The contemplative path: How do we learn?

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In my own experience with meditation, I’ve often wondered about the difference between reading a thoughtful analysis or set of instructions, listening to an inspiring teacher, and sitting on the cushion to practice. These varied activities represent different ways of integrating information into our minds and bodies—in short, different ways of learning.

Is one mode more effective than another? In the domain of contemplative science, this question becomes important as meditation interventions are being developed in a host of applied settings. As people learn about meditation conceptually, is that enough to change habits and behavior, or is practice required?

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The Contemplative Development Mapping Project: A new model for interdisciplinary investigation

This past winter, it was my honor and pleasure to participate in a Mind and Life Research Workshop convened by the Contemplative Development Mapping Project (CDMP). The CDMP is a group of scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are personally and professionally committed to enriching our understanding of contemplative practices and experiences. This interdisciplinary “think tank” is comprised of researchers from a range of disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience and religious studies. By integrating first-person, second-person, and third-person methodologies as a means of investigating the nature and trajectory of contemplative development, the group aims to draw upon the unique academic approaches of each of its members to produce high-quality interdisciplinary scholarship and research.

 Since 2011, the CDMP has gathered annually, combining academic presentations and discussions with an innovative, self-directed retreat format. These hybrid conference/retreats provide a unique, informal opportunity for discussing works-in-progress, innovative and experimental ideas, and projects that align with questions born out of contemplative practice.

From December 30, 2014–January 4, 2015, the CDMP gathered at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies for their 4th conference/retreat, supported in part by Mind and Life Research Workshop funding. The experience was highly beneficial—generating useful insights for the individual participants, and also shedding light on a new path for the field by deeply integrating practice, scholarship, and discussion to arrive at more holistic insights about the nature of contemplative practice.

Participants (listed below) investigated the theme of Buddhist modernism and its impact on the contemplative practices and experiences of contemporary Buddhists. This event was designed and hosted by Dr. Willoughby Britton and Dr. Jared Lindahl, co-directors of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience research project at Brown University, and board members of CDMP. Below, they summarize the workshop and next steps for this initiative.

                                                                                                –Wendy Hasenkamp
Senior Scientific Officer, Mind and Life


While contemplative science research has explored the myriad ways that contemplative practices may enhance human flourishing, very little is known about individual differences and under what conditions contemplative practices produce less than ideal, or even harmful effects. In order to maximize the potential of contemplative practices to enhance human flourishing and alleviate human suffering, a comprehensive map of all outcomes—both positive and negative—is needed.

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Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

Surviving a cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows requires overcoming significant emotional and physical hurdles. Even after a patient is cancer-free, he or she often continues to struggle with depression and anxiety from fear of cancer recurrence, and many also suffer from sleep disturbances. These ongoing challenges negatively impact well-being and quality of life, hindering a patient’s ability to fully flourish. Might contemplative practices help cancer survivors deal better with their mental and physical challenges to remain cancer free? In a recent study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, Varela awardee David Lipschitz, MLI Fellow Yoshio Nakamura and colleagues at the University of Utah investigated the effects of two mind-body interventions on a number of physiological and psychological health outcomes in cancer survivors. This study used a strong experimental design, comparing three similar interventions to which participants were randomly assigned: mind-body bridging, mindfulness meditation, and a sleep education group as an active control. Below, David Lipschitz summarizes his Varela research project and its findings.

— Wendy Hasenkamp, Senior Scientific Officer

 

Mind–Body Interventions Affect Sleep and Oxytocin in Cancer Survivors

by David L. Lipschitz, PhD

OxitocinaCPK3DOxytocin is a hormone produced in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, whose release activates a variety of brain regions resulting in many different functions, including birth (labor), breast feeding (lactation), maternal behavior, parental care, social bonding, affiliation (such as couples being together), and well-being. In recent studies in humans, oxytocin has been shown to be associated with increases in prosocial behaviors such as trust, altruism, generosity, cooperation and empathy. These various functions suggest that oxytocin may promote health by reducing stress and increasing calm/relaxed states, resulting in improved quality of life and well-being.

Given oxytocin’s stress-reducing and calming properties, and its capacity to increase well-being, its action may be relevant to those fighting cancer. We conducted a study to look at the effects of two mind-body therapies on changes in salivary oxytocin levels in a cancer survivor population with self-reported sleep disturbance. Investigating oxytocin in cancer survivors could be important, given cancer survivors’ high levels of distress, depression, and anxiety, as well as poor sleep, possibly due to the effects of cancer treatment and worries about cancer recurrence. In our study, we hypothesized that the mind-body therapies would increase oxytocin levels, which would be associated with improvements in sleep, increases in quality of life and well-being, and reduced stress. Read More

Remembrance of things to come: the predictive nature of the mind and contemplative practices

Two contemplative neuroscientists consider meditation in light of a leading theory about brain function

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Imagine this scene: it is a cold winter night and you are sitting in your favorite armchair reading an engrossing novel, a warm cup of tea by your side. Suddenly, a sharp noise rips through the silence. Now, freeze the frame here and let’s do a little phenomenology—what goes through your mind at that precise moment? If you are like most people, a potent and singular thought will have instantly and inescapably overtaken your mental space: “What was that?!” In no time, this question will also be followed by a few hypotheses about the cause of the noise (e.g., an intruder, or a branch falling on the roof), which in turn will prod you into a specific action aimed at determining which one of your guesses is true. Read More

A Question of Focus

Meditators often feel that their practice aids concentration. But do these subjective reports pan out in daily life?

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focusActivities throughout our days require undisturbed minutes (even hours) of concentration. Obvious examples can include boring tasks in the workplace or when navigating traffic, where critical focus is necessary for success and safety. But perhaps not surprisingly, people can have a hard time keeping their attention on important activities for even short lengths of time.

In the laboratory, researchers have studied our poor ability to sustain attention by examining how performance declines when someone has to maintain focus and perform a repetitive task for a long time. In wisdom traditions like Buddhism, such limits on our attention span have long been acknowledged, and at the same time, these traditions recognize that our ability to direct and maintain concentration is an important part of mental and spiritual well-being. For example, only when we can sustain our attention can we recognize and regulate our thoughts or emotions. For this reason, many contemplative traditions promote mental training through meditation practice as a means of improving our capacity to stay focused.

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The Dalai Lama’s Conjecture

A preview of Evan Thompson’s new book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

BY EVAN THOMPSON

DalaiDilemnaWhen I was eight years old my father gave me Gautama Buddha: In Life and Legend by Betty Kelen. I still have the copy, a 75-cent paperback, with my name in my own handwriting on the first page. I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in the backseat of our old blue Volkswagen station wagon, as we drove along Highway 400 from York University in Toronto (where my father taught Humanities) to our home in Bradford, Ontario, about 40 miles north.

I asked my father why he sometimes marked sentences in books he was reading with a red pen. He told me they were important ones he wanted to remember and find again. Like father, like son: the red ink I marked on the paragraphs describing the aspiration to attain enlightenment and become a Buddha hasn’t faded against the yellow paper.

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The Bright Knight of the Soul  

How a 13th-century myth illuminates the contemporary mission of Mind and Life

BY ARTHUR ZAJONC, PhD

As I reflect on the last 18 months and look forward to the next year and more, the medieval romance Parzival keeps reasserting itself. Its archetypal elements seem apt metaphors for the essential work of Mind and Life.

The story of Parzival opens with our hero as a young lad who has led a remarkably sheltered life in the woods of Soltane with a protective mother. He is the original innocent who knows neither his own name nor his lineage. One day, he sees in the forest what he believes must be a vision of angels—four dazzlingly armored and powerful men, traveling astride mighty horses. Upon seeing these knights, he quickly seeks his own way to King Arthur so that he too may become as those he saw.

Parzival’s journey of knighthood—too beautiful and too long to summarize here—leads him first to his mentor Gurnemanz, who teaches him courtesy and what is socially acceptable. His further adventures take Parzival to the Grail castle of Amfortas, the grievously wounded Grail King. It’s this part that I want to highlight. Read More

Summit in the Field

Four Scholars Reflect on the State of Contemplative Studies

This fall, Mind and Life held its International Symposium for Contemplative Studies—the biannual “summit” in the field. Over four days in Boston, the Institute welcomed seven exciting keynotes, including the Dalai Lama; featured more than 35 master lecturers; and presented the work of hundreds of scientists, scholars, and contemplatives. This convergence of minds and research offered insights into the fields of neuroscience, the humanities, clinical science, philosophy, psychology, ethics, physics, economics, medicine, and more. We asked four of our speakers a single question about the current state of the field.

Al Kaszniak

University of Arizona

What in your opinion, is the most significant, or meaningful, breakthrough in contemplative science over the past 30 years?

FEATURE_Summit(INSETWRAP)1I think that it is fair to say that we are presently in the “golden age” of contemplative science. Comparing the first to the second five years of this century, there has been a more than 300 percent increase in basic and clinical contemplative science publications. Given this explosion of published research, it is very difficult to single out any particular discovery as the most significant or meaningful breakthrough.

However, taking a step back and trying to see the forest rather than just the many trees, it seems clear to me that the two most important meta-trends in contemplative science have been: (1) the fruition of an approach that truly brings first-, second-, and third-person perspectives into collaborative interaction; and (2) the real beginnings of the sort of “neurophenomenology” that Mind & Life Institute cofounder Francisco Varela had envisioned. Read More

Nine Meditations from SRI 2013

Summer Research Institute 2013

Every summer, Mind and Life brings together more than 150 scientists, contemplatives, scholars, and students for its Summer Research Institute (SRI). The gathering combines cutting-edge scientific research with the world’s oldest wisdom traditions in order to uncover groundbreaking insights into the human mind and human nature.

This year’s theme was on “mapping the mind.” In this essay, we’ve offered some of the thoughts that the six stimulating days at SRI provoked.

Meditation 1  Has our understanding of the brain changed over years of research? Many of us grew up hearing about the left versus the right sides of the brain, or that one area was for language and abstract thought, while another one controlled emotions such as anger or sadness. This kind of mapping is called “functional specialization,” and for decades it has been the prevalent view in neuroscience. That’s all being turned on its, well, head. Instead of mapping by discrete areas, Luis Pessoa and other SRI neuroscientists are beginning to look at the ways in which complex neural networks more accurately describe and predict the brain’s behavior. Instead of searching for brain areas, we should be looking at neural “hubs,” where networks that influence both cognitive and emotional processes interact.

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Meditation 2 Most of us get distracted or daydream, so we know from experience that we’re not always good at paying attention. When we do pay attention, though, we usually understand it as a property controlled by the individual in a “top-down” manner. In other words, we assume that we direct the gaze, or spotlight, of our attention. But it’s also true that the nature of our attention changes depending on our feelings during any given moment. These “bottom-up” systems of attention are heavily influenced by our memories and emotions, and tune our orientation to the environment in interesting ways. Trauma, for example, can rewire bottom-up attentional systems and make it more likely that neutral stimuli will trigger a fear response. What is often called affective or motivational salience is just beginning to be investigated by SRI scientists such as Rebecca Todd.

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Ommm Ex Machina

How does the game change if we get a computer to meditate? Cognitive scientist Marieke van Vugt wants to find out.

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“Friending” Marieke van Vugt online or meeting her in person might obscure her profession. A long way from coming across as the logic-obsessed, lab-leashed scientist, van Vugt is warm, open, inviting. Her Facebook photographs depict her and her friends—an actual ballet troupe—stretching across colorful stages. But van Vugt is also a veteran of the contemplative science community. She’s attended nine out of 10 Mind and Life Summer Research Institutes (SRIs). She’s a professor of cognitive modeling in the department of artificial intelligence at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. And she’s working on a computational model of meditation—more on that later.

Like many people, van Vugt learned of Mind and Life through Daniel Goleman’s 2003 best seller, Destructive Emotions. It was after that experience that she attended her first SRI. “Those were pioneering events,” van Vugt says, noting how in the early 2000s, at the first SRIs, the field of meditation research was relatively unrefined. While enormous conceptual and methodological strides have been taken since, and researchers have begun to capture the attention of mass media and such governmental organizations as the National Institutes of Health, van Vugt says that, “back then, no one had any idea. It was great. There were all these amazing people like Daniel Kahneman, Anne Treisman, and Jonathan Cohen. And they were giving talks about how we could study meditation.”

Van Vugt says she was struck by how those SRIs legitimized the field to the point that her work became less suspect, even to those in the academic circles around her. During graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, her doctoral advisor had been reluctant to consider the merits of meditation research. Though not a fan of contemplative practices, he nevertheless gave van Vugt intense training in cognitive science and computational modeling that allowed her to embark on what she calls “a lifelong quest” to fuse her interests and help develop the most advanced cognitive models of meditation possible. Read More