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Meditation and the Science of Happiness

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We’ve been hearing a lot in the media lately about the science of meditation and the many positive ways meditation can change the brain.  We’re learning that a long term meditation practice can increase happiness, compassion and kindness. This is pretty powerful information.  Imagine a world where we can train our minds to be happier and more peaceful and positive, and we can teach others to do the same.

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This month’s cover article in Scientific American (November 2014) was written by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J Davidson, and it focuses on the “Mind of the Meditator.”  The article addresses the Dalai Lama’s decades-long involvement in a kind of research called “contemplative neuroscience” —  bringing scientists together with Buddhist meditators to study the effects of meditation on the brain.  The article says that:

“the ability to cultivate compassion and other positive human qualities lays the foundation for an ethical framework unattached to any philosophy or religion.”

and they define meditation as:

“contemplative practices that result in… the cultivation of basic human qualities, such as a more stable and clear mind, emotional balance, a sense of caring mindfulness, even love and compassion — qualities that remain latent as long as one does not make an effort to develop them.”

They go on to describe specific forms of meditation and the benefits to various brain regions derived from these different forms.  Their extensive research is explained, as is the kind of experiments they’ve been using to map meditation on the brain over the past 15 years.  It’s a fascinating and hugely important article that I highly recommend buying and reading.

Another article in Scientific American from June 2013 mentions the Dalai Lama’s involvement in neuroscience and meditation research and the amazing implications of this research:

“… even when the monks were not meditating, but simply quietly resting, their baseline brain activity was distinct from that of the students. That is, these techniques, practiced by Buddhists for millennia to quiet, focus and expand the mind—the interior aspect of the brain—had changed the brain that is the exterior aspect of the mind. And the more training they had, the bigger the effect.”

Not only does meditation change the brain — implying different forms of meditation can transform the brain in different and positive ways — but it also changes the way we see the world.  Most importantly,  it’s never too early or too late to start meditating.  Kindness, compassion and peacefulness can be learned.

In August I interviewed director Mickey Lemle about Kickstarter and his upcoming documentary, The Dalai Lama Film.  You can watch the trailer here:

In our interview, Lemle mentioned that the Dalai Lama had been working with prominent scientists — most notably neuroscientist, Dr. Richard Davidson and former biochemist and monk, Matthieu Ricard.  For over 20 years, they’ve been studying the effects of meditation on the brain.  At the time, I cut some of more neuro-focused parts of the interview because I was pressed for space.  I’ve posted these outtakes below.  In the following, Mr. Lemle talks a bit about Dr. Davidson’s work with the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard’s participation in the film, meditation inside the MRI machine, and how the science of meditation has become a huge part of the Dalai Lama’s life legacy:

SS: Can you tell us a bit more about the Dalai Lama’s crossover into science and neuroscience? 

ML: About 20 years ago, he challenged some of the foremost neuroscientists working at that time and basically what he said was: “We Tibetan Buddhists have figured out the technologies for overcoming afflictive negative emotion such as anger, greed, jealousy violence, ignorance.”  He said that the knowledge really belongs to the world, but it needs to not come from one specific tradition because people will naturally have resistances to it.  It really needs to come from science.  So prove it,  prove that the Tibetan monks’ technologies for overcoming these things are scientifically possible.  And that sent this group of neuroscientists off on twenty years of research, including Dr. Richard Davidson who was in my movie and is one of the foremost proponents of this.  For twenty years he’s been putting people in MRI and EEG machines.

It’s become pretty conclusive that in fact, any human’s capacity for happiness and compassion can be learned and expanded and they’ve shown that with MRI machines.  The part of the brain that lights up with compassion or lights up with happiness can increase through meditation and other practices.  So this isn’t just for people who have issues about religion, this is coming from scientists and they’ve proved that it doesn’t take a lot.  You can do this within a short period of time.

They’re now discovering that there’s such a thing that they’re calling neuroplasticity; you can reformulate the way your brain works and the way you perceive reality and you can become a more happy and compassionate person by doing this.  It’s a part of the movie that’s very important because it’s very important to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  He meets every year with cutting edge neuroscientists at the Mind and Life Institute to have these dialogues about what their work is and then he listens and gives the Buddhist perspective on the same phenomenon.  He’s also said though that if science disproves of any of their basic Buddhist tenets that they have to change the tenets.  How many other religious leaders that you know would say such a thing?

SS: Has the Dalai Lama participated in the MRI research?

ML:  I believe he’s been there when other people have been in there but as far as I know he has not.  But Dr. Richard Davidson has done extensive work with various monks including Matthieu Ricard.  Ricard is a brilliant French monk who himself has a PhD in microbiology.  We have a fabulous interview with him.  It’s an hour and a half and I was saying to the editor the other day that this could be a whole movie; he’s just so brilliant.  But they figure he’s had 34,000 hours of meditation so they use him as the baseline for all their experiments to see how he responds.

We actually filmed Ricard being put into an MRI and they attached a small box to his wrist for 10 seconds the box would get extremely hot, causing physical pain. I tried it before we put it on this nice monk and it really hurt!  Ricard would be in the MRI and they’d give him a visual cue that the pain stimulus is about to start and the stimulus is this very severe pain on his wrist.  So for normal people like you and me when we know this pain is coming, we’d going into a pain response.  So you or I would go into the pain response as soon as we saw that it was about to happen and then once the stimulus would stop, we’d continue to have the pain even without the stimulus.  But Ricard would practically flat-line because he’d be meditating on spaciousness.  As soon as the stimulus started, there was brain activity.  He was obviously responding to the pain and the second it was over he dropped back down into spaciousness.  That’s just meditating and training your mind.  And so what Dr. Davidson says in that small clip that you saw [in the film trailer] is that he now believes – and others who are working with him believe – that things like happiness and compassion are skills that are learnable.  It’s not that you’re born happy and that’s it.  These are skills that can be learned.  And if they can be learned then maybe we should be teaching them in schools.

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You can read the rest of the interview here.

Visit the Mind and Life Institute here.

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Click here to visit the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, run by Dr. Richard J. Davidson.

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And check out Matthieu Ricard’s wonderful TED Talk about the science of meditation and happiness:

Click here to make a donation to The Dalai Film project and don’t forget to visit the Facebook page for The Dalai Film.  For more information on meditation, click here.  If you’re interesting in reading more about neuroplasticity, click here to read the article, “Neuroplasticity: New Clues to Just How Much the Adult Brain Can Change” on the Scientific American blog.  It’s really fascinating stuff!

And for a little extra kick, check out Russell Brand talking about his very personal and transformative experience with transcendental meditation:




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