep your best you need to continue to practice. After his midnight sessions on the court Kyle Lowry came back to play the most impressive games in Raptor history. In Game 7 Lowry scored 36 point to help the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Let’s Dance and Do Some Yoga

Bowie’s final video Blackstar powerfully combines Bowie’s classic voice, haunting images of him on hospital bed, as a preacher, and dancers moving to a cosmic rhythm. It’s both lyrically brilliant, a salient view on death from someone about to die, and still full of playfulness and dance. I have watched it many times. It is moving, chilling, touches the senses, and makes me think.It consistently brings me chills.

The video is a very clear final act by Bowie. It came out in November – two months before his death. People didn’t know what to make of it and it received good reviews. No one read into int saying it seemed to be Bowie speaking about his mortality. Nobody guessed he might be sick and this was his final goodbye.Once he died its message only then became obvious. It was Bowie’s brilliant final output at his creative peak poetically enlightening us on death and dying.

Life is precious and limited. In the end “They take your passport and shoes, And your sedatives and boos, You’re a flash in the pan I am the Great I am.” And with his classic vocal prowess he continues, “Something happened on the day he died,
Spirit rose a metre and then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried.”

What can we do to maximize our time here ? What can we do inspire those around, to build community, to spread love and goodness ?

For me yoga and meditation is a way to become more present. Bowie never looked back and always felt it important to stay in the moment.Yoga helps me to be in the moment by bringing balance to both mind and body.

I look forward to celebrating together as we do a special Vinyasa class full of comsic exploration of inner and outer space accompanied by the words and music of David Bowie. Join us Tuesday at 6pm. Reserve your spot.

Five Ways to Feel Amazing with Yoga, Meditation and Gratitude

Every day is Christmas, and every night is new years eve. Sade

Feel amazing! Happiness. Feeling really fine. Often such feelings can seem elusive. With yoga, meditation and gratitude you can find happines.Below are five ways to make yourself feel great.

Think of a Happy Moment

Remember a day or moment when something really amazing happened.Recall how you felt during that moment.  Where in your body do you most feel that good sensation as you recall the feeling and moment ? Maybe in your head or across your heart?  Spend a few moments enjoying that feeling and recreating that great emotion.

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Music Makes the People Come Together. Madonna

Listen to Music
Music heals. Sound awakens the senses.  Music connects us individually to greater emotions and also connects us with other people.

Listen to your favourate song or artist.

Listen to something which makes your move or dance.

It is gratefulness that makes the soul great.  A.J. Heschel

Write a Gratitude List
When we feel disconnected we can forget the many blessings we have.  You might start with writing a daily gratitude journal of at least 3 things each day for which you are grateful. Studies show that if we actively choose to focus on gratitude we will feel happier. This is not just hocus pocus or woo woo.

A 2003 study had one group of people keep a daily gratitude list and a second group listed daily hassles or neutral events. After ten weeks the first group felt more life satisfaction than the second group.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.  John Lennon

Breathe and Meditate

Start by taking some deep breathes.  You can start with five ujai breathes.  This is the deep breathing used in Ashtanga yoga and the technique Danny Paradise taught people like Sting, Paul Simon, Bob Weir, and many of his other famous students.

It can be easier to learn meditation in a supportive group with a teacher and the energy of other students. If you are in Toronto drop by one of Fireflow’s meditation offerings, try the Monday night Consciousness Explorer’s Club meditation downtown which attracts an amazing group of younger seekers, try a course at the Shambala Centre at Bloor and Christie, try out a Thich Nat Han Meditation downtown on Monday and Friday evenings, or in west-end Toronto try Fireflow’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Eight Week Course.  Free intro session Tuesday, January 12th, 2016 at 7.30pm.  Register here.

The more efficient your body, the better you feel and the more you will use your talent to produce outstanding results. Anthony Robbins

Exercise

Get yourself moving.  Almost any kind of movement will help and this is especially true if you have a desk job and work on a computer every day. Thirty to sixty minutes of exercise a few days a week will help you feel amazing.  Prolonged movement releases feel good chemicals in the brain and decreases negative feelings.

Yoga is a great way to move to both balance and strengthen the body and mind.

It makes you feel amazing, stay young, and brings you a sense of balance and ease.

Start today with any drop-in class.

For even better results try the Four Part Absolute Beginners Workshop.

No time to get to a studio or class ?  Make your own schedule.  Set up in-studio series of private coaching and yoga or bring us to your house or office.

To close, Louise CK has a great piece about gratitude and first world problems.

 

Science Reveals the Benefits of Meditation

Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits

Contemplative practices that extend back thousands of years show a multitude of benefits for both body and mind
Oct 14, 2014 |By Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-reveals-the-secrets-of-meditation-s-benefits/

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When the Society for Neuroscience asked Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), to address its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2005, a few hundred members among the nearly 35,000 or so attending the meeting petitioned to have the invitation rescinded. A religious leader, they felt, had no place at a scientific meeting. But this particular leader turned out to have a provocative and ultimately productive question to pose to the gathering. “What relation,” he asked, “could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science?”

The Dalai Lama, putting action before rhetoric, had already started trying to find answers to his own question. Back in the 1980s, he had sparked a dialogue about science and Buddhism, which led to the creation of the Mind & Life Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science. In 2000 he brought new focus to this endeavor: he launched the subdiscipline of “contemplative neuroscience” by inviting scientists to study the brain activity of expert Buddhist meditators—defined as having more than 10,000 hours of practice.

For nearly 15 years more than 100 monastics and lay practitioners of Buddhism and a large number of beginning meditators have participated in scientific experiments at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at least 19 other universities. The article you are reading, in fact, is the product of a collaboration between two neuroscientists and a Buddhist monk who originally trained as a cell biologist.

A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. The goals of meditation, in fact, overlap with many of the objectives of clinical psychology, psychiatry, preventive medicine and education. As suggested by the growing compendium of research, meditation may be effective in treating depression and chronic pain and in cultivating a sense of overall well-being.

The discovery of meditation’s benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist’s fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body.

What Is Meditation?
Meditation has roots in the contemplative practices of nearly every major religion. The prevalence of meditation in the media has given the word various meanings. We will refer to meditation as the cultivation of basic human qualities, such as a more stable and clear mind, emotional balance, a sense of caring mindfulness, even love and compassion—qualities that remain latent as long as one does not make an effort to develop them. It is also a process of familiarization with a more serene and flexible way of being.

In principle, meditation is relatively simple and can be done anywhere. No equipment or workout attire is needed. The meditator begins by assuming a comfortable physical posture, neither too tense nor too lax, and by wishing for self-transformation and a desire for others’ well-being and for the alleviation of their suffering. Later the practitioner must stabilize the mind, which is too often disorderly—and occupied by a stream of inner chatter. Mastering the mind requires freeing it from automatic mental conditioning and inner confusion.

We will examine here what happens in the brain during three common types of meditation developed through Buddhism and now practiced in secular programs in hospitals and schools throughout the world. The first one, focused-attention meditation, aims to tame and center the mind in the present moment while developing the capacity to remain vigilant to distractions. The second one, mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, tries to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. In mindfulness, the meditator remains attentive, moment by moment, to any experience without focusing on anything specific. Finally, another type of practice is known in Buddhist tradition as compassion and loving kindness and fosters an altruistic perspective toward others.

Under the Scanner
Neuroscientists have now begun to probe what happens inside the brain during the various types of meditation. Wendy Hasenkamp, then at Emory University, and her colleagues used brain imaging to identify the neural networks activated by focused-attention meditation. In the scanner, the participants trained their attention on the sensation produced by breathing. Typically during this form of meditation, the mind wanders from an object, and the meditator must recognize this and then restore attention to the gradual rhythm of the inhaling and exhaling. In this study, the meditator had to signal mind wandering by pressing a button. Researchers identified four phases of a cognitive cycle: an episode of mind wandering, a moment of becoming aware of the distraction, a phase of reorienting attention and a resumption of focused attention.

Each of the four phases involves particular brain networks. The first part of the cycle, when a distraction occurs, increases activity in the wide-ranging default-mode network (DMN). This network includes areas of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus, the inferior parietal lobe and the lateral temporal cortex. The DMN is known to become activated during mind wandering and to play a general role in building and updating internal models of the world based on long-term memories about the self or others.

The second phase, becoming aware of a distraction, occurs in other brain areas such as the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, regions of what is called the salience network. This network regulates subjectively perceived feelings, which might, for instance, lead to being distracted during a task. The salience network is thought to play a key role in detecting novel events and in switching activity during meditation among assemblies of neurons that make up the brain’s large-scale networks. It may shift attention away from the default-mode network, for instance.

The third phase engages additional areas—among them the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the lateral inferior parietal lobe—that “take back” one’s attention by detaching it from any distracting stimulus. Finally, in the fourth and last phase, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex continues to retain a high level of activity, as the meditator’s attention remains directed toward an object such as the breath.

In our laboratory at Wisconsin, we further observed different patterns of activity depending on a practitioner’s level of experience. Veteran meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice showed more activity in these attention-related brain regions compared with novices. Paradoxically, the most experienced meditators demonstrated less activation than the ones without as much experience. Advanced meditators appear to acquire a level of skill that enables them to achieve a focused state of mind with less effort. These effects resemble the skill of expert musicians and athletes capable of immersing themselves in the “flow” of their performances with a minimal sense of effortful control.

To study the impact of focused-attention meditation, we also studied its volunteers before and after a three-month retreat with intensive meditation exercises for at least eight hours a day. They received headphones that broadcast sounds at a given frequency, occasionally mixed with slightly higher-pitched sounds. They had to focus on the sounds played in one ear for 10 minutes and react to periodically interspersed high-pitched tones. After the retreat, we found that meditators, compared with a nonmeditating control group, showed less trial-to-trial variation in their reaction times on this highly repetitive task, which lent itself easily to distractions. The result suggested that the meditators had an enhanced capacity to remain vigilant. The brain’s electrical responses to high-pitched tones remained more stable at the second session only for the meditators.

Stream of Consciousness
The second type of well-studied meditation also involves another form of attention. Mindfulness, or open-monitoring meditation, requires the meditator to take note of every sight or sound and track internal bodily sensations and inner self-talk. The person stays aware of what is happening without becoming overly preoccupied with any single perception or thought, returning to this detached focus each time the mind strays. As awareness of what is happening in one’s surroundings grows, normal daily irritants—an angry colleague at work, a worried child at home—become less disruptive, and a sense of psychological well-being develops.

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With Heleen Slagter, then in our group at Wisconsin, we sought to learn about the influence of this form of training on mental functioning by measuring the participants’ capacity to detect rapidly presented visual stimuli—a means to measure mindfulness meditation, which is also sometimes called nonreactive awareness. To perform this experiment, we used a task in which the participants had to detect two numbers presented on a screen rapidly, amid a succession of letters. If the second number appears about 300 milliseconds after the first one, subjects often do not see the second, a phenomenon known as attentional blink.

If the second number appears after a delay of 600 milliseconds, it can be detected without difficulty. The attentional blink reflects the limits of the brain’s ability to process two stimuli presented to the observer at close intervals. When too much of the brain’s attention is devoted to processing the first number, the second number cannot always be detected, although the observer usually can see it on some of the trials. We hypothesized that mindfulness training could reduce the propensity to “get stuck,” or absorbed by seeing the first number. Mindfulness practice cultivates a nonreactive form of sensory awareness, which should result in a reduced attentional blink. As we predicted, after three months of an intensive retreat, the meditators perceived both numbers more frequently than the controls did. This improved perception was also reflected in lessened activity of a particular brain wave in response to the first number. Monitoring the P3b brain wave, used to assess how attention is allocated, indicated that meditators were capable of optimizing attention so as to minimize the attentional blink.

Staying aware of an unpleasant sensation can reduce maladaptive emotional responses and help one to move beyond the disagreeable feeling and may be particularly useful in dealing with pain. In our Wisconsin lab, we have studied experienced practitioners while they performed an advanced form of mindfulness meditation called open presence. In open presence, sometimes called pure awareness, the mind is calm and relaxed, not focused on anything in particular yet vividly clear, free from excitation or dullness. The meditator observes and is open to experience without making any attempt to interpret, change, reject or ignore painful sensation. We found that the intensity of the pain was not reduced in meditators, but it bothered them less than it did members of a control group.

Compared with novices, expert meditators’ brain activity diminished in anxiety-related regions—the insular cortex and the amygdala—in the period preceding the painful stimulus. The meditators’ brain response in pain-related regions became accustomed to the stimulus more quickly than that of novices after repeated exposures to it. Other tests in our lab have shown that meditation training increases one’s ability to better control and buffer basic physiological responses—inflammation or levels of a stress hormone—to a socially stressful task such as giving a public speech or doing mental arithmetic in front of a harsh jury.

Several studies have documented the benefits of mindfulness on symptoms of anxiety and depression and its ability to improve sleep patterns. By deliberately monitoring and observing their thoughts and emotions when they feel sad or worried, depressed patients can use meditation to manage negative thoughts and feelings as they arise spontaneously and so lessen rumination. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale, then at the University of Cambridge, and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto showed in 2000 that for patients who had previously suffered at least three episodes of depression, six months of mindfulness practice, along with cognitive therapy, reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40 percent in the year following the onset of a severe depression. More recently, Segal demonstrated that the intervention is superior to a placebo and has a protective effect against relapse comparable to standard maintenance antidepressant therapy.

Compassion and Loving Kindness
The third form of meditation under study cultivates attitudes and feelings of loving kindness and compassion toward other people, whether they are close relatives, strangers or enemies. This practice entails being aware of someone else’s needs and then experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help that person or to alleviate the suffering of other people by shielding them from their own destructive behavior.

To generate a compassionate state may sometimes entail the meditator feeling what another person is feeling. But having one’s emotions resonate empathetically with the feelings of another person does not by itself suffice to yield a compassionate mind-set. The meditation must also be driven by an unselfish desire to help someone who is suffering. This form of meditation on love and compassion has proved to be more than just a spiritual exercise. It has shown potential to benefit health care workers, teachers and others who run the risk of emotional burnout linked to the distress experienced from a deeply empathetic reaction to another person’s plight.

The meditator begins by focusing on an unconditional feeling of benevolence and love for others, accompanied by silent repetition of a phrase conveying intent, such as “May all beings find happiness and the causes of happiness and be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.” In 2008 we studied experienced volunteers who had practiced this form of training for thousands of hours and found an increase in activity in several brain regions while they listened to voices conveying distress. The secondary somatosensory and insular cortices, known to participate in empathetic and other emotional responses, were more activated for experts than controls in response to the distressed voice, suggesting an enhanced ability to share the feelings of others without reporting any sign of becoming emotionally overwhelmed. The practice of compassion meditation also produced more activity in areas such as the temporoparietal junction, the medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus, all typically activated when we put ourselves in the place of another.

More recently, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki, both at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, in collaboration with one of us (Ricard), sought to distinguish differences between the effects of empathy and compassion on meditators. They noted that compassion and altruistic love were associated with positive emotions, and they suggested that emotional exhaustion or burnout was, in fact, a kind of empathy “fatigue.”

According to the Buddhist contemplative tradition from which this practice is derived, compassion, far from leading to distress and discouragement, reinforces an inner balance, strength of mind, and a courageous determination to help those who suffer. If a child is hospitalized, the presence of a loving mother at his side holding his hand and comforting him with tender words will no doubt do that child more good than the anxiety of a mother overwhelmed with empathetic distress who, unable to bear the sight of her sick child, paces back and forth in the hallway. In the latter case, the mother may then end up with the common experience of burnout, which, in one U.S. study,beset about 60 percent of the 600 caregivers surveyed.

To further explore the mechanisms of empathy and compassion, Klimecki and Singer divided about 60 volunteers into two groups. One meditated on love and compassion, and the other experimental regimen trained participants to cultivate feelings of empathy for others. Preliminary results showed that after a week of meditation-based loving kindness and compassion, novice subjects watched video clips showing suffering people with more positive and benevolent feelings. The other subjects, who devoted a week to an experimental regimen that just cultivated empathy, experienced emotions that resonated deeply with others’ sufferings. But these emotions also brought about negative feelings and thoughts, and this group experienced more distress, sometimes to the point of not being able to control their emotions.

Aware of these destabilizing effects, Singer and Klimecki added training for the empathy group in compassion and loving kindness meditation. They then observed that this additional exercise counterbalanced the detrimental effects of training in empathy alone: negative emotions diminished, and positive emotions increased. These results were accompanied by corresponding changes in the areas of several brain networks associated with compassion, positive emotions and maternal love, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the ventral striatum and the anterior cingulate cortex. The researchers, moreover, were able to demonstrate that a week of training in compassion increased prosocial behavior in a virtual game specially developed to measure the capacity to help others.

A Door to Consciousness
Meditation explores the nature of the mind, providing a way to study consciousness and subjective mental states from the first-person perspective of the meditator. In a collaboration with expert Buddhist meditators at Wisconsin, we have studied the brain’s electrical activity using electroencephalography (EEG) during compassion meditation in which the meditators described the well-defined sense of self as becoming less fixed and permanent.

We found that these long-term Buddhist practitioners were able, at will, to sustain a particular EEG pattern. Specifically, it is called high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations and phase synchrony at between 25 and 42 hertz. The coordination of brain oscillations may play a potentially crucial role in the brain’s building of temporary networks that can integrate cognitive and affective functions during learning and conscious perception, a process that can bring about lasting changes in brain circuitry.

High-amplitude oscillations persisted throughout the meditation for several dozens of seconds and gradually increased as practice progressed. These EEG traces differed from those of control subjects, in particular, in the lateral frontoparietal cortex. Changes in electrical activity may reflect an increased awareness in expert meditators of their surroundings and their internal mental processes, although additional research is needed to better understand the functioning of gamma oscillations.

Meditation brings about changes not just in well-defined cognitive and emotional processes but also in the volume of certain brain areas, possibly reflecting alterations in the number of connections among brain cells. A preliminary study by Sara W. Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues showed that among longtime meditators, as compared with a control group, the volume of the brain’s darker tissue, its gray matter, differed in the insula and prefrontal cortices—specifically, regions called Brodmann areas 9 and 10, which are frequently activated during various forms of meditation. These distinctions were most pronounced in older participants in the study, suggesting that meditation might influence the thinning of brain tissue that comes with aging.

In a follow-up study, Lazar and her colleagues also showed that mindfulness training decreased the volume of the amygdala, a region involved in fear processing, for those participants who showed the most noticeable reductions in stress over the course of training. Eileen Luders of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues further observed differences in meditators in the fibers called axons that connect different brain regions, suggesting an enhanced number of brain connections. This observation may support the hypothesis that meditation actually induces structural alterations in the brain. An important limitation of this research relates to the lack of long-term longitudinal studies that follow a group over the course of many years and to the absence of comparisons between meditators and people of similar backgrounds and ages who do not meditate.

Some evidence even exists that meditation—and its ability to enhance overall well-being—may diminish inflammation and other biological stresses that occur at the molecular level. A collaborative study between our group and one led by Perla Kaliman of the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona showed that one day of intensive mindfulness practice in experienced meditators turned down the activity of inflammation-related genes and altered the functioning of enzymes involved with turning genes on and off. A study by Cliff Saron of the University of California, Davis, looked at the effect of meditation on a molecule involved with regulating the longevity of a cell. The molecule in question was an enzyme called telomerase that lengthens DNA segments at the ends of chromosomes. The segments, called telomeres, ensure stability of the genetic material during cell division. They shorten every time a cell divides, and when their length decreases below a critical threshold, the cell stops dividing and gradually enters a state of senescence. Compared with a control group, the meditators who showed the most pronounced reductions in psychological stress also had higher telomerase activity by the end of the retreat. This finding suggests that mindfulness training might slow processes of cellular aging among some practitioners.

A Path to Well-Being
About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains of experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.

More studies using well-defined, randomized controlled trials are needed to isolate meditation-related effects from other psychological factors that can influence the outcome of a study. Other variables that may affect study results are the level of motivation of a practitioner and the roles played by both teachers and students in a meditation group. Further work is needed to understand the possible negative side effects of meditation, the desirable length of a given practice session and the way to tailor it to a person’s specific needs.

Even with the requisite cautions, research on meditation provides new insights into methods of mental training that have the potential to enhance human health and well-being. Equally important, the ability to cultivate compassion and other positive human qualities lays the foundation for an ethical framework unattached to any philosophy or religion, which could have a profoundly beneficial effect on all aspects of human societies.

This article was originally published with the title “Mind of the Meditator.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who trained as a cellular biologist before he left France to become a student of Buddhism in the Himalayas about 40 years ago.

Antoine Lutz is a research scientist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and also works at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has been a leader in studying the neurobiology of meditation.

Richard J. Davidson has pioneered the science of meditation as director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

MORE TO EXPLORE
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. Matthieu Ricard. Little, Brown, 2006.

Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence. Antoine Lutz et al. in Journal of Neuroscience. Vol. 29, No. 42, pages 13,418–13,427; October 21, 2009.

Mind Wandering and Attention during Focused Meditation: A Fine-Grained Temporal Analysis of Fluctuating Cognitive States. Wendy Hasenkamp et al. in NeuroImage, Vol. 59, No. 1, pages 750–760; January 2, 2012.

FROM OUR ARCHIVES

The Physiology of Meditation. Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson; February 1972.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE Watch talks by Davidson and Ricard at http://ScientificAmerican.com/nov2014/meditation