Mindfulness: Scientific Footprints Along a Spiritual Path
(Talk give at the Universalist Unitarian Church, Miami, FL, 3/6/06)
I teach mindfulness meditation in a secular way, allowing anyone who wants to come and learn, to then take the practice into their own spiritual dimension, should they wish to do so. I am also a psychologist interested in meditation and neuroscience. Perhaps sharing something about the scientific footprints left along the
path of meditation, will motivate you to follow your own spiritual path.
Although I have been a student of meditation for many years, it was the scientific work of Drs. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who developed secular teachings in meditation, and then studied scientifically the outcome, that gave me permission to bring mindfulness meditation into my psychology practice, and to integrate it with other ways of psychologically helping patients. I am also indebted to Buddhism, from which Drs. Kabat-Zinn and Santorelli developed their secular meditation practice.
What is mindfulness meditation? I hear all the time, “I can’t meditate. My mind’s too busy.” People have this misconception that meditation is about making the mind go blank. They conclude that they will fail, before even starting. Mindfulness meditation involves the refinement of innate abilities we already possess. Meditation involves letting go of the over-use of a natural tendency, which is supported by our culture, constantly to be getting to some new place, striving. For example, “I’ll get the right job promotion, the right degree, the right partner, my child will get into the right school. . . “ Meditation involves balancing out this kind of striving. There is a time and place for striving, but it does not need to color every waking moment.
Mindfulness meditation involves taking two abilities the mind possesses, and cultivating these natural abilities. The first is the ability of the mind to focus attention. The second is the ability to investigate; to contemplate the nature of experience itself. So meditation involves cultivating these natural abilities, and giving them the
conditions to flourish (like a seed will grow, if you give it the proper soil, and nutrients, and water, and sun - and it will blossom into a plant).
So, mindfulness meditation involves cultivating paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with moment to moment non-judgmental awareness. It involves cultivating a vast, spacious field of awareness. It is the act of falling awake, not falling asleep, or going through life mindlessly, on automatic pilot.
Mindfulness meditation involves a formal practice, each day, much like a concert violinist finds it useful to practice scales. But it also involves integrating this practice, in a less formal manner, into the flow of everyday life. The musician practices scales so that he or she can go and play a symphony – or the music of life. Meditators practice so that they can fall awake to the full richness of the moment, during as many moments of living as possible. After much practice, meditation can help us cultivate better emotional balance; and it becomes as important as eating, sleeping and exercising.
It turns out that we can also measure scientifically the effects of meditation on the brain and the emotions. We cannot reduce meditation to science, but we can see the scientific footprints, left by a path of meditation. Later I will touch on the scientific footprints already discovered.
I’m going to invite you to do a brief exercise with me, that will also show you what meditation is about. To also bring in the science a little, let me start by asking you to pause and to observe what your breathing is like in this moment, and feel your pulse for a few seconds. Also noticing whatever sensations in your body are noticeable in this moment, and what thoughts and feelings are present. You can either read over the following instructions, and then pause for five minutes and do you best to follow the instructions. Or, you can have someone read you the instructions, pausing for a good minute whenever pauses are indicated.
“If you care to, allowing your eyes to close, or leaving them open a crack so that you can see vaguely a spot in front of you.. . Allowing your awareness to rest in your breathing, feeling your breath wherever you feel it most distinctly in your body. It might be the flow of air in and out of your nostrils, it might be feeling your chest rising and falling, or it might be feeling the gentle expansion and contraction deep in your belly. Pick one spot, and seeing how refined you awareness can be. You don’t have to do anything to your breath, or make it slower or deeper, simply feeling the natural, uncontrived breath, making space for the breath. Noticing as best you can, all the sensations that are part of the next out breath, right here... and the next in breath,
.... right now..... As best you can, riding the waves of your own breathing.. . . Sooner or later, you may notice your mind wandering – thinking about future plans, questioning or judging something– ‘I like this’- or ‘I don’t like it’, or mulling over a past memory, or reacting to some sound or bodily sensation. Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered away from the breath, celebrate that you can notice that, and gently bringing your awareness back to this breath, right here. . . . If the mind wanders 1,000 times, it doesn’t matter. The act of gently noticing where the mind is and bringing it back to the breath, again and again, is the art of meditation. . . . . All that busy mind stuff you may notice– thinking, feeling, remembering, questioning, judging, is all your energy – scattered. Meditation involves gathering up all the energy, all of your own energy and bringing it back and concentrating it.
When you feel ready, opening your eyes, and again noticing how your breathing feels in this moment, noticing how your pulse is, and what your body feels like; and noticing if there are any differences from when we started.”
It’s very humbling, seeing how busy and scattered our minds can be. Just because you decide to pay attention to your breath, it does not mean that your mind will cooperate. Most people don’t know this about their minds. If I asked John Doe on the street, “Does your mind wander?”, he would probably answer, “Oh no, I know where
my mind is. I have control of it.” Any meditator will tell you a different story. Thoughts are like secretions of the mind. Our minds will not stop thinking, anymore than our hearts will stop beating. For much of life, we are dragged around by compulsions or distractions, scenarios for the future, rewriting or reviewing the past,
Meditation involves mind training. Over time, it gets easier to focus on the breath, but thoughts still abound, and the mind can easily still wander. However, we do learn to focus the mind better. Meditation involves learning how to think, when we need to think, and to plan when we need to plan, and to remember and review when it’s wise to remember; and it’s also about learning how not to get lost in thought when we choose
not to, or do not need to. We need our legs to help us get around. And we need them to move. But can you imagine how it would be if our legs kept going, even when we did not need them to be moving. How strange it would be if while you sat there, not needing to move, your legs kept marching.
Meditation also helps us to cultivate a state of relaxed alertness, which many of us are not used to cultivating. We tend to get into a relaxed state, and then zone, watching TV or getting into the Lazy Boy mode – too loose. Or, we get into a state of being excited, seeking stimulation, alert, but on the go, very busy, focused on the next thing to be doing, and the next, multi-tasking. Too tight. Meditation is about being in a different zone, a natural state of being relaxed and alert, that often gets lost along the way. Just like a musician cannot play a violin if the strings are too loose, they hang over the side; and if they are too tight, they also sound terrible, and may snap and break. But tuned just right, the strings enable the violinist to play beautiful music.
This point is one where the scientific footprints are very helpful. The “too tight” state is what is known scientifically as the fight, flight or freeze state. The revved up state, the up-regulated state, from the mild anxiety one might feel when someone gets angry with us, to the terror of finding oneself in the middle of an armed robbery. When we are in this state, our amygdala (a fear and strong emotion center in the brain) is very activated, and shows up “hot” on functional MRI’s. Also our right pre-frontal cortex, is dominant over the left side. When we are “too loose,” we get sleepy. Our brain waves slow; and we are not alert.
It turns out that people are born with a tendency to have either right side dominant pre-frontal cortexes, and then they are more prone to feeling depressed and anxious. Or people are born with a tendency to have left side dominant pre-frontal cortexes, and then they are prone to feeling more positive, optimistic, and resilient. But this innate emphasis can be changed. It is not our destiny.
The state cultivated during meditation leaves its own scientific footprints. Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, has hooked up many people to EEG’s and fMRI’s, taking pictures of the brain as it functions. It turns out that when he had professional meditators, hooked up to his scientific equipment, they produced
measurable brain states, with such cool amygdalas, and such strong left pre-frontal cortex functioning, that these measurements were stronger than any he had ever seen before. Davidson’s research has also shown that professional meditators, have a very high degree of synchrony among many different areas of the cortex. And synchrony is good. It means those brain cells, are inter-connected and are functioning harmoniously. Unfortunate individuals who have a disorder called schizophrenia, for example, show very little synchrony in their brains. The professional meditators also showed more gamma waves, which seemed to be
correlated with feeling relaxed and alert.
Just to be sure the professional meditators were not born with exceptional brains, Richard Davidson called on Jon Kabat-Zinn to go to a local bio tech company, collect volunteers who wanted to learn meditation, and then to split them in to two groups. He taught one group the 8 week minduflness-based stress reduction course,
developed at U. Mass, and made the other group wait to take the course, so that they could be the control group. They measured brain and immune function both before the course, after the course, and at a 6 month follow up. Amazingly, they found that even these new meditators showed changes in their brain, and in their immune systems, in a positive direction. All of the new meditators showed a shift to the left in their pre-frontal cortex functioning. (Remember that shift to the right is correlated with a vulnerability to depression and anxiety.) When they gave them a flu shot at the end of the course, the meditators showed a much stronger immune system response to the shot, than did the non-meditators.
As we meet here, there are more of these studies being done, all over the country. We practice mindfulness meditation often by slowing down, so that it is easier to pay attention, in the present moment, on purpose. It also helps if we have a focus, or an anchor, such as the breath, but we also use other objects – bodily sensations, sounds, a visual image, thoughts, feelings, etc. Eventually, we can let go of the
anchor, and simply pay attention to whatever is most prominent in our present experience. However, just as most people need training wheels, when they are learning to ride a bike, it helps when we are learning meditation, to slow things down, and to have some guidance, and to have an anchor. These things are like scaffolding, or like training wheels, which can later be removed. Then you can go on to be the
Lance Armstrong of meditation– or whatever you want!
Part of the process of meditation involves deep inquiry. We look deeply into things, and see what is there. For example, I like the example that Thich Nhat Hahn uses. He says, we can look at a piece of paper, and see it as a thing, separate from others, that we can crumple up and throw away. But if we look deeply into the paper, we can see a tree, from whose pulp it was made. And we can see, that the sun is connected to
the paper, because it had to nourish the tree, as did the earth. And we see a logger who had to log the tree, and a paper mill and people who work there and run the machinery. This piece of paper is not a separate, isolated thing. It is deeply connected with many things. The paper and the sun, and the tree, and the rain, and the logger “inter-are”. They do not exist in isolated states. And when we breathe, the
oxygen that flows into our lungs includes two oxygen atoms, connected in just this way by some plant on the earth. The carbon dioxide we breathe out, which some cells in our body made by connecting a carbon atom with two oxygen atoms, will flow out into the atmosphere and nourish a plant somewhere. On a scientific level, we know that the carbon in our bodies has been many other places, and has all been recycled.
You might have some of the carbon atoms from Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa, for that matter. It’s actually quite easy for scientists to see how inter-connected we all are. For me, this way of seeing things, is also what connects us with the spiritual path.
Albert Einstein said something amazing. He said, “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be
to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
The kind of deep looking, and being present for even ordinary things in the present moment, is captured for me by this Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day” (The House of Light, Beacon Press, Boston, 1990).
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean – the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Perhaps I was influenced by that soap opera, I think it was called “Days of Our Lives”. When I was little, and maybe they still do this, it opened with an image of an hour glass, and a saying, something like “as sands through the hour glass flow the days of our lives”. So, it may be a trite metaphor, found in a goofy place, but I keep coming back to it. I picture, and I invite you to picture, each grain of sand as a present moment. And
each grain of sand contains a multitude of riches, including this moment, with me standing here, and all of you sitting out there, and this lovely hall, and all the sounds around us. Each grain of sand is different. Of course, for my hour glass, there is more sand in the bottom part than the top part; but hopefully there’s still many grains left in the top part; but none of us knows for sure. I guess, it’s a bit like the top of the hour glass is partly obscured by a cloth, so that we cannot see for sure how many grains are left, but we do know that it will run out. I think of mindfulness practice, as cultivating being with each grain of sand as it falls, creating a vast space in which to experience the whole of this moment. And yet, there are times I find myself, rummaging through the grains of sand on the bottom, searching to resolve some confusion, or wishing I had done something differently. And when I’m doing that, several new grains fall and I don’t even notice. Or, I find some difficulty in the present grain, and I start wishing several grains of sand away. I can’t wait until it’s the week-
end– or until I go on vacation, or wait until I find the right dress, or job, or house, and all will be fine. I’m imaging what one of those grains on the top might look like, and meanwhile, I’m wishing away the grains that actually are there falling and available to be fully experienced. Wow! There are times it is important to plan, but I don’t need to be planning, and wishing away as many present moments as I do. So, I cultivate the
practice of being present, as best I can, for each grain as it falls.
And to turn things upside down a little, we might play with inverting our hour glasses,
as I end by reading this poem. It’s author is unknown, but I found it in a book by Jack
Kornfield, After the Ecstasy the Laundry (NY: Bantam Book, 2000).
Life is tough
It takes a lot of your time,
all your weekends,
and what do you get at the end of it?
Death, a great reward.
I think that the life cycle is all backwards.
You should die first, get it out of the way.
Then you live twenty years in an old-age home.
You are kicked out when you’re too young.
You get a gold watch, you go to work.
You work forty years until you’re
young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You go to college,
you party until you’re ready for high school.
You become a little kid, you play,
you have no responsibilities,
you become a little boy or girl,
you go back into the womb,
you spend your last nine months floating.
And you finish off as a gleam in someone’s eye.