Archive for April, 2007

Meditation and the mind

Monday, April 30th, 2007

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist researching the effect of meditation on the brain*, reports that in the state of open attention, non-directed awareness, there was diminished activity in an area of the brain that normally assigns emotional value, the orbitofrontal cortex. The results were consistent in all 6 of the adepts that were being studied. It seems that the practice of open presence could be a way to train ourselves out of the need to associate immediately a positive or negative assessment to a thought, sounds, the range of sensory experiences–to condition the mind away from immediate judgments. Evolutionarily, the habit of rapid association of value with experiences once could have been very important for human survival. Today, it seems almost the opposite: most of the situations in which we find ourselves would be better served by greater perspective, not snap judgments.

During the practices that are designed to generate compassion, there was a huge increase in the left-side activity in prefrontal regions which is associated with an increased level of positive emotion. Aside from what it might do for others, the practice of generating compassion might truly benefit the practitioner as much or more!

Both these results imply that meditation–practicing choice in how we use our attention–seems to be able to have an impact on the workings of our brains. Though it can seem that we have little choice in where our minds go, it turns out that the mind is actually more like a muscle. It is being conditioned through activity. While the capacity to be conditioned may be hardwired, this research shows that we can have an impact on it: with practice, we can direct the conditioning of our minds. Could this practice be just as important for our health as a well-conditioned cardiovascular system?

*Resource: The Dalai Lama at MIT (These are conference proceedings from the 2003 meeting between the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and scholars and Western scientists) 2006

Imagining the body

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

After seeing the Bodyworlds exhibit and after reading Shigehisa Kuriyama’s book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine.

The Bodyworlds exhibit offers an unusual point of view for those who have never seen a dissection: plastinated corpses exposed in various positions–but it also dramatically reinforces the false but common notion of the body as an inert object. Kuriyama’s beautiful book reminds us that there are many other ways to imagine the body.
In the minds of the very ancient Greeks and Chinese, the concept of muscle barely existed. Homer’s Iliad speaks of sinews and flesh, but what moved their heroes were the gods. The ancient Chinese spoke of a vital force, “mo,” in poetic language: It could be slippery or rough, floating, hollow, flooding, hidden, leathery or faint. What moved human beings into action, illness or health, was always elusive, mysterious, perhaps divine. The importance of “muscle” that we take so for granted today came into common use only with the rise of the personal will, the individual as prime mover–the muscles, agonist and antagonist. Kuriyama offers the possibility of remembering another option. How much more inspiring to reach for the possibility of experiencing “body” as a relationship– breath, weight, balance–interactions with the world from which we can never be truly separated.

Living with Uncertainty

Friday, April 20th, 2007

Anyone suffering with chronic pain is intimately familiar with the problem of living with uncertainty. Each specialist may offer a strong opinion about what is wrong (it’s your back;it’s your disc; it’s your muscles; it’s your mind) with a solution that follows ( exercise, surgery, stretching or strengthening, meditation, drugs)–but with no guarantee. The patient (from patiens, to endure) is usually left, paying out of pocket, to put together all these opinions on her or his own.
In his book A Different Universe, Robert Laughlin (nobel physicist) points out a fundamental difference in attitude about uncertainty in science: In physics, which comes from the same stream as chemistry and engineering, uncertainty is just considered bad science, whereas “the essence of biology is living with uncertainty.” Biology, Laughlin writes, evolved from agriculture and medicine, presumably paths used to valuing the educated guess.

When it comes to many kinds of chronic body (somatic) problems, the frustration of not knowing exactly what’s wrong (we only know that it hurts) may be as bad as the pain itself. Chronic problems invite us to a new relationship with ourselves: instead of labels, we have experiences, instead of certainty, we have the process of discovery. As with all our relationships, we may not have learned to value finding out as much as knowing. But when generic solutions fail, we are invited to meet our individuality and to discover many dimensions of meaning and a myriad of possibilities. We are invited to experience the wholeness of problems: to bring the physical therapist, the specialist, the psychotherapist, the general practitioner all into the room together; we are invited to find the willingness to invite it all in and thereby, to find out something new.
My favorite quote attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as it is, but not simpler.”