Tag Archives: science

Jnana Yogis

(The second in a series of catch-up blogs inspired by a weekend at the Omega Yoga Service Conference.  Check out the first blog on Nikki Myers, Addiction and Authenticity)

There was no shortage of knowledge (or wisdom) at the  Omega Yoga Service Conference this weekend.  Two jnana yogis (jnanins) in particular really lit up the room lecturing on key topics for service yogis.

DSC06597Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University (the top ranked uni for graduate psychology programs in the US), delivered a brilliant presentation on compassion, some of the neurophysiology behind it, and how people in the helping fields can strengthen this powerful skill.

We were treated to summaries of findings by Paul Gilbert and host of other leaders in psychology and compassion research (Fiske, Goetz, Longe, Slovik, et al.) – years of scientific mining filtered down to the gems of their labor (priceless for the lay people in the audience, including myself!).  And despite the limited time, we were offered several hands-on exercises to nourish our own compassion, or to utilize in a clinical setting.  Kelly’s presentation was practical, clear, and absolutely inspirational as both a yogi and an aspiring academic.

“Kelly McGonigal is a leader driven by compassion and pragmatism.” – Forbes.com 20 Inspiring Women

bessel1Trauma was a big theme throughout this conference and Bessel Van der Kolk closed the gathering with a presentation on Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma.  Bessel’s approach was a comfortable mix of personal sharing as a clinical psychologist and the intriguing new research emerging about which areas of the brain are most affected by trauma.  He opened with a few aesthetic representations of trauma, including a video clip from shell-shocked WWII veterans in Europe – otherworldly and fundamentally disturbing.

We were later shown brain imaging scans of PTSD patients just a few years back – illustrating almost complete lack of activity in their temporal parietal insula and parietal cortex areas.  For PTSD patients, sensations from the body were almost totally blocked.  Their brains no longer wanted them to physically ‘be,’ their trauma had been so severe.  Bessel described pranayam as the only known technique to regulate the brain stem, the part of the nervous system in charge of automatic functioning.  He also discussed the importance of the vagus nerve, which contains 80% efferent fibers, nerve communication going to the brain.

Clearly, I’m still connecting some of the dots; all this information, along with my discoveries in Health Psychology and Mindfulness and Meditation in Psychology this year, clarifies the “why” questions that pop up when I suggest asana, meditation and pranayam to my students.  The scientific research might seem redundant to hardcore practitioners, but is absolutely vital in locating the process of efficacy, what *exactly* is working, *how* is it doing what it does, do duration and frequency of practice make a difference, and if so, how much?

It’s also great fodder for recruiting new yogis (especially you skeptical lot!)  – something this yoga evangelist is very keen on (be warned! ;)).

jnanaJnana?  Really?

Already what I’ve written could be broken into *two* blogs, one about Kelly’s presentation on compassion/science and one about Bessel’s on trauma/yogic techniques/science.  But this is a blog on how grateful I am for jnana yogis.  Yogis like Kelly and Bessel who are discerning the Real from the unreal or illusory, yogis who exhibit the best of svadhyaya (self-study).  Their extensive studies and commitment to yoga provide great clarity in the grey areas that arise where Eastern philosophy meets Western science.

If you’re a traditionalist, you may find my definition of a jnani rather modern.  Kelly and Bassel did not give presentations on spiritual texts like the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads – and they made absolutely no mention of self-realization.  Would they call themselves jnanis?  I have no idea!  But they’ve shone a flashlight along my path, a light that came through their profound study, and so, for me, they are jnana yogis to be grateful for!

A Traditional Explanation of the Path of Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is considered one of the many paths of yoga (along with Hatha, Karma, Bhakti, Raja/Classical/Patanjali, etc.) – though the techniques and nuances of philosophy differ, they all lead to one state: samadhi (bliss, liberation, self-realization, etc.).  Jnana Yoga is known as the path for the intellectual.  According to Sadananda in his Vedanta-Sara, a fifteenth century text on jnana yoga, there are 4 principal means for attaining liberation on the path of jnana:

1. Discernment – viveka – between permanent and the transient

2. Renunciation – viraga – of the enjoyment of the fruit of one’s actions

3. The six accomplishments: tranquility (shama), sense-restraint (dama), cessation (uparati), endurance (titiksha), mental collectedness (samadhana), faith (shraddha)

4. The urge toward liberation (mumukshutva), similar to the bodhi-citta of Mahayana Buddhism.

(Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition, 31)

If you’re interested in diving into what jnana yoga is all about, the Bhagavad Gita (500-200 BC) is the first text to reference this path, and Swami Vivekananda is said to be the penultimate example of a jnanin.  His commentary, “Jnana Yoga,” published by Advaita Ashrama, though written in the language of the Victorian Era, is an elucidating read on the subject.

Advertisements

Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Mass General

Today I’m grateful for the folks over at Mass Gen who are bringing to light more of the proven benefits of meditation (among other things, of course).  Their findings show we actually have the ability to change our gene expression and activity through simple 10-20 minute sessions of meditation, countering the effects of stress – this is one of the most empowering empirical discoveries about meditation I could imagine.

In the spiritual contexts of Buddhism and Yoga, the ultimate “goal” of meditation would be enlightenment, nirvana, bliss, samadhi.  But these kinds of studies open the door for people to experience benefits of meditation without the (sometimes overwhelming) metaphysical connotations.

So thanks, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Mass General (what a mouthful).  Your service just may convert a few skeptics out there 😉

Study: How Yoga Alters Genes

PROBLEM: The flight or fight response — the natural response to stress — essentially puts the nervous system in overdrive. So it’s no surprise that its opposite state, known as the relaxation response to stress, is associated with feeling good, in a general sense. People are able to evoke the relaxation response by repeating a yoga pose, prayer, or mantra while disregarding other thoughts, and it’s been shown to protect against psychological disorders like anxiety and depression as well as physical conditions like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.


METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Subjects trained 26 adults with no prior experience in this type of meditation for eight weeks. They practiced deep breathing, repeated mantras, and learned to ignore intrusive thoughts. Initially, they were given blood tests immediately before and 15 minutes after listening to a 20-minute health education CD. This was repeated after their training, only with a CD that guided them in their meditation. Twenty-five other participants, who had long-term experience in evoking the relaxation response, were tested as well.

RESULTS: All of the subjects’ blood samples revealed changes in gene expression following meditation. The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight: genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were turned on, while those involved in inflammation were turned off. These effects were more pronounced and consistent for long-term practitioners.

IMPLICATIONS: People who practice simple meditation aren’t “just relaxing,” explained the study’s senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson (he of the aforementioned institute). Instead, they’re experiencing “a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress.” While this study only looked at one way of reaching this state, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation. Yet this is the first time researchers have been able to use basic science to show that these practices actually have an observable, biological effect.

It’s only gene expression that is altered, not the genes themselves. But these results also showed that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes. Fortunately it’s not hard to learn — in what was perhaps the most pleasant turn an interview has ever taken, Benson guided me through a meditation session. “Do it for years,” said Benson, “and then these effects are quite powerful in how they change your gene activity.”


Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways” is published in PLOS ONE.

Mindfulness Mahalos

Things can get pretty hectic during this time of year.  Between travel, reconnecting with loved ones, overflowing shopping scenes, cooking, eating and drinking exorbitant amounts of all the special goodies on offer, and the general frenetic emotional landscape of thangs, having a mindfulness practice couldn’t be more crucial.

Mindfulness practice might sound a bit intimidating, or new agey, if you’re not familiar with it, but the practice can be seen as a kind of brain game, or mental gymnastics.  Mindfulness is really the practice of awareness, being conscious in thought, word and action – as a concrete example, practicing mindfulness during the holidays might mean not mindlessly eating until you feel sick (no fun, I know!  ;o)), or it might mean noticing how happy you are as you share in a joke with Grandma.  According to Jon Kabat-Zinn , “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”

If you have already explored mindfulness practice, and are looking to make your practice more regular habit, maybe even start practicing on your own, check out this article from Shades Magazine. 

dinnermeditation

Whatever your “level,” mindfulness practice offers a plethora of benefits that can only enhance your holiday experience – stress reduction, improved working memory, less emotional reactivity, greater relationship satisfaction, the list goes on and on (just ask the APA…)

From the American Psychological Association

What are the benefits of mindfulness

A wealth of new research has explored this age-old practice. Here’s a look at its benefits for both clients and psychologists.

By Daphne M. Davis, PhD, and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD

July 2012, Vol 43, No. 7

Print version: page 64

Mindfulness has enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity in the past decade, both in the popular press and in the psychotherapy literature. The practice has moved from a largely obscure Buddhist concept founded about 2,600 years ago to a mainstream psychotherapy construct today.

Advocates of mindfulness would have us believe that virtually every client and therapist would benefit from being more mindful. Among its theorized benefits are self-control, objectivity, affect tolerance, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.

But is mindfulness as good as advertised? This article offers an overview of the research on mindfulness and discusses its implications for practice, research and training.

Mindfulness-MindMap

Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness

The term “mindfulness” has been used to refer to a psychological state of awareness, the practices that promote this awareness, a mode of processing information and a character trait. To be consistent with most of the research reviewed in this article, we define mindfulness as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. In this sense, mindfulness is a state and not a trait. While it might be promoted by certain practices or activities, such as meditation, it is not equivalent to or synonymous with them.

Several disciplines and practices can cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, but most of the literature has focused on mindfulness that is developed through mindfulness meditation — those self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

Researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.

More specifically, research on mindfulness has identified these benefits:

Reduced rumination. Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. In one study, for example, Chambers et al. (2008) asked 20 novice meditators to participate in a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation retreat. After the retreat, the meditation group had significantly higher self-reported mindfulness and a decreased negative affect compared with a control group. They also experienced fewer depressive symptoms and less rumination. In addition, the meditators had significantly better working memory capacity and were better able to sustain attention during a performance task compared with the control group.

Stress reduction. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. In 2010, Hoffman et al. conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies that explored the use of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.

Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. In one study, participants randomly assigned to an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction group were compared with controls on self-reported measures of depression, anxiety and psychopathology, and on neural reactivity as measured by fMRI after watching sad films (Farb et al., 2010). The researchers found that the participants who experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress compared with the control group. In addition, the fMRI data indicated that the mindfulness group had less neural reactivity when they were exposed to the films than the control group, and they displayed distinctly different neural responses while watching the films than they did before their mindfulness training. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain (Farb et al., 2010; Williams, 2010).

Boosts to working memory. Improvements to working memory appear to be another benefit of mindfulness, research finds. A 2010 study by Jha et al., for example, documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation among a military group who participated in an eight-week mindfulness training, a nonmeditating military group and a group of nonmeditating civilians. Both military groups were in a highly stressful period before deployment. The researchers found that the nonmeditating military group had decreased working memory capacity over time, whereas working memory capacity among nonmeditating civilians was stable across time. Within the meditating military group, however, working memory capacity increased with meditation practice. In addition, meditation practice was directly related to self-reported positive affect and inversely related to self-reported negative affect.

Focus. Another study examined how mindfulness meditation affected participants’ ability to focus attention and suppress distracting information. The researchers compared a group of experienced mindfulness meditators with a control group that had no meditation experience. They found that the meditation group had significantly better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning (Moore and Malinowski, 2009).

Less emotional reactivity. Research also supports the notion that mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).

More cognitive flexibility. Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).

Relationship satisfaction. Several studies find that a person’s ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one’s emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests that mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict (Barnes et al., 2007), is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations (Dekeyser el al., 2008) and predicts relationship satisfaction (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007).

Other benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation has numerous health benefits, including increased immune functioning (Davidson et al., 2003; see Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004 for a review of physical health benefits), improvement to well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008) and reduction in psychological distress (Coffey & Hartman, 2008; Ostafin et al., 2006). In addition, mindfulness meditation practice appears to increase information processing speed (Moore & Malinowski, 2009), as well as decrease task effort and having thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand (Lutz et al., 2009).

The effects of meditation on therapists and therapist trainees

While many studies have been conducted on the benefits of applying mindfulness approaches to psychotherapy clients (for reviews, see Didonna, 2009 and Baer, 2006), research on the effects of mindfulness on psychotherapists is just beginning to emerge. Specifically, research has identified these benefits for psychotherapists who practice mindfulness meditation:

Empathy. Several studies suggest that mindfulness promotes empathy. One study, for example, looked at premedical and medical students who participated in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training. It found that the mindfulness group had significantly higher self-reported empathy than a control group (Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). In 2006, a qualitative study of therapists who were experienced meditators found that they believed that mindfulness meditation helped develop empathy toward clients (Aiken, 2006). Along similar lines, Wang (2007) found that therapists who were experienced mindfulness meditators scored higher on measures of self-reported empathy than therapists who did not meditate.

Compassion. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training has also been found to enhance self-compassion among health-care professionals (Shapiro, Astin, Bishop, & Cordova, 2005) and therapist trainees (Shapiro, Brown, & Biegel, 2007). In 2009, Kingsbury investigated the role of self-compassion in relation to mindfulness. Two components of mindfulness — nonjudging and nonreacting — were strongly correlated with self-compassion, as were two dimensions of empathy — taking on others’ perspectives (i.e., perspective taking) and reacting to others’ affective experiences with discomfort. Self-compassion fully mediated the relationship between perspective taking and mindfulness.

Counseling skills. Empirical literature demonstrates that including mindfulness interventions in psychotherapy training may help therapists develop skills that make them more effective. In a four-year qualitative study, for example, counseling students who took a 15-week course that included mindfulness meditation reported that mindfulness practice enabled them to be more attentive to the therapy process, more comfortable with silence, and more attuned with themselves and clients (Newsome, Christopher, Dahlen, & Christopher, 2006; Schure, Christopher, & Christopher, 2008). Counselors in training who have participated in similar mindfulness-based interventions have reported significant increases in self-awareness, insights about their professional identity (Birnbaum, 2008) and overall wellness (Rybak & Russell-Chapin, 1998).

Decreased stress and anxiety. Research found that premedical and medical students reported less anxiety and depressive symptoms after participating in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction training compared with a waiting list control group (Shapiro et al., 1998). The control group evidenced similar gains after exposure to mindfulness-based stress reduction training. Similarly, following such training, therapist trainees have reported decreased stress, rumination and negative affect (Shapiro et al., 2007). In addition, when compared with a control group, mindfulness-based stress reduction training has been shown to decrease total mood disturbance, including stress, anxiety and fatigue in medical students (Rosenzweig, Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Hojat, 2003).

Better quality of life. Using qualitative and quantitative measures, nursing students reported better quality of life and a significant decrease in negative psychological symptoms following exposure to mindfulness-based stress reduction training (Bruce, Young, Turner, Vander Wal, & Linden, 2002). Evidence from a study of counselor trainees exposed to interpersonal mindfulness training suggests that such interventions can foster emotional intelligence and social connectedness, and reduce stress and anxiety (Cohen & Miller, 2009).

Similarly, in a study of Chinese college students, those students who were randomly assigned to participate in a mindfulness meditation intervention had lower depression and anxiety, as well as less fatigue, anger and stress-related cortisol compared to a control group (Tang et al., 2007). These same students had greater attention, self-regulation and immunoreactivity. Another study assessed changes in symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder among New Orleans mental health workers following an eight-week meditation intervention that began 10 weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Although changes in depression symptoms were not found, PTSD and anxiety symptoms significantly decreased after the intervention (Waelde et al., 2008). The findings suggest that meditation may serve a buffering role for mental health workers in the wake of a disaster.

Other benefits for therapists. To date, only one study has investigated the relationship between mindfulness and counseling self-efficacy. Greason and Cashwell (2009) found that counseling self-efficacy was significantly predicted by self-reported mindfulness among masters-level interns and doctoral counseling students. In that study, attention mediated the relationship between mindfulness and self-efficacy, suggesting that mindfulness may contribute to the development of beneficial attentional processes that aid psychotherapists in training (Greason & Cashwell, 2009). Other potential benefits of mindfulness include increased patience, intentionality, gratitude and body awareness (Rothaupt & Morgan, 2007).

Outcomes of clients whose therapists meditate

While research points to the conclusion that mindfulness meditation offers numerous benefits to therapists and trainees, do these benefits translate to psychotherapy treatment outcomes?

So far, only one study suggests it does. In a study conducted in Germany, randomly assigned counselor trainees who practiced Zen meditation for nine weeks reported higher self-awareness compared with nonmeditating counselor trainees (Grepmair et al., 2007). But more important, after nine weeks of treatment, clients of trainees who meditated displayed greater reductions in overall symptoms, faster rates of change, scored higher on measures of well-being and perceived their treatment to be more effective than clients of nonmeditating trainees.

However, the results of three other studies were not as encouraging. Stanley et al. (2006) studied the relationship between trait mindfulness among 23 doctoral-level clinical psychology trainees in relation to treatment outcomes of 144 adult clients at a community clinic that used manualized, empirically supported treatments. Contrary to expectation, therapist mindfulness was inversely correlated with client outcome.

This is consistent with other findings that suggest an inverse relationship exists between therapists’ mindfulness and client outcomes (Bruce, 2006; Vinca & Hayes, 2007). Other research suggests that no relationship exists between therapist mindfulness and therapy outcome (Stratton, 2006).

What might be behind these results? It could be that “more mindful” people are likely to score lower on self-reports of mindfulness because they are more accurately able to describe their “mindlessness.” Conversely, people who are less mindful may not realize it and therefore may be inclined to rate themselves higher on such measures.

Overall, while the psychological and physical health benefits of mindfulness meditation are strongly supported by research, the ways in which therapists’ mindfulness meditation practice and therapists’ mindfulness translate to measureable outcomes in psychotherapy remain unclear. Future research is needed to examine the relations between therapists’ mindfulness, therapists’ regular mindfulness meditation practice and common factors known to contribute to successful treatment outcomes.

Important next steps in research

Future research holds tremendous potential for learning more about the neurophysiological processes of meditation and the benefits of long-term practice on the brain. Research on neuroplasticity may help explain the relationships among length and quality of meditation practice, developmental stages of meditators and psychotherapy outcomes. More research is needed to better understand how the benefits of meditation practice accumulate over time.

In addition, psychologists and others need to explore other ways to increase mindfulness in addition to meditation. Given that current research does not indicate that therapists’ self-reported mindfulness enhances client outcomes, better measures of mindfulness may need to be developed or different research designs that do not rely on self-report measures need to be used. Garland and Gaylord (2009) have proposed that the next generation of mindfulness research encompass four domains: 1. performance-based measures of mindfulness, as opposed to self-reports of mindfulness; 2. scientific evaluation of notions espoused by Buddhist traditions; 3. neuroimaging technology to verify self-report data; and 4. changes in gene expression as a result of mindfulness. Research along these lines is likely to enhance our understanding of mindfulness and its potential benefits to psychotherapy.

Research is also needed on effective and practical means of teaching therapists mindfulness practices. Future research could investigate ways mindfulness practices and mindfulness meditation could be integrated into trainees’ practicum and clinical supervision. Since mindfulness-based stress reduction has been successfully used with therapist trainees (e.g., Shapiro et al., 2007), the technique may be a simple way for therapists to integrate mindfulness practices into trainees’ practicum class or group supervision. Future research questions could include: Does therapists’ practice of mindfulness meditation in clinical supervision with their supervisees affect the supervisory alliance or relational skills of supervisees? Does practicing formal mindfulness meditation as a group in practicum or internship aid in group cohesion, self-care, relational skills or measurable common factors that contribute to successful psychotherapy?

Given the limited research thus far on empathy, compassion, decreased stress and reactivity, more research is needed on how mindfulness meditation practice affects these constructs and measurable counseling skills in both trainees and therapists. For example, how does mindfulness meditation practice affect empathy and compassion for midcareer or late-career therapists who are experienced at mindfulness?

Shapiro and Carlson (2009) have suggested that mindfulness meditation can also serve psychologists as a means of self-care to prevent burnout. Future research is needed on not only how the practice of mindfulness meditation helps facilitate trainee development and psychotherapy processes, but also how it can help therapists prevent burnout and other detrimental outcomes of work-related stress.

In addition, despite abundant theoretical work on ways to conceptually merge Buddhist and Western psychology to psychotherapy (e.g., Epstein, 2007, 1995), there is a lack of literature on what it looks like in session when a therapist uses mindfulness and Buddhist-oriented approaches to treat specific clinical issues.

In conclusion, mindfulness has the potential to facilitate trainee and therapists’ development, as well as affect change mechanisms known to contribute to successful psychotherapy. The field of psychology could benefit from future research examining cause and effect relationships in addition to mediational models in order to better understand the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation practice.


Daphne M. Davis, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass.

Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD, is a professor of counseling psychology at the Pennsylvania State University department of educational psychology, counseling and special education.

mindfullvsmindful

 From the New York Times

Lotus Therapy

By BENEDICT CAREY

The patient sat with his eyes closed, submerged in the rhythm of his own breathing, and after a while noticed that he was thinking about his troubled relationship with his father.

“I was able to be there, present for the pain,” he said, when the meditation session ended. “To just let it be what it was, without thinking it through.”

The therapist nodded.

“Acceptance is what it was,” he continued. “Just letting it be. Not trying to change anything.”

“That’s it,” the therapist said. “That’s it, and that’s big.”

This exercise in focused awareness and mental catch-and-release of emotions has become perhaps the most popular new psychotherapy technique of the past decade. Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. It is catching the attention of talk therapists of all stripes, including academic researchers, Freudian analysts in private practice and skeptics who see all the hallmarks of another fad.

For years, psychotherapists have worked to relieve suffering by reframing the content of patients’ thoughts, directly altering behavior or helping people gain insight into the subconscious sources of their despair and anxiety. The promise of mindfulness meditation is that it can help patients endure flash floods of emotion during the therapeutic process — and ultimately alter reactions to daily experience at a level that words cannot reach. “The interest in this has just taken off,” said Zindel Segal, a psychologist at the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, where the above group therapy session was taped. “And I think a big part of it is that more and more therapists are practicing some form of contemplation themselves and want to bring that into therapy.”

At workshops and conferences across the country, students, counselors and psychologists in private practice throng lectures on mindfulness. The National Institutes of Health is financing more than 50 studies testing mindfulness techniques, up from 3 in 2000, to help relieve stress, soothe addictive cravings, improve attention, lift despair and reduce hot flashes.

Some proponents say Buddha’s arrival in psychotherapy signals a broader opening in the culture at large — a way to access deeper healing, a hidden path revealed.

Yet so far, the evidence that mindfulness meditation helps relieve psychiatric symptoms is thin, and in some cases, it may make people worse, some studies suggest. Many researchers now worry that the enthusiasm for Buddhist practice will run so far ahead of the science that this promising psychological tool could turn into another fad.

“I’m very open to the possibility that this approach could be effective, and it certainly should be studied,” said Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory. “What concerns me is the hype, the talk about changing the world, this allure of the guru that the field of psychotherapy has a tendency to cultivate.”

Buddhist meditation came to psychotherapy from mainstream academic medicine. In the 1970s, a graduate student in molecular biology, Jon Kabat-Zinn, intrigued by Buddhist ideas, adapted a version of its meditative practice that could be easily learned and studied. It was by design a secular version, extracted like a gemstone from the many-layered foundation of Buddhist teaching, which has sprouted a wide variety of sects and spiritual practices and attracted 350 million adherents worldwide.

In transcendental meditation and other types of meditation, practitioners seek to transcend or “lose” themselves. The goal of mindfulness meditation was different, to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn taught the practice to people suffering from chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts medical school. In the 1980s he published a series of studies demonstrating that two-hour courses, given once a week for eight weeks, reduced chronic pain more effectively than treatment as usual.

Word spread, discreetly at first. “I think that back then, other researchers had to be very careful when they talked about this, because they didn’t want to be seen as New Age weirdos,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts, said in an interview. “So they didn’t call it mindfulness or meditation. “After a while, we put enough studies out there that people became more comfortable with it.”

One person who noticed early on was Marsha Linehan, a psychologist at the University of Washington who was trying to treat deeply troubled patients with histories of suicidal behavior. “Trying to treat these patients with some change-based behavior therapy just made them worse, not better,” Dr. Linehan said in an interview. “With the really hard stuff, you need something else, something that allows people to tolerate these very strong emotions.”

In the 1990s, Dr. Linehan published a series of studies finding that a therapy that incorporated Zen Buddhist mindfulness, “radical acceptance,” practiced by therapist and patient significantly cut the risk of hospitalization and suicide attempts in the high-risk patients.

Finally, in 2000, a group of researchers including Dr. Segal in Toronto, J. Mark G. Williams at the University of Wales and John D. Teasdale at the Medical Research Council in England published a study that found that eight weekly sessions of mindfulness halved the rate of relapse in people with three or more episodes of depression.

With Dr. Kabat-Zinn, they wrote a popular book, “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” Psychotherapists’ curiosity about mindfulness, once tentative, turned into “this feeding frenzy, of sorts, that we have going on now,” Dr. Kabat-Zinn said.

Mindfulness meditation is easy to describe. Sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed, preferably with the back upright and unsupported. Relax and take note of body sensations, sounds and moods. Notice them without judgment. Let the mind settle into the rhythm of breathing. If it wanders (and it will), gently redirect attention to the breath. Stay with it for at least 10 minutes.

After mastering control of attention, some therapists say, a person can turn, mentally, to face a threatening or troubling thought — about, say, a strained relationship with a parent — and learn simply to endure the anger or sadness and let it pass, without lapsing into rumination or trying to change the feeling, a move that often backfires.

One woman, a doctor who had been in therapy for years to manage bouts of disabling anxiety, recently began seeing Gaea Logan, a therapist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. This patient had plenty to worry about, including a mentally ill child, a divorce and what she described as a “harsh internal voice,” Ms. Logan said.

After practicing mindfulness meditation, she continued to feel anxious at times but told Ms. Logan, “I can stop and observe my feelings and thoughts and have compassion for myself.”

Steven Hayes, a psychologist at the University of Nevada at Reno, has developed a talk therapy called Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT, based on a similar, Buddha-like effort to move beyond language to change fundamental psychological processes.

“It’s a shift from having our mental health defined by the content of our thoughts,” Dr. Hayes said, “to having it defined by our relationship to that content — and changing that relationship by sitting with, noticing and becoming disentangled from our definition of ourselves.”

For all these hopeful signs, the science behind mindfulness is in its infancy. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which researches health practices, last year published a comprehensive review of meditation studies, including T.M., Zen and mindfulness practice, for a wide variety of physical and mental problems. The study found that over all, the research was too sketchy to draw conclusions.

A recent review by Canadian researchers, focusing specifically on mindfulness meditation, concluded that it did “not have a reliable effect on depression and anxiety.”

Therapists who incorporate mindfulness practices do not agree when the meditation is most useful, either. Some say Buddhist meditation is most useful for patients with moderate emotional problems. Others, like Dr. Linehan, insist that patients in severe mental distress are the best candidates for mindfulness.

A case in point is mindfulness-based therapy to prevent a relapse into depression. The treatment significantly reduced the risk of relapse in people who have had three or more episodes of depression. But it may have had the opposite effect on people who had one or two previous episodes, two studies suggest.

The mindfulness treatment “may be contraindicated for this group of patients,” S. Helen Ma and Dr. Teasdale of the Medical Research Council concluded in a 2004 study of the therapy.

Since mindfulness meditation may have different effects on different mental struggles, the challenge for its proponents will be to specify where it is most effective — and soon, given how popular the practice is becoming.

The question, said Linda Barnes, an associate professor of family medicine and pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, is not whether mindfulness meditation will become a sophisticated therapeutic technique or lapse into self-help cliché.

“The answer to that question is yes to both,” Dr. Barnes said.

The real issue, most researchers agree, is whether the science will keep pace and help people distinguish the mindful variety from the mindless.

A variety of meditative practices have been studied by Western researchers for their effects on mental and physical health.

Tai Chi

An active exercise, sometimes called moving meditation, involving extremely slow, continuous movement and extreme concentration. The movements are to balance the vital energy of the body but have no religious significance.

Studies are mixed, some finding it can reduce blood pressure in patients, and others finding no effect. There is some evidence that it can help elderly people improve balance.

Transcendental Meditation

Meditators sit comfortably, eyes closed, and breathe naturally. They repeat and concentrate on the mantra, a word or sound chosen by the instructor to achieve state of deep, transcendent absorption. Practitioners “lose” themselves, untouched by day-to-day concerns. Studies suggest it can reduce blood pressure in some patients.

Mindfulness Meditation

Practitioners find a comfortable position, close the eyes and focus first on breathing, passively observing it. If a stray thought or emotion enters the mind, they allow it to pass and return attention to the breath. The aim is to achieve focused awareness on what is happening moment to moment.

Studies find that it can help manage chronic pain. The findings are mixed on substance abuse. Two trials suggest that it can cut the rate of relapse in people who have had three or more bouts of depression.

Yoga

Enhanced awareness through breathing techniques and specific postures. Schools vary widely, aiming to achieve total absorption in the present and a release from ordinary thoughts. Studies are mixed, but evidence shows it can reduce stress.

Grateful for: The Atlantic

. . . because they publish articles like this one (below) by Oliver Sacks, MD,  professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine, in perfect synchronicity with what I’m already reading   (“The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain,” at the moment – which is actually sited in this article!)  More synchronicity? A good mate of mine just sent me Sacks’ most recent book, Hallucinations. Can’t wait to dive into that one . . .

(feature photo: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope shows a rare view of a pair of overlapping galaxies, called NGC 3314. The two galaxies appear to be colliding, but they are actually separated by tens of millions of light-years, or about ten times the distance between our Milky Way and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. The chance alignment of the two galaxies, as seen from Earth, gives a unique look at the silhouetted spiral arms in the closer face-on spiral, NGC 3314A. The motion of the two galaxies indicates that they are both relatively undisturbed and that they are moving in markedly different directions. (NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, and W. Keel, University of Alabama))

The Atlantic also publishes articles like “How the Mafia is Ruining Naples’ Food Scene,” “Why America has one of the Highest Child Poverty Rates in the World,” and something my grandfather would enjoy, “Photographing the Dawn of Amtrack.”

But on to the Oliver Sacks article!

(note to reader:  I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with the genius doctor.  For example, I cannot see how, based on our definition of the metaphysical or divine, we could *ever* prove their existence.   But epistemological landscapes are always fun to explore …)

check it out . . .

Seeing God in the Third Millennium

By Oliver Sacks

How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies

3523665724_e91c2c81ca_z615.jpg

lupzdut/Flickr

There are many carefully documented accounts in the medical literature of intense, life-altering religious experience in epileptic seizures. Hallucinations of overwhelming intensity, sometimes accompanied by a sense of bliss and a strong feeling of the numinous, can occur especially with the so-called “ecstatic” seizures that may occur in temporal lobe epilepsy. Though such seizures may be brief, they can lead to a fundamental reorientation, a metanoia, in one’s life. Fyodor Dostoevsky was prone to such seizures and described many of them, including this:

The air was filled with a big noise and I tried to move. I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it engulfed me. I have really touched God. He came into me myself, yes God exists, I cried, and I don’t remember anything else. You all, healthy people … can’t imagine the happiness which we epileptics feel during the second before our fit. … I don’t know if this felicity lasts for seconds, hours or months, but believe me, for all the joys that life may bring, I would not exchange this one.

A century later, Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard published a detailed report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry of a bus conductor who had a sudden feeling of elation while collecting fares. They wrote:

He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss. He felt he was literally in Heaven. He collected the fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven. … He remained in this state of exaltation, hearing divine and angelic voices, for two days. Afterwards he was able to recall these experiences and he continued to believe in their validity. [Three years later] following three seizures on three successive days, he became elated again. He stated that his mind had “cleared.” … During this episode he lost his faith.

He now no longer believed in heaven and hell, in an afterlife, or in the divinity of Christ. This second conversion — to atheism — carried the same excitement and revelatory quality as the original religious conversion.

More recently, Orrin Devinsky and his colleagues have been able to make video EEG recordings in patients who are having such seizures, and have observed an exact synchronization of the epiphany with a spike in epileptic activity in the temporal lobes (more commonly the right temporal lobe).

“I was flying forwards, bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.'”

Ecstatic seizures are rare — they only occur in something like 1 or 2 percent of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy. But the last half century has seen an enormous increase in the prevalence of other states sometimes permeated by religious joy and awe, “heavenly” visions and voices, and, not infrequently, religious conversion or metanoia. Among these are out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which are more common now that more patients can be brought back to life from serious cardiac arrests and the like — and much more elaborate and numinous experiences called near-death experiences (NDEs).

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective “reality.”

shutterstock_59735221.jpgEEG with epileptic waveforms [Wikimedia Commons]

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations — whatever their cause or modality — seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

In OBEs, subjects feel that they have left their bodies — they seem to be floating in midair, or in a corner of the room, looking down on their vacated bodies from a distance. The experience may be felt as blissful, terrifying, or neutral. But its extraordinary nature — the apparent separation of “spirit” from body, imprints it indelibly on the mind and may be taken by some people as evidence of an immaterial soul — proof that consciousness, personality, and identity can exist independently of the body and even survive bodily death.

Neurologically, OBEs are a form of bodily illusion arising from a temporary dissociation of visual and proprioceptive representations — normally these are coordinated, so that one views the world, including one’s body, from the perspective of one’s own eyes, one’s head. OBEs, as Henrik Ehrsson and his fellow researchers in Stockholm have elegantly shown, can be produced experimentally, by using simple equipment — video goggles, mannequins, rubber arms, etc. — to confuse one’s visual input and one’s proprioceptive input and create an uncanny sense of disembodiedness.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience.

A number of medical conditions can lead to OBEs — cardiac arrest or arrhythmias, or a sudden lowering of blood pressure or blood sugar, often combined with anxiety or illness. I know of some patients who have experienced OBEs during difficult childbirths, and others who have had them in association with narcolepsy or sleep paralysis. Fighter pilots subjected to high G-forces in flight (or sometimes in training centrifuges) have reported OBEs as well as much more elaborate states of consciousness that resemble the near-death experience.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful “living” light — often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one’s life — a lightning autobiography. The return to one’s body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma.

Not infrequently, an OBE turns into an NDE — as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote in Musicophilia:

“I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, ‘This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had’ — SLAM! I was back.”

Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, “a changed man.” Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode — being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan.

Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain — changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology — if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.

shutterstock_97460153.jpgDr. Alexander’s October 2012 Newsweek cover article

Cicoria’s reasonable and (one might say) scientific attitude to his own spiritual conversion is in marked contrast to that of another surgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who describes, in his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, a detailed and complex NDE which occurred while he spent seven days in a coma caused by meningitis. During his NDE, he writes, he passed through the bright light — the boundary between life and death — to find himself in an idyllic and beautiful meadow (which he realized was Heaven) where he met a beautiful but unknown woman who conveyed various messages to him telepathically. Advancing farther into the afterlife, he felt the ever-more-embracing presence of God. Following this experience, Alexander became something of an evangelist, wanting to spread the good news, that heaven really exists.

Alexander makes much of his experience as a neurosurgeon and an expert on the workings of the brain. He provides an appendix to his book detailing “Neuroscientific Hypotheses I considered to explain my experience” — but all of these he dismisses as inapplicable in his own case because, he insists, his cerebral cortex was completely shut down during the coma, precluding the possibility of any conscious experience.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific.

Yet his NDE was rich in visual and auditory detail, as many such hallucinations are. He is puzzled by this, since such sensory details are normally produced by the cortex. Nonetheless, his consciousness had journeyed into the blissful, ineffable realm of the afterlife–a journey which he felt lasted for most of the time he lay in coma. Thus, he proposes, his essential self, his “soul,” did not need a cerebral cortex, or indeed any material basis whatever.

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, has studied the neural basis of NDEs and other forms of “deep” hallucinating for many decades. In 2011, he published a wise and careful book about his research, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.

Nelson feels that the “dark tunnel” described in most NDEs represents constriction of the visual fields due to compromised blood pressure in the eyes, and the “bright light” represents a flow of visual excitation from the brainstem, through visual relay stations, to the visual cortex (the so-called pons-geniculate-occipital or PGO pathway).

Simpler perceptual hallucinations — of patterns, animals, people, landscapes, music, etc. — as one may get in a variety of conditions (blindness, deafness, epilepsy, migraine, sensory deprivation, etc.) do not usually involve profound changes in consciousness, and while very startling, are nearly always recognized as hallucinations. It is different with the very complex hallucinations of ecstatic seizures or NDEs — which are often taken to be veridical, truth-telling and often life-transforming revelations of a spiritual universe, and perhaps of a spiritual destiny or mission.

Even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith.

The tendency to spiritual feeling and religious belief lies deep in human nature and seems to have its own neurological basis, though it may be very strong in some people and less developed in others. For those who are religiously inclined, an NDE may seem to offer “proof of heaven,” as Eben Alexander puts it.

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route — the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization — imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind’s eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of “presence” are accompanied by intense emotion — emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one — but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of “spiritual neurosciences.” There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way — the religious would say in God’s time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

Surviving Progress – A Documentary to be Thankful For

Is it possible to make too much progress?

Since being back in the States, I’ve been dipping into the surprising array fantastic documentaries on Netflix (most of the other genres on “Watch Instantly” leave me uninspired).  But if I had to choose my number one documentary recommendation for 2012, it’s got to be “Surviving Progress.”  It’s a broader follow up to  “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary I bought as Christmas presents for as many people as I thought would care when it was first released (obnoxious?  yeah, ok, maybe.  But so necessary!).

It’s a close call . . . “2012: Time for Change” is perhaps more of a fringe perspective on how we’ve been progressing as a species, and how perhaps we should progress in the future.  And Dhamma Brothers is one of my personal faves because of its focus on meditation and internal development as a means to improve our world.

But today I’m grateful for the engaging presentation of “Surviving Progress” – incredibly well edited, funny, easily digestible, and chock full of mind-tickling segments:

  • An interview with Margaret Atwood (my favorite matron of dystopian prophecy)
  • A peek into the personal life of one man in the rising middle class of China
The nouveau middle class: capitalism on fast-forward
  • “A Short History of Debt” (pre-Roman empires were apparently much more forgiving in this department …)
  • Hurricane Katrina: how one former oil industry worker saved over 100 lives in his hometown
  • Both sides of the Brazilian rainforest debate, with on-site interviews
  • Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking’s take on where we are headed
From monkey to man to god . . .

Are we, as humans, operating an extremely advanced software on hardware that hasn’t been properly updated in 50,000 years?

(Shrinking brains in the last 5,000 years and Hawking’s theory on an ‘external transmission phase’ in our evolution may speak to an opposing case.)

If we now have the potential to create and alter life in a God-like way, do we require God-like ethics to support this power?

 

 

If you’re not into films and would prefer to read the 26-page transcript, the PDF is available online.

 

From the official website:

“Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.”

Surviving Progress presents the story of human advancement as awe-inspiring and double-edged. It reveals the grave risk of running the 21st century’s software — our know-how — on the ancient hardware of our primate brain which hasn’t been upgraded in 50,000 years. With rich imagery and immersive soundtrack, filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks launch us on journey to contemplate our evolution from cave-dwellers to space explorers.

Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, “A Short History Of Progress” inspired this film, reveals how civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by “progress traps” — alluring technologies serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. With intersecting stories from a Chinese car-driving club, a Wall Street insider who exposes an out-of-control, environmentally rapacious financial elite, and eco-cops defending a scorched Amazon, the film lays stark evidence before us. In the past, we could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today’s global civilization collapses from over-consumption, that’s it. We have no back-up planet.

Surviving Progress brings us thinkers who have probed our primate past, our brains, and our societies. Some amplify Wright’s urgent warning, while others have faith that the very progress which has put us in jeopardy is also the key to our salvation. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking looks to homes on other planets. Biologist Craig Venter, whose team decoded the human genome, designs synthetic organisms he hopes will create artificial food and fuel for all.

Distinguished Professor of Environment Vaclav Smil counters that five billion “have-nots” aspire to our affluent lifestyle and, without limits on the energy and resource-consumption of the “haves”, we face certain catastrophe. Others — including primatologist Jane Goodall, author Margaret Atwood, and activists from the Congo, Canada, and USA — place their hope in our ingenuity and moral evolution.

Surviving Progress leaves us with a challenge: To prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end.

High Schooler Devises Potential Cancer Cure

From the Huffington Post (still conserving time while I’m in my ATTC – will be updating with a journal entry tomorrow!) …

While it may not have been a typical extra-curricular activity, 17-year-old Angela Zhang’s after school project may change the world. Zhang has been making headlines recently after taking home a check of $100,000 from the national Siemens science contest, and now it has been suggested that her research could lead to a potential cure for cancer.

“I created a nanoparticle that’s kind of like the Swiss Army knife of cancer treatment in that it can detect cancer cells, eradicate the cancer cells and then monitor the treatment response. So the major aim of the project was to personalize cancer medicine,” Zhang told ABC News.

The teen began reading doctorate level work on bio-engineering when she was a freshman. She admitted it was a “little bit overwhelming” at first, but she quickly caught the hang of it, and by junior year the rest was history.

“I’m excited to learn just everything possible,” Zhang said in a video interview with CBS News. “Everything in the sciences — biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, even computer science — to make new innovations possible.”

This has been an exciting month for teen girls and science: Earlier this week, an inspiring homeless teenager, Samantha Garvey, was honored in a prestigious science competition. After word spread about her accomplishment, she was given a home. The three amazing teen 2011 Google Science Fair winners also gave TED Talks about their incredible research, which you can watch here.

–by Huffington Post, Original Story, Feb 18, 2012

The Science of Pleasure

We’re all programmed to enjoy pleasurable things. But what motivates those distinctions?  And can pleasure ever cause pain?

All schools of yoga place special emphasis on the control of the senses, while some traditional schools are even more strict in their adherence to renunciation. Though most people are creatures of habit, we also fall weakness to this constant desire for something *new*.  It’s this particular desire that some would argue leads to detrimental behaviors (check out the Buddhist take on suffering), then again, could it just be a motivation for constant innovation?  Always wanting something new, means someone’s gotta make it, right?

As human beings, something that should give us great power is our ability to contemplate our instincts, rather than simply carry them out.  Thing is, that doesn’t always happen.  The majority of our brain is ancient, having evolved from the lizard and monkey days (scroll down to “Got Science”), so trumping their sometimes overpowering messages can be a challenge.

So what do we do with these instincts for survival, for happiness over suffering, for pure pleasure, which is sometimes so unhealthy, it just shouldn’t be indulged?

Loving my pie. Ain't nothin' wrong.

As a few examples:

Imagine someone’s feeling of importance or success when they’ve fully dominated a conversation.  It may instantly fulfill a survival instinct, but they’ve probably come across as a cock.  And there goes that group of potential friends!

Or, we may find incredible sensory satisfaction through activities like overeating or promiscuity, but what long-term consequences does that have on our bodies, or our psyches for that matter?  Our brains are programmed to enjoy salt, sugar and fat (basically to avoid starvation), but eating too much of that just ain’t good for you.  Scientific fact.

Enticing.

Life should be enjoyed, but to what extent?  And what exactly informs our tastes?  I love yoga, but does that mean I should make that a career?  I love to eat chocolate, but am I allowed a nibble everyday?

These are questions I often ponder, being a bit of a hedonist and a lot of a yogi these days.

My idea of a good time at the London Eye 🙂

Most recently, I’ve been traveling about, seeing friends and family, and it has been the best medicine for my heart in years.  At the same time, I’m constantly partaking in special foods and tipples to celebrate reunions.

Two months of this has fully taken its toll, despite my meagre efforts at maintaining my yoga exercises.  I like to call the result … a Buddha Belly.  🙂

So, though not a direct answer to some of my questions, this interesting article from CBS popped up at a most opportune moment in my life.  Check it out…

(AP)

No matter the season, we all take part in the pursuit of pleasure, each in our own way. And although there’s an art to enjoying life, it turns out there’s science behind it, too. Our Cover Story is reported now by Susan Spencer of “48 Hours”:

It can be as simple as a sunset, as decadent as a dessert, or as extravagant as a weekend in Paris. But we all have our own little pleasures …

“Chocolate and peanuts! … mmmmm …”
“I’m a Barbie collector. I have, like, over 100 Barbies.”
“I love Mexican food!”
“The rush of cliff jumping, when you’re up in the air, and you’re hoping the water is deep enough, and your heart is beating a thousand miles an hour, and you SPLASH!”

Professor Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, notes that some pleasures are no less than a matter of survival.

“Pleasure is an instantaneous feeling of something good,” Dr. Berns said. “When you teach a bunch of undergraduates and teenagers like I do and I ask them to list the things that give them pleasure, sleep is always at the top of the list.

“You have kind of the basic needs, right? So you have food, sleep, and sex. Pretty much boils down to that, if you’re talking about actual pleasure,” Berns laughed.

But pleasure goes well beyond basic needs. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says WHY we enjoy what we enjoy is very complicated.

“It seems like we just taste food, and taste wine, we respond to our visceral sensations. But actually it is surprisingly deep,” Bloom said.

So deep, in fact, that Bloom was pleased to write a book on pleasure, which he says is as much about our brains as about our experiences.

“Our pleasure is a response not just to the physical makeup of something, what it looks like or tastes like, or smells like, or feels like, but rather to our beliefs of what it really IS, what its real essence is,” Bloom said.

And boy, can we be fooled!

Bloom recalls one famous experiment with wine drinkers done by scientists at Stanford and Cal Tech …

“Half the people are told they’re drinking cheap plunk, the other half are told they’re drinking something out of $100-$150 bottle,” Bloom said. “It tastes better to them, if they THINK they’re drinking from an expensive bottle. And it turns out that if they think they’re drinking expensive wine, parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree.”

“So if I have people over for dinner, I should add a little ‘1″ in front of the price tag, and put it on the table?” Spencer asked.

“That is the ultimate trick to making wine taste better,” Bloom said.

And it’s the sort of trick that works only on human beings.

“Both my dog and me enjoy drinking water when we’re thirsty, but I’m the one who cares about where the water came from – whether it’s bottled water, or from the tap,” Bloom said. “My dog doesn’t care.”

“You’re the one that, if we put a higher price tag on that bottle of water, you’ll enjoy it more?” suggested Spencer.

“That’s right! I might give my dog premium dog food, but the dog doesn’t care that I spent a lot of money for it.”

People, on the other hand, seem to get ENORMOUS pleasure out of spending ENORMOUS sums on some very curious things.

Was Michael Jackson’s jacket really worth $1.8 million?

Or how about President Kennedy’s tape measure, which went for almost $50,000 at auction?

Or Eric Clapton’s guitar, snapped up for just under a million bucks?

Given all that, Paul Bloom wondered what people might pay for the pleasure of owning, say, George Clooney’s sweater?

“And the answer is, a fair amount,” said Bloom. “Much more than they’d pay for MY sweater, or for a brand new sweater.”

But why? For bragging rights? Or to re-sell on eBay? Apparently not …

Bloom conducted an experiment where people were not allowed to tell people or boast about buying Clooney’s sweater, or even re-sell it, and the perceived value was reduced. “But here’s what makes the value really drop: We told another group of subjects that we thoroughly washed it before it got to them. Now the value plummets.”

“It’s not still ‘George Clooney’s sweater’?” asked Spencer.

“As my wife put it, you washed away the Clooney cooties!” Bloom laughed. “You’ve washed away the sort of essence of the person.”

“That gives them more pleasure in owning it?”

“Human beings are strange,” laughed Spencer.

“Human beings are extraordinary,” he replied.

Some pleasures are universal, like eating the mouth-watering butter-and-sugar concoctions at Magnolia Bakery in New York City – it really is pure pleasure on a plate.

But not all of life’s pleasures are so straight-forward. In fact, if you think about it, some of them are downright weird.

Take cheese.

“Cheese is spoiled milk, it smells bad,” said psychologist Paul Rozin. “But the point is that we get great pleasure out of it. And some people love the stinky cheeses. And part of the pleasure of eating them is that they really smell bad, but they’re good!”

Rozin’s studies go well beyond the pleasures of the disgusting, to the joy of the downright painful. Take hot chili peppers …

“Well, hot chili peppers are eaten by over two billion people in the world,” Rozin said. “And yet, this is an innately negative experience. Little babies don’t like it. So, the question to me was, why would anybody put in their mouth something that produces a pain signal from the mouth to the brain?”

His answer? What he calls “benign masochism” – the same human quirk that explains why we enjoy horror movies that terrify us … why we like sad songs that make us cry.

“It’s a sense of your mind over your body,” Rozin said. “Your body is saying, ‘Bad news, get out of here!’ Your mind knows, ‘I’m actually not in danger. I’m mastering this negative experience, and my mastery of it gives me pleasure.'”

But there are limits. Just ask those chili pepper people…

“What happens is the one that people like best tends to be the one that’s just below the level they can’t bear,” Rozin laughed. “In other words, they’re pushing the limit of how hot they can stand it. Similarly with roller coasters. People who love roller coasters will like the steepest and scariest one they can stand.”

Push your pleasure to that limit and – odd as it seems – odds are you’ll want more. So what’s the best strategy to maximize life’s pleasures?

Emory Professor Gregory Berns did an experiment that offers a clue: When he gave subjects alternating drops of water and juice, their brain activity showed they preferred the juice. No surprise. But when the juice came at unexpected intervals and was a surprise, they liked it even more.

His advice: Plan surprises.

“You have to take risks, I think, to really experience pleasure,” Dr. Berns said. “And there’s, you know, there’s a reason why people say the first time is always the best. The first time you experience something, whether it’s your first kiss, your first bite of sushi, whatever you like, it’s always the best, it’s always the most memorable.”

So whether it’s Clooney’s sweater … roller coasters … chili peppers … or something else entirely (“Chocolate” … “good friend, good beer” …), treasure those pleasures.

But remember: There’s always room for something new – and people keep pushing the envelope, like bungee jumping.

“Yeah, why not?” said Dr. Berns.

***************

Well, I could think of a million reasons not to bungee jump, but that’s another blog all together!  So what do you think?  Does pleasure-seeking eventually become a source of suffering?  Could it just be a biological phenomenon that aids our survival?  How can we harness this innate tendency to bring about positive change? 

Further reading from the Scientific American here.