Mindfulness: Scientific Footprints Along a Spiritual Path, continued

Page Three

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.

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Janice Lindsay-Hartz, Ph.D., P.A.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
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Miami, Florida