Saturday, January 20, 2007

Meditation and Happiness

Two Tibetian monks on their way to Winterthur... happily posing for a photo (sometime in 2004).

An interesting and motivating article by Katherine Ellison about meditation:
Mastering Your Own Mind
Ups, the list of quotes got a bit overboard, but I can't help it...:)
In contrast, practiced Buddhist meditators deploy their brains with exceptional skill. Drawing on 2,500 years of mental technology—techniques for paying careful attention to the workings of their own minds—they develop expertise in controlling the flow of their mental life, avoiding the emotional squalls that often compel us to take personal feelings oh, so personally, and clearing new channels for awareness, calm, compassion and joy. Their example holds the possibility that we can all choose to modulate our moods, regulate our emotions and increase cognitive capacity—that we can all become high-performance users of our own brains.
Meditation alters what we tend to think of as stable mental traits—anxiety, for example, or anger. Practitioners discover that feelings are events that rise in the psyche like bubbles off the bottom of a pot of boiling water. "They learn to de-identify with their emotions, making it easier to let them go," says neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
The Buddha framed things differently. He taught that our default mode may be to suffer, but only because of ignorance. We can transcend our lot by learning to quiet the mind in meditation—not merely to relax and cope with stress, as the popular notion of Buddhism holds, but to rigorously train oneself to relinquish bad mental habits. Rather than being an end in itself, meditation becomes a tool to investigate your mind and change your worldview. You're not tuning out so much as tuning up your brain, improving your self-monitoring skills.

"You stop being always projected outside. You start looking in and seeing how your mind works, and you change your mind, thought by thought," explains Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, scientist and French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. "The French intellectuals don't like this. They say, 'Let's be spontaneous; passions are the beauty of life.' They think that making an effort is not nice—a silly old discipline—and that's why we're such a mess. But many modern people understand the notion of getting fit with physical training." So the idea of developing mental skills with meditation is gaining ground.
Such adepts are the Lance Armstrongs of meditation, says Davidson, whose pioneering brain scans of monks provide tantalizing evidence that emotions like love and compassion are in fact skills—and can be trained to a dramatic degree. Studies also suggest that the monastic life is not a requirement; even brief, regular meditation sessions can yield substantial benefits. Nor is a belief in Buddhism necessary. "I'm convinced that you can make a huge difference in your life if you start out with even 30 minutes a day," Ricard says. "By maintaining the practice, there is a trickle of insights. Drop by drop, you fill a jar."
There are many types of meditation, and they can be used to develop a number of mental skills. This attitude focuses on practices that address common emotional struggles. Through basic meditation techniques, it's possible to cultivate a longer attention span, develop emotional stability, understand the feelings of others and release yourself from the constraints you place on your own happiness.
Much of our emotional experience consists of gusts of negative feelings blowing through the brain. The feelings torture us without being intrinsically related to experience. "Emotions are not actually facts," explains Davidson.
Scientists have only recently begun to map the brain regions related to positive emotions such as empathy. But when Davidson observed Ricard meditating on compassion while hooked up to EEG sensors, he found a striking increase in gamma waves in the left prefrontal cortex, an area correlated with reported feelings of happiness. The findings furnish scientific support for something the Dalai Lama often says: A person meditating on compassion for others becomes the first beneficiary.
If you liked this article, then you will love this related book by Matthieu Ricard:
Happiness Happiness - A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill

Also mentioned in the book are research results from Paul Ekman, who made a science out of reading facial expressions, especially fleeting expressions, so called microexpressions.
Ekman's studies of thousands fo subjects had taught him that the most talented at recognizing microexpressions were also the most open to new experiences, the most curious about things in general, and the most reliable and efficient. "So I had expected that many years of meditative experience" - which requires both openness and conscientiousness - "might make them do better on this ability," Ekman explained.

It turned out that two experienced Western meditators whom Ekman had tested had achieved results that were far better than those of five thousand subjects previously tested. "They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges - even Secret Service agents," the group that had proven hitherto to be the most accurate, Ekman noted.
Even more interesting:
To test the first meditator's startle reflex, Ekman brought him to the Berkeley Psychophysiology Laboratory run by his longtime colleague Robert Levenson. The meditator's body movements, pulse, perspiration, and skin temperature were measured. His facial expressions were filmed to capture his physiological reactions to a sudden noise. The experimenters opted for the maximal threshold of human tolerance - a very powerful detonation, equivalent to a gunshot going off beside the ear.

The subject was told that within a five minute period he would hear a loud explosion. He was asked to try to neutralize the inevitable strong reaction, to the extent of making it imperceptible if possible. Some people are better than others at this exercise, but no one is able to suppress it entirely - far from it - even with the most intense effort to restrain the muscular spasms. Among the hundreds of subjects whom Ekman and Levenson had tested, none had ever managed it. Prior research had found that even elite police sharpshooters, who fire guns every day, cannot stop themselves from flinching. But the meditator was able to.

As Ekman explained: "When he tries to repress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers. This is a spectacular accomplishment. We don't have any idea of the anatomy that would allow him to suppress the startle reflex."

During these tests, the meditator had practiced two types of meditation: single-pointed concentration and open presence, both of which had been studied by fMRI in Madison. He found that the best effect was obtained with the open presence meditation. "In that state," he said, "I was not actively trying to control the startle, but the detonation seemed weaker, as if I were hearing it from a distance." Ekman described how, while some changes had been effected in the meditator's physiology, not one muscle in his face had moved. As the subject explained: "In the distracted state, the explosion suddenly brings you back to the present moment and causes you to jump out of suprise. But while in open presence you are resting in the present moment and the bang simply occurs and causes only a little disturbance, like a bird crossing the sky."
In Paul Ekman's book Emotions Revealed (2004), there is one paragraph about his early view on the benefits of meditation:
I'd like to also mention an approach that is complementary to these, mindfulness meditation. I did not say much about it in Emotions Revealed, for two reasons. There isn't hard scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation actually improves emotional life, although there are many studies in which people claim that it has had such benefit. Also, I previously couldn't understand why focusing our awareness on breathing would benefit emotional life.
Like the proverbial bolt out of the blue, just a few weeks before writing this afterword, the explanation struck me. The very practice of learning to focus attention on an automatic process that requires no conscious monitoring creates the capacity to be attentive to other automatic processes. We breathe without thinking, without conscious direction of each inhalation and exhalation. Nature does not require that we divert our attention to breathing. When we try paying attention to each breath, people find it very hard to do so for more than a minute, if that, without being distracted by thoughts. Learning to focus our attention on breathing takes daily practice, in which we develop new neural pathways that allow us to do it. And here is the punch line: these skills transfer to other automatic processes - benefiting emotional behavior awareness and eventually, in some people, impulse awareness.

For meditation, what has an amazing impact on me is listening to this theta metronom by Stuart Wilde (Meditation CD). The idea is that while listening to a beat of four ticks per second, what first appears intuitively as fast paced and aggresive, it syncs your brain waves (the things that get measured by an EEG) to the same state you have when in a normal sleep state. Other people I gave the CD to were either also excited or very annoyed by its sound.

Here is a recent study about Achieving sustainable gains in happiness: change your actions not your circumstances by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky from 2006.

And, seen 2007-01-19:

1 comment:


M. Scott Peck: The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.Keep it up! Great Blog.