Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

A good book for a summary of the latest scientific research around meditation. It was interesting to see how interconnected all the major figures are within the mindfulness movement. How many of them met each other and kept working in the field to help establish the movement in the modern world.

The biggest highlight for me was the studies done on Mingyur Rinpoche. His abilities to ramp up gamma waves on command by several orders of magnitude was incredible. I also enjoyed their use of the term ‘olympic level’ meditators.

Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson

1 | The Deep Path and the Wide

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There are, then, two paths: the deep and the wide. Those two paths are often confused with each other, though they differ greatly.

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Level 4 are, of necessity, the most watered-down, all the better to render them handy for the largest number of people. The current vogues of mindfulness-at-your-desk, or via minutes-long meditation apps, exemplify this level.

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Level 5, the lessons scientists have learned in studying all the other levels will lead to innovations and adaptations that can be of widest benefit—a

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An altered trait—a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice—endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate.

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these deep changes are external signs of strikingly different brain function.

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The very idea of “awakening”—the goal of the deep path—seems a quaint fairy tale to a modern sensibility. Yet data from Richie’s lab, some just being published in journals as this book goes to press, confirm that remarkable, positive alterations in brain and behavior along the lines of those long described for the deep path are not a myth but a reality.

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Among the iffy findings gone viral with enthusiastic claims: that meditation thickens the brain’s executive center, the prefrontal cortex, while shrinking the amygdala, the trigger for our freeze-fight-or-flight response; that meditation shifts our brain’s set point for emotions into a more positive range; that meditation slows aging; and that meditation can be used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. On closer look, each of the studies on which these claims are based has problems with the methods used; they need more testing and corroboration to make firm claims. Such findings may well stand up to further scrutiny—or maybe not.

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In chapter thirteen, “Altering Traits,” we lay out the benefits of meditation at three levels: beginner, long-term, and “Olympic.”

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At the outset, mere minutes a day of practice have surprising benefits (though not all those that are claimed). Beyond such payoffs at the beginning, we can now show that the more hours you practice, the greater the benefits you reap. And at the highest levels of practice we find true altered traits—changes in the brain that science has never observed before, but which we proposed decades ago.

2 | Ancient Clues

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Before meeting Khunu Lama, Dan had spent months with an Indian yogi, Neem Karoli Baba,

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Maharaji’s only worldly possessions seemed to be the white cotton dhoti he wore on hot days and the heavy woolen plaid blanket he wrapped around himself on cold ones. He kept no particular schedule, had no organization, nor offered any fixed program of yogic poses or meditations. Like most sadhus, he was itinerant, unpredictably on the move. He mainly hung out on a tucket on the porch of whatever ashram, temple, or home he was visiting at the time.

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Maharaji seemed always to be absorbed in some state of ongoing quiet rapture, and, paradoxically, at the same time was attentive to whoever was with him.1

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No matter what he was doing, he seemed to remain effortlessly in a blissful, loving space, perpetually at ease.

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Dan took five of Goenka’s ten-day courses in a row, immersing himself in this rich meditation method.

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What had been “my body, my knee” becomes a sea of shifting sensation—a radical shift in awareness.

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Spiritual literature throughout Eurasia converges in descriptions of an internal liberation from everyday worry, fixation, self-focus, ambivalence, and impulsiveness—one that manifests as freedom from concerns with the self, equanimity no matter the difficulty, a keenly alert “nowness,” and loving concern for all.

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staunch behaviorists, followers of B. F. Skinner, dominated the psychology department.8 Their firm assumption was that only observable behavior was the proper study of psychology—looking inside the mind was a questionable endeavor, a taboo waste of time.

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Richie’s steely conviction was that psychology should study the mind—not reinforcement schedules for pigeons—and so he became a rebel. Richie’s interests in what went on in the mind were, from the strict behaviorist perspective, transgressive.10

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“unshakable conviction” that “our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.”14

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“We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.”

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From the early days of psychology, beginning with Freud himself, altered states were dismissed as symptoms of one or another form of psychopathology.

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Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna around the beginning of the twentieth century, he wrote to Freud describing the mystical state he experienced—and Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy.15

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By the 1960s, psychologists routinely dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis (the original term for psychedelics was “psychotomimetic” drugs—psychosis mimics).

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Soon Richie found himself entering a state of total absorption that, toward the end of the retreat, allowed him to sit for up to four hours at a go. At lights-out time he’d go to the empty meditation hall and meditate on his body’s sensations steadily, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.

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For days after the retreat ended, Richie still felt he was on a high. Richie’s mind kept soaring while he and Susan stayed on in Dalhousie.

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There Richie felt that high begin to wane

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Richie tried to revive the state he had reached at the Dalhousie course, but it had vanished. It reminded him of a psychedelic trip in that way: he had vivid memories of the retreat, but they were not embodied, not a lasting transformation. They were just memories.

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How long do state effects—like Richie’s meditative highs—last? At what point can they be considered enduring traits? What allows such a transformation of being to become embodied in a lasting way instead of fading into the mists of memory?

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Though centuries old, the Visuddhimagga remained the definitive guidebook for meditators in places like Burma and Thailand, that follow the Theravada tradition,

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At first the flow of thoughts rushes like a waterfall, which sometimes discourages beginners, who feel their mind is out of control.

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The stream of thought flows more slowly, like a river—and finally rests in the stillness of a lake, as an ancient metaphor for settling the mind in meditation practice tells us.

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Jhana alone, the Buddha is said to have declared, was not the path to a liberated mind. Though strong concentration can be an enormous aid along the way, the Buddha’s path veers into a different kind of inner focus: the path of insight.

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With mindfulness, the meditator simply notes without reactivity whatever comes into mind, such as thoughts or sensory impressions like sounds—and lets them go. The operative word here is go. If we think much of anything about what just arose, or let it trigger any reactivity at all, we have lost our mindful stance—unless

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But with strong mindfulness we can experience a deep sense in which self-loathing and romantic thoughts are the same: like all other thoughts, these are passing moments of mind.

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Once we glimpse our mind as a set of processes, rather than getting swept away by the seductions of our thoughts, we enter the path of insight.

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The tale speaks to the difference between meditation highs and enduring change.

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But Richie’s delicious meditation-induced high—possibly somewhere in the vicinity of access concentration, if not first jhana—was not sufficient to bring on these trait changes.

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The sudden revelations of drug-induced altered states led to assumptions like, as one acidhead put it, “With LSD we experienced what it took Tibetan monks 20 years to obtain, yet we got there in 20 minutes.”20 Dead wrong. The trouble with drug-induced states is that after the chemical clears your body, you remain the same person as always.

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And, as Richie discovered, the same fading away happens with highs in meditation.

3 | The After Is the Before for the Next During

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All too often our mental states fluctuate in a range that highlights desires, self-centeredness, sluggishness, agitation, and the like. These are among the unhealthy states on this map of mind. Healthy states, in contrast, include even-mindedness, composure, ongoing mindfulness, and realistic confidence. Intriguingly, a subset of healthy states applies to both mind and body: buoyancy, flexibility, adaptability, and pliancy.

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While immersed in deep concentration, a meditator’s unhealthy states are suppressed—but, as with that yogi in the bazaar, can emerge as strong as ever when the concentrative state subsides.

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We contended that hypnosis, unlike meditation, produced primarily state effects, and not trait effects as with meditation.

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true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.”

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We were, to say the least, outliers in psychology—or oddballs, as we no doubt were perceived by some of our Harvard colleagues. Our vision of altered traits made a leap far beyond the psychological science of our day. Risky business.

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science needs to balance skeptics with speculators—people who cast wide nets, think imaginatively, and consider “what if.”

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Economist Joseph Schumpeter has become known these days for the concept of “creative destruction,” where the new disrupts the old in a market. Our early hunches about altered traits fit what Schumpeter called “vision”: an intuitive act that supplies direction and energy for analytic efforts. A vision lets you see things in a new light, as he says, one “not to be found in the facts, methods, and results of the preexisting state of the science.”8

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McEwen’s results ripped through the brain and behavioral sciences like a small tsunami, opening minds to the possibility that a given experience could leave an imprint on the brain.

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a holy grail for psychology: how stressful events produce lingering neural scars.

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The conventional wisdom then was that at birth we host in our skull a maximum number of neurons, and then inexorably lose them in a steady die-off over the course of life. Experience, supposedly, had nothing to do with this.
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I wonder how many thousands of ideas are like this in science, where religion or mythical traditions or folklore have discovered certain truths that science is still waiting to catch up on.

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The battle had a long, ugly history—racists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries twisted the genetics of their day as “scientific” grounds for bias against blacks, Native Americans, Jews, the Irish, and a long list of other targets of bigotry. The racists attributed any and all lags in educational and economic attainments of the target group to their genetic destiny, ignoring vast imbalances in opportunity.
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How many other scientific positions are influenced by such ideological stances? Climate change? After life? Introspection?

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For the first time in public he proposed the concept of “neuroplasticity”
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Oh! Didn’t realise it was Richie who first proposed neuroplasticity. That’s huge. That means the Dalai Lama was actually a MASSIVE proponent of this discovery.

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findings—for instance, those showing that mastering a musical instrument enlarged the relevant brain centers.11

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The longer they had played, the greater the size.12

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Most people lose sight of their finger as it moves to the far right or left of their nose. But one group does not: people who are deaf.

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The brains of deaf people, Neville discovered, had morphed so that what is ordinarily a part of the auditory system was now working with the visual circuitry.14

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Alexander the Great was leading his armies through what is now Kashmir, legend has it

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The Greek-derived word for these yogis is gymnosophists, literally “naked philosophers”

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The Greek schools of philosophy espoused an ideal of personal transformation that remarkably echoes those of Asia, as Alexander may have found in his exchanges with Kalyana. The Greeks and their heirs the Romans, of course, laid the foundation for Western thought down to the present day.

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Aristotle posited the goal of life as a virtue-based eudaimonia—a quality of flourishing—a

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For the Stoics, one key was seeing that our feelings about life’s events, not those events themselves, determine our happiness; we find equanimity by distinguishing what we can control in life from what we cannot. Today that creed finds an echo in the popularized Twelve Step version of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:

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God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

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These Greek schools saw philosophy as an applied art and taught contemplative exercises and self-discipline as paths to flourishing. Like their peers to the East,

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In Buddhism, for example, the ideal of inner flourishing gets put in terms of bodhi (in Pali and Sanskrit), a path of self-actualization that nourishes “the very best within oneself.”20

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Today’s psychology uses the term well-being for a version of the Aristotelian meme flourishing.

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a model of well-being with six arms:

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“Each of you is perfect the way you are,” Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, adding, “and you can use a little improvement”—neatly

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Autonomy, independence in thought and deed, freedom from social pressure, and using your own standards to measure yourself. This, by the way, applies most strongly in individualistic cultures like Australia and the United States, as compared with cultures like Japan, where harmony with one’s group looms larger.

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Frankl’s sentiment resonates with a finding that after a three-month meditation retreat (about 540 hours total), those practitioners who had strengthened a sense of purpose in life during that time also showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells, even five months later.24

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It’s as though the body’s cells were saying, stick around—you’ve got important work to do.

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But meditation research varies enormously when it comes to scientific soundness—though when used to promote some brand of meditation, app, or other contemplative “product,” this inconvenient truth goes missing.

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What does science actually tell us about the impacts of meditation?
4 | The Best We Had

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Dan told those assigned to a control group picked at random to simply sit and relax.

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From that viewpoint, Dan’s research—and the majority of studies of meditation even today—has flaws.

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For instance, Dan was the person who taught the volunteers to meditate or told them to just relax. But Dan knew the desired outcome, that meditation should help more—and that could well have influenced how he spoke to the two groups, perhaps in a way that encouraged good results from meditation and poor ones from the control condition who just relaxed.

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Dan’s study is not alone; that attitude prevails still today. Replicability, as it’s known in the trade, stands as a strength of the scientific method; any other scientist should be able to reproduce a given experiment and yield the same findings—or reveal the failure to reproduce them. But very, very few ever even try.
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Wtf? What is this shit. Ppl don’t even try???

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the field’s incentives favor original work, not duplication.

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Plus, psychology, like all sciences, has a strong inbuilt publication bias: scientists rarely try to publish studies when they get no significant results. And yet that null finding itself has significance.

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If you ask people to report on their own behaviors, feelings, and the like—soft measures—psychological factors like a person’s mood of the moment and wanting to look good or please the investigator can influence enormously how they respond.

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The net effect of such a bias would be to make meditators’ sweat response seem to react more to the accident, while recovering more quickly (however, as we shall see, this is precisely the pattern found in the most advanced meditators studied so far).

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Research on bias has found two levels: our conscious predilections and, harder to counter, our unconscious ones.

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Along those lines, Dan shared the dilemma of most scientists who do research on meditation: they are themselves meditators, which can encourage such bias, even if unconscious.

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When such a teacher engages in the self-promotion typical of some commercial brand, it signals that someone hopes to use the appearance of inner progress in the service of marketing.

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TM research has had a somewhat checkered history in part because most of it has been done by staff at Maharishi University of Management (formerly Maharishi International University), which is a part of the organization that promotes TM.

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Richie’s lab intentionally employs several scientists who are skeptical of meditation’s effects, and who raise a healthy number of issues and questions that “true believers” in the practice might overlook or sweep under the rug. One result: Richie’s lab has published several nonfindings, studies that test a specific hypothesis about the effect of meditation and fail to observe the expected effect.

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The lab also publishes failures to replicate—studies that do not get the same results when duplicating the method of previously published papers that found meditation has some beneficial effect.

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Bringing in skeptics is but one of many ways to minimize experimenter bias. Another would be to study a group that is told about meditation practices and their benefits but gets no instruction. Better: an “active control,” where one group engages in an activity unlike meditation, one that they believe will benefit them, such as exercise.

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WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and from democratic cultures.10

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to ask if we can identify a neural signature of attention skill.

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Back in 1975 we were quite naive about how important these variations in technique were. Today we know there are many aspects of attention, and that different kinds of meditation train a variety of mental habits, and so, impact mental skills in varying ways.

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Breath focus, they found, was calming—seeming to confirm a widespread assumption about meditation’s usefulness as a means to relax. But in contradiction to that stereotype, neither the loving-kindness practice nor monitoring thoughts made the body more relaxed, apparently because each demands mental effort: for example, while watching thoughts you continually get swept up in them—and then, when you notice this has happened, need to make a conscious effort to simply watch again. In addition, the loving-kindness practice, where you wish yourself and others well, understandably created a positive mood, while the other two methods did not.

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Even further, the meditators carefully review each retreat and estimate the time spent doing different styles of meditation practice.

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As we will see, there sometimes is a dose-response relationship when it comes to the brain and behavioral benefits from meditation: the more you do it, the better the payoff.

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But in this study, both groups reported comparable improvement on these subjective measures of general distress, anxiety, and medical symptoms. This led Richie’s group to conclude that much of the stress relief improvements beginners credit to meditation do not seem to be that unique.13

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This led Richie’s lab to conclude that for this variety of mindfulness, and likely for any other meditation, many of the reported benefits in the early stages of practice can be chalked up to expectation, social bonding in the group, instructor enthusiasm, or other “demand characteristics.” Rather than being from meditation per se, any reported benefits may simply be signs that people have positive hopes and expectations.

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Just finding that people practicing one or another kind of meditation report improvements compared to those in a control group who do nothing does not mean such benefits are due to the meditation itself. Yet this is perhaps the most common paradigm still used in research on the benefits of meditation—and it clouds the picture of what the true advantages of the practice might be.

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what’s called “mindfulness,” by scientists and practitioners alike, can refer to very different ways to deploy attention. For example, the way mindfulness gets defined in a Zen or Theravadan context looks little like the understanding of the term in some Tibetan traditions.

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essential that researchers understand what kind of mindfulness they are actually studying—or

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But the results from the HEP folks were pretty much like those from MBSR—an uptick in mindfulness as assessed on the self-report test. More formally, there was zero evidence that this measure had discriminant validity. Oops.

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For that reason the Davidson group has come up with what they consider a more robust behavioral measure: your ability to maintain focus as you count your breaths, one by one.

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This is not as simple as it may sound. In the test you press the down arrow on a keyboard on each outbreath. And to up the odds, on every ninth exhale you tap a different key, the right arrow. Then you start counting your breaths from one to nine again.22
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This seems a fairly straight forward test. I wonder with a simple Spire machine to count breaths whether you could do this test in an MBSR 8 week course before and after – just for students to have a personal benchmark to compare against after 8 weeks.

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The strength of this test: the difference between your count and the actual number of breaths you took renders an objective measure far less prone to psychological bias.

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The four main neural pathways meditation transforms are, first,
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  1. Reaction to stress and recovery from it 2. Empathy and compassion 3. Attention 4. Sense of self

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This more rigorous look contrasts with the too-common practice of accepting findings—and touting them—simply because they are published in a “peer-reviewed” journal.

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the original 231 reports on cultivating loving-kindness or compassion, only 37 met top design standards. And when Richie looked through the lenses of design strength and of importance, eliminated overlap, and otherwise distilled them, this closer scrutiny shrank that number to 8 or so studies, whose findings we talk about in chapter six, “Primed for Love,”
5 | A Mind Undisturbed

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Charles Bukowski: it’s not the big things that drive us mad, but “the shoelace that snaps with no time left.”

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Hover’s instructions included several two-hour meditation sittings during which students vowed not to make a single voluntary movement—twice as long as those at Goenka’s courses.

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On this retreat Jon had an insight, which he quickly wrote down on the back of an envelope, that there might be a way to share the benefits of meditation practices with medical patients, especially those experiencing chronic pain that wouldn’t go away just by changing their posture or stopping the meditation practice.

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As these stressful thoughts were presented, the patients used either of two different attentional stances: mindful awareness of their breath or distraction by doing mental arithmetic. Only mindfulness of their breath both lowered activity in the amygdala—mainly

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started to participate in dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists at the Mind and Life Institute, we were impressed by the precision with which one of his interpreters, Alan Wallace, was able to equate scientific terms with their equivalent meanings in Tibetan,

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Mindful Attention Training.

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As the brain’s radar for threat, the amygdala rivets our attention on what it finds troubling. So when something worries or upsets us, our mind wanders over and over to that thing, even to the point of fixation—like the viewers of the shop accident film when they saw Al’s thumb approach that wicked saw blade.

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If you give the back of your hand a hard pinch, different brain systems mobilize, some for the pure sensation of pain and others for our dislike of that pain. The brain unifies them into a visceral, instant Ouch!

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But that unity falls apart when we practice mindfulness of the body, spending hours noticing our bodily sensations in great detail.

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the thermal stimulator has built-in safety devices so people’s skin won’t be burned, even as it calibrates precisely their maximum pain threshold. And people’s pain thresholds are nowhere near the higher range at which burns occur.

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“States of consciousness at first attained only in the meditation hall gradually become continuous in any and all activities.”13

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But that’s less an issue here, because of the brain imaging. If the outcome measures are based on self-reports (the most easily swayed by expectations) or even behavior observed by someone else (somewhat less susceptible to bias) then an active control group matters greatly. But when it comes to their brain activity, people have no clue what’s going on, and so an active control matters less.

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Tellingly, their brains seemed to disconnect the usual link between executive center circuits where we evaluate (This hurts!) and circuitry for sensing physical pain (This burns).

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In short, the Zen meditators seemed to respond to pain as though it was a more neutral sensation.

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Researchers are, appropriately, skeptical about such traitlike findings because self-selection in who chooses to stick with meditation and who drops out along the way might also account for such data; perhaps people who choose to meditate for years and years are already different in ways that look like trait effects. The maxim “Correlation does not mean causation” applies here.

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While the “yogis” pursued their demanding schedule of meditating six or more hours a day for ninety days,

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One test presented lines of different lengths in rapid succession, with the instruction to press one button for a line that was shorter than the others. Only one out of ten lines was short; the challenge is to inhibit the knee-jerk tendency to press the button for a short line when a long one appears. As the retreat progressed, so did the ability of the meditators to control this impulse—a mirror on a skill critical to managing our emotion, the capacity to refrain from acting on whim or impulse.
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Again another interesting and fairly simple test to use

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Tellingly, the wait-list controls showed no change in any of these measures—but showed the same improvements once they had gone through the retreat.

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follow-up five months after the retreats ended found that the improvements remained.

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Imagine you are describing your qualifications for a job while two interviewers glare at you, unsmiling. Their faces reveal no empathy, not even an encouraging nod. That’s the situation in the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), one of the most reliable ways known to science to trigger the brain’s stress circuits and its cascade of stress hormones.

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Alan Wallace and Paul Ekman created a renewal program for schoolteachers that combined psychological training with meditation.19 Whereas Dan had used the shop accident film to bring stress into the lab, here the stressor was the Trier test’s simulated job interview followed by that formidable math challenge.

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The more hours those teachers had practiced meditation, the quicker their blood pressure recovered from a high point during the TSST. This was true five months after the program ended, suggesting at least a mild trait effect

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This connectivity modulates a person’s level of emotional reactivity: the stronger the link, the less reactive. Indeed, that relationship is so strong that a person’s reactivity level can be predicted by the connectivity.

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But when Richie’s group repeated this study with people taking the MBSR training (a total of just under thirty hours) plus a bit of daily at-home practice, they failed to find any strengthening of connection between the prefrontal region and the amygdala during the challenge of upsetting images. Nor was there any when the MBSR group simply rested.

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Among those who show the most short-lived amygdala response,
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It’s very interesting looking in hindsight at some of the things that have stressed me in life and how little of an impact those things seem to have now on my life. Especially comparing with similar things friends (or exes) have gone through

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the results showed that the more hours of practice, the more quickly the amygdala recovered from distress.22

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this tells us, are exactly what those Desert Fathers were after: a mind undisturbed.

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The amygdala, a key node in the brain’s stress circuitry, shows dampened activity from a mere thirty or so hours of MBSR practice.
6 | Primed for Love

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And that hermit, though grateful for Macarius’s kindness, thought of yet another among them who would benefit from eating the grapes, and passed them on to that monk. So it went through the entire hermit community until the grapes came around again to Macarius.
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Omg need to share this on SSp hahahha

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Turns out whether a divinity student helped or not depended on how late that student felt—the more time-pressured, the less likely to stop.2

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There’s a spectrum that runs from self-centered preoccupations (I’m late!), to noticing the people around us, to tuning in to them, empathizing, and finally, if they are in need, acting to help.

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embodying compassion means we act.

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metta in Pali and loosely translated into English as “loving-kindness”—an unconditional benevolence and goodwill—a quality of love akin to the Greek agape.3

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Sharon was a panelist in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in 1989, for which Dan was moderator.4 At one point Sharon told the Dalai Lama that many Westerners felt loathing toward themselves. He was astonished—he’d never heard of this. He had, the Dalai Lama replied, always assumed that people naturally loved themselves.

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Yet in English the word compassion, the Dalai Lama pointed out, signifies the wish that others be well—but it does not include oneself. He explained that in his own language, Tibetan, as well as in the classical tongues Pali and Sanskrit, the word compassion implies feeling this for oneself as well as others. English, he added, needs a new word, self-compassion.

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self-compassion. In her definition this includes being kind to yourself instead of self-critical; seeing your failures and mistakes as just part of the human condition rather than some personal failing; and just noting your imperfections, not ruminating about them.

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An Israeli group tested this idea, and found that teaching loving-kindness to people particularly prone to self-criticism both lessened those harsh thoughts and increased their self-compassion.5

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Cognitive empathy lets us understand how the other person thinks; we see their perspective. In emotional empathy we feel what the other is feeling. And the third, empathic concern or caring, lies at the heart of compassion.

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The word empathy entered the English language only in the early years of the twentieth century, as a translation of the German word Einfühlung, which might be translated as “feeling with.”

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compassion begins with accepting what’s happening without turning away—an essential first step toward taking helpful action—could

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Before they had learned this loving-kindness method, when the volunteers saw graphic videos of people suffering, only their negative circuits for emotional empathy activated: their brains reflected the state of the victims’ suffering as though it were happening to themselves. This left them feeling upset, an emotional echo of distress that transferred from the victims to themselves.
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Wow very interesting. It seems because I was exposed to meditation practices quite early I’ve assumed some of my mindsets are just straight common. So in the past whenever I shared negative / sad news with Izzy – expecting a compassionate response, she’s always averted it and responded in quite negative ways. I was always puzzled by that. But this piece here fits the puzzle.

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Empathy meant that people felt the pain of those who were suffering.

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when another group instead got instructions in compassion—feeling love for those suffering—their brains activated a completely different set of circuits, those for parental love of a child.8

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Such positive regard for a victim of suffering means we can confront and deal with their difficulty.

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In many East Asian countries the name Kuan Yin, the revered symbol of compassionate awakening, translates as “the one who listens and hears the cries of the world in order to come and help.”9

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As Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the Good Samaritan tale, those who did not help asked themselves, If I stop to help, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan asked, If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?

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How soon? Maybe in mere minutes—at least when it comes to mood. One study found that just seven minutes of loving-kindness practice boosts a person’s good feelings and sense of social connection, if only temporarily.11

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And the Davidson group had found that after eight or so hours of training in loving-kindness, volunteers showed strong echoes of those brain patterns found in more experienced meditators.12

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consider a random group of people who volunteered to try web-based instruction in meditation, for a total of two and a half hours (that is, twenty sessions of ten minutes each). This brief loving-kindness training resulted in people feeling more relaxed and donating to charity at a higher rate than those in a comparison group who did a comparable amount of light exercise like stretching.13

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During compassion practice, the amygdala is turned up in volume, while in focused attention on something like the breath, the amygdala is turned down.

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The amygdala’s circuits light up when we are exposed to someone feeling a strong negative emotion—fear, anger, and the like.

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Seven years after his three-month retreat experiment ended, Cliff Saron tracked down the participants.16 He found a surprise among those who, during and just after the retreat, were able to sustain attention to disturbing images of suffering—a psychophysiological measure of acceptance, as opposed to the averted gaze and expression of disgust he found in others (and which typifies people in general). Those who did not avert their eyes but took in that suffering were, seven years later, better able to remember those specific pictures. In cognitive science, such memory betokens a brain that was able to resist an emotional hijack, and so, take in that tragic image more fully, remember it more effectively—and, presumably, act.

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We suspect that cultivating compassion may take advantage of “biological preparedness,” a programmed readiness to learn a given skill, as seen, for instance, in the rapidity with which toddlers learn language. Just as with speaking, the brain seems primed to learn to love.
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Hmmm. This is interesting. In exactly the same way that we feel constant stress in the modern world because the threats we have today are not tigers that arise and then disappear quite soon (or we die).. and thus we have over activated stress response. I wonder if this Primed for Love idea actually could do the opposite of Truly compassionate action.. as in just because we feel we ought to be helping doesn’t necessarily mean that helping is the best choice. Eg if studies show that investing in a company vs donating to charity actually creates more social good (and a return on your money).. then what is the compassionate action?

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extraordinary altruists,

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Brain scans discovered that these compassionate souls have a larger right-side amygdala compared to other people of their age and gender.17 Since this region activates when we empathize with someone who is suffering, a larger amygdala may confer an unusual ability to feel the pain of others, so motivating people’s altruism—even as extraordinarily as donating a kidney to save someone’s life.

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The cultivation of a loving concern for other people’s well-being has a surprising and unique benefit: the brain’s circuitry for happiness energizes, along with compassion.19

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Our empathic resonance with the pain of others, she found, activates what amounts to a neural alarm that instantly tunes us to others’ suffering, potentially alerting us to the presence of danger. But compassion—feeling concern for the person suffering—seemed to involve a different set of brain circuits, those for feelings of warmth, love, and concern.

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When he cultivated empathy, sharing the suffering of another, she saw the action in his neural networks for pain. But once he began to generate compassion—loving feelings for someone who was suffering—he activated brain circuitry for positive feelings, reward, and affiliation.

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Compassion, she found, muted the empathic distress that can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout (as happens sometimes in the caring professions like nursing). Instead of simply feeling with the other person’s angst, compassion training led to that activation of completely different brain circuits, those for loving concern—and to positive feelings and resilience.22

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The first mental training, “Presence,” entailed a body scan and breath focus. Another, “Perspective,” included observing thoughts via a novel interpersonal practice of “contemplative dyads,” where partners share their stream of thought with each other for ten minutes daily, either through a cell phone app or in person.23 The third, “Affect,” included loving-kindness practice.

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These contemplative exercises were taken from a set designed to help people working with the dying (pastoral counselors, hospice workers) stay sensitive to suffering while feeling equanimity toward a dying person—after all, there is little or no help to give at that point, save a compassionate presence. And while they were no more likely to donate money, those who did the compassion meditation felt more tenderness toward the people in need. We wonder whether equanimity may have a very different effect on donations than does compassion—perhaps making someone less likely to, say, give money, even while resonating with the suffering.

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In research at Emory, one group did CBCT, while the other did Alan Wallace’s method of meditation (we described this in chapter five, “A Mind Undisturbed”). The main finding: the compassion group’s right amygdala tended to increase its activity in response to photos of suffering, and the more hours of practice, the larger the response. They were sharing the suffering person’s distress.

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brain studies have long shown women are more attuned to other people’s emotions than are men.27

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A highly accomplished Tibetan meditation master studied in Richie’s lab once said that one hour spent practicing loving-kindness toward a difficult person is equivalent to one hundred hours of the same toward a friend or loved one.

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The Dalai Lama tells of his half century of working at cultivating compassion. At the start, he says, he had enormous admiration for those who had developed genuine compassion for all beings—but he was not confident he could do so himself. He knew intellectually that such unconditional love was possible, but that it took a certain kind of inner work to build up. As time went on, he found that the more he practiced and became familiar with the feelings of compassion, the stronger his courage became that he, too, could develop it at the higher levels.

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What’s more, ideally this feeling does not come just sporadically, from time to time, but has become a compelling and stable force, a central organizing principle of our lives.

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“The first person to benefit from compassion is the one who feels it.”

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Dalai Lama recalls an encounter at Montserrat, a monastery near Barcelona, with Padre Basili, a Christian monk who had been in isolated retreat in a nearby mountain hermitage for five years. What had he been doing? Meditating on love. “I noticed a glow in his eyes,” the Dalai Lama said,

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Often people empathize emotionally with someone’s suffering but then tune out to soothe their own uncomfortable feelings.
7 | Attention!

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“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will,” he declared in his Principles of Psychology, published in 1890. James went on to say that “an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

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This was a seminal moment, an intellectual pivot point for Richie. He had the gut sense that he had found that most excellent education James sought: meditation. Whatever specific form it takes, most every kind of meditation entails retraining attention.

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Japanese researchers.2 They brought an EEG machine to a zendo and measured monks’ brain activity during meditation while hearing a monotonous series of sounds. While most monks showed nothing remarkable, three of the most “advanced” monks did: their brains responded as strongly to the twentieth sound as to the first. This was big news: ordinarily the brain would tune out, showing no reaction to the tenth bing, let alone the twentieth.

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Tuning out a repeated sound reflects the neural process known as habituation.
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Habituation happens in everything: a Ferrari, a £15million house, a hot girlfriend, sex, money.

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Attention fatigue in radar operators was the practical reason this very aspect of attention had been intensively researched during World War II, when psychologists were asked how to keep operators alert. Only then did attention come under scientific study.

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Habituation makes life manageable but a bit dull.

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By zooming in on details of sights, sounds, tastes, and sensations that we otherwise would habituate to, our mindfulness transformed the familiar and habitual into the fresh and intriguing. This attention training, we saw, might well enrich our lives, giving us the choice to reverse habituation by focusing us on a deeply textured here and now, making “the old new again.”

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Back in the 1970s science saw attention as mostly stimulus-driven, automatic, unconscious, and from the “bottom up”—a function of the brain stem, a primitive structure sitting just above the spinal cord, rather than from a “top-down” cortical area. This view renders attention involuntary. Something happens around us—a phone rings—and our attention automatically gets pulled to the source of that sound.

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In keeping with the scientific standards of the day, the reality of their own experience was simply ignored in favor of what could be objectively observed.

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Richie and his team have found this quieted amygdala both in long-term vipassana meditators and, with hints of the same pattern—though less strong—in people after training in MBSR.4

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Selective attention, the capacity to focus on one element and ignore others. Vigilance, maintaining a constant level of attention as time goes on. Allocating attention so we notice small or rapid shifts in what we experience. Goal focus, or “cognitive control,” keeping a specific goal or task in mind despite distractions. Meta-awareness, being able to track the quality of one’s own awareness—for example, noticing when your mind wanders or you’ve made a mistake.

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he did show fMRI images of two brains—one in the depths of depression, the other happy. Amishi asked him, “How do you get a brain to change from one to the other?” “Meditation,” Richie answered.

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Let’s say you are at a party listening to the music, and tuning out a conversation going on right next to you. If someone were to ask you what they had just said, you’d have no idea. But should one of them mention your name, you would zero in on those dulcet sounds as though you had been listening to them right along. Known in cognitive science as the “cocktail party effect,”

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When we choose to concentrate on visual sensations and ignore what we touch, the lights are “signal” and the touch “noise.” When we get distracted, noise drowns the signal; concentration means much more signal than noise.

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After eight weeks those who had gone through the MBSR program showed a far better ability to focus on sensations—in this case a carefully calibrated tapping on their hand or foot—than they had done before starting the MBSR training, as well as better than those who were still waiting for MBSR.

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the study concluded, can be trained—contrary to the standard wisdom where attention was assumed to be hardwired and so, beyond the reach of any training attempt.

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And to show even more convincingly that the link between meditation and sustained attention is not mere association, but rather a causal one, requires a longitudinal study. That higher bar was met by Clifford Saron and Alan Wallace’s study, where volunteers attended a three-month meditation retreat with Wallace as teacher.8

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That happy excitement over spotting Waldo marks a key moment in the workings of attention; the brain rewards us for any such victory with a dose of pleasing neurochemicals.

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After each string or fifteen or so, you are asked if you saw any numbers and what they were. If two numbers were presented in a rapid-fire sequence most people tend to miss the second number. That’s the attentional blink.

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Richie’s group measured the attentional blink in vipassana meditators before and after that three-month retreat. After the retreat there was a dramatic reduction, 20 percent, in the attentional blink.9

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Once the news was out in science circles, a group of researchers in Germany asked whether meditation training might offset the universal worsening with age of the attentional blink, which becomes more frequent and creates longer gaps in awareness as people get older.10 Yes: meditators who regularly practiced some form of “open monitoring” (a spacious awareness of whatever comes to mind) reversed the usual escalation of attentional blinks with aging, even doing better than another group taken entirely from a younger population.

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researchers speculate, the nonreactive open awareness—simply noticing and allowing whatever comes into the mind “just to be” rather than following a chain of thoughts about it—becomes a cognitive skill that transfers over to registering a target like the letters and numbers on the blink test without getting caught up in it. That leaves their attention ready for the next target in the sequence—a more efficient way to witness the passing world.
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In a way this is what Holding Space is about. It’s not reacting to the first emotional upheaval of someone, so that you can be just as attentive to what comes after.

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Once the attentional blink had been shown to be reversible, Dutch scientists wondered, What’s the minimum training that still lessens the blink? They taught people who had never meditated before how to monitor their mind, using a version of mindfulness.11

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Herbert Simon made this prescient observation: “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.”

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Did you ever have the impulse to tell a child to put down her phone and look in the eyes of the person she is talking to?

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digital distractions claim another kind of victim: basic human skills like empathy and social presence.

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The symbolic meaning of eye contact, of putting aside what we are doing to connect, lies in the respect, care, even love it indicates. A lack of attention to those around us sends a message of indifference. Such social norms for attention to the people we are with have silently, inexorably shifted.

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But compelling research at Stanford University has shown that this very idea is a myth—the brain does not “multitask” but rather switches rapidly from one task (my work) to others (all those funny videos, friends’ updates, urgent texts . . . ).12

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Attention tasks don’t really go on in parallel, as “multitasking” implies; instead they demand rapid switching from one thing to the other. And following every such switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration.
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This must be why I hate being interrupted. And exactly why when we have circles it is CRUCIAL there are no interruptions. Need to write a SSp post on this I reckon. ESP for Joserra who seems highly distracted during such retreats at times.

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Heavy multitaskers, the Stanford group discovered, are more easily distracted in general. And when multitaskers do try to focus on that one thing they have to get done, their brains activate many more areas than just those relevant to the task at hand—a neural indicator of distraction.

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Clifford Nass, one of the researchers, put it, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” which hampers not just concentration but also analytic understanding and empathy.13

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The good news for multitaskers: cognitive control can be strengthened. Undergrads volunteered to try ten-minute sessions of either focusing on counting their breath or an apt comparison task: browsing Huffington Post, Snapchat, or BuzzFeed.14 Just three ten-minute sessions of breath counting was enough to appreciably increase their attention skills on a battery of tests. And the biggest gains were among the heavy multitaskers, who did more poorly on those tests initially.

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gave volunteers an eight-minute instruction of mindfulness of their breath, and found that this short focusing session (compared to reading a newspaper or just relaxing) lessened how much their mind wandered afterward.15

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The boost to their attention and working memory may help account for the even bigger surprise: mindfulness upped their scores by more than 30 percent on the GRE, the entrance exam for grad school. Students, take note.

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better impulse inhibition went along with a self-reported uptick in emotional well-being.

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In meta-awareness it does not matter what we focus our attention on, but rather that we recognize awareness itself.

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Usually what we perceive is a figure, with awareness in the background. Meta-awareness switches figure and ground in our perception, so awareness itself becomes foremost.

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“That which is aware of sadness is not sad,” observes philosopher Sam Harris. “That which is aware of fear is not fearful. The moment I am lost in thought, however, I’m as confused as anyone else.”18

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There are two varieties of experience: the “mere awareness” of a thing, which our ordinary consciousness gives us, versus knowing you are aware of that thing—recognizing awareness itself, without judgment or other emotional reactions. For example,

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During such unconscious mental processing, activity lessens in a key cortical area, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC for short. As you become more aware of being aware, the DLPFC becomes more active.

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Psychologists at UC–Santa Barbara used such a mental challenge with people learning mindfulness for the first time, as well as a group who had a course in nutrition.21 Meta-awareness improved in the meditation group, but not a whit in those taking the nutrition class.

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Our hunch would be that pushing a neural system like attention in a lasting way requires not just these short trainings and continued daily practice, but also intensive booster sessions, as was the case with those who were at the shamatha retreat and then were tested five months later in Cliff Saron’s study. Otherwise the brain’s wiring will regress to its previous status: a life of distraction punctuated with periods of concentration.
8 | Lightness of Being

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The pain had not vanished, but Richie had changed his relationship to it. There was just raw sensation—not my pain, along with the usual stream of angst-ridden thoughts.

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In that hour Richie, with his science background, realized in his most personal reality that what we label as “pain” is a joining together of myriad constituent somatic sensations from which the label arises. With his newly altered perception, “pain” became just an idea, a mental label that puts a conceptual veneer over what arises from a motley coincidence of sensations, perceptions, and resistant thoughts.

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He understood that our experience is not based on the direct apperception of what is happening, but to a great extent upon our expectations and projections,

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We live in a world our minds build rather than actually perceiving the endless details of what is happening.

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Richie could be still as a rock during marathon sessions of up to three hours or longer. With this radical inner shift, Richie felt a sense that he could sit through anything.

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The Hour of Stillness shows that every waking moment of our lives, we construct our experience around a narrative where we are the star—and that we can deconstruct that story we center on ourselves by applying the right kind of awareness.

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What troubled him: during highly demanding cognitive tasks—like counting backward by 13s from the number 1,475—there were a set of brain regions that deactivated.

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In other words, while we’re doing nothing there are brain regions that are highly activated, even more active than those engaged during a difficult cognitive task. While we are working at a mental challenge like tricky subtraction, these brain regions go quiet.

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although the brain makes up only 2 percent of the body’s mass, it consumes about 20 percent of the body’s metabolic energy as measured by its oxygen usage, and that rate of oxygen consumption remains more or less constant no matter what we are doing—including nothing at all. The brain, it seems, stays just as busy when we are relaxed as when we are under some mental strain.
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For the non meditator.

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He dubbed this circuitry the brain’s “default mode network.”1

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When scientists asked people during these periods of “doing nothing” what was going on in their minds, not surprisingly, it was not nothing!

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They typically reported that their minds were wandering; most often, this mind-wandering was focused on the self—How am I doing in this experiment? I wonder what they are learning about me; I need to reply to Joe’s phone message—all reflecting mental activity focused on “I” and “me.”2

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By framing every event in how it impacts ourselves, the default mode makes each of us the center of the universe as we know it.

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Those reveries knit together our sense of “self” from the fragmentary memories, hopes, dreams, plans, and so on that center on I, me, and mine.

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Our default mode continually rescripts a movie where each of us stars, replaying particularly favorite or upsetting scenes over and over.

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Conversely, as we focus on some challenge, like grappling with what’s happened to your Wi-Fi signal, the default mode quiets.

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Because the self ruminates on what’s bothering us, we feel relieved when we can turn it off. One of the great appeals of high-risk sports like rock climbing seems to be just that—the danger of the sport demands a full focus on where to put your hand or foot next. More mundane worries take backstage in the mind.

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When we become lost in thoughts during meditation, we’ve fallen into the default mode and its wandering mind.

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basic instruction in almost all forms of meditation urges us to notice when our mind has wandered and then return our focus to the chosen target, say, a mantra or our breathing. This moment has universal familiarity on contemplative paths.

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This simple mental move has a neural correlate: activating the connection between the dorsolateral PFC and the default mode—a connection found to be stronger in long-term meditators than in beginners.3

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Vasubhandu observed, “So long as you grasp at the self, you stay bound to the world of suffering.” While most ways to relieve us from the burden of self are temporary, meditation paths aim to make that relief an ongoing fact of life—a lasting trait.

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lightening our sense of self as the key to such inner freedom.

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In the same way, cognitive science tells us, our sense of self emerges as a property of the many neural subsystems that thread together, among other streams, our memories, our perceptions, our emotions, and our thoughts. Any of those alone would be insufficient for a full sense of our self, but in the right combination we have the cozy feel of our unique being.

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share one goal: letting go of the constant grasping—the “stickiness” of our thoughts, emotions, and impulses—that guides us through our days and lives. Technically called “dereification,”
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You will have achieved this insight when you have dereified ALL thoughts. Including, but not exclusively, sleepiness, sexual lust, death, fears of sickness, panic, rage…

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Dōgen, founder of the Soto school of Zen, instructed, “If a thought arises, take note of it and then dismiss it. When you forget all attachments steadfastly, you will naturally become zazen itself.”

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We’ve often heard the Dalai Lama talk about “emptiness,” by which he means the sense in which our “self’—and all seeming objects in our world—actually emerge from the combination of their components.
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This is wrong! A combination of their components PLUS the mind that conceptually imputes upon it the label!

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Sufi teacher put it, “When occupied with self, you are separated from God. The way to God is but one step; the step out of yourself.”5

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a step out of the self, technically speaking, suggests weakening activation of the default circuitry that binds together the mosaic of memories, thoughts, impulses, and other semi-independent mental processes into the cohesive sense of “me” and “mine.”

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higher reaches of practice, mind training lessens the activity of our “self.” “Me” and “mine” lose their self-hypnotic power;

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all those tested were encouraged to distinguish between simply noting the identity of an experience (itching is occurring, say) and identifying with it (I itch)—and then to let go. This distinction seems a crucial step in loosening the self, by activating meta-awareness—a “minimal self” that can simply notice the itch rather than bring it into our story line, my itch.

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Our sense of self gets woven in an ongoing personal narrative that threads together disparate parts of our life into a coherent story line. This narrator resides mainly in the default mode but brings together inputs from a broad range of brain areas that in themselves have nothing to do with the sense of self.

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the long-term meditators seemed to have roughly the same lessened connectivity in the default mode circuitry while they just rested before the test as they displayed during mindfulness. That’s a likely trait effect and a good sign: these meditators intentionally train to be as mindful in their daily lives

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There’s a theory that what captures our attention signifies an attachment, and the more attached we are, the more often we’ll be so captivated.

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Along these lines, Richie’s group found that meditators who had an average 7,500 lifetime hours, compared to people their own age, had decreased gray matter volume in a key region: the nucleus accumbens.13 This was the only brain region showing a difference in brain structure compared to age-matched controls. A smaller nucleus accumbens diminishes connectivity between these self-related regions and the other neural modules that ordinarily orchestrate to create our sense of self.

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if we let go of grasping, “we become more open to our own experience, and to other people. That openness—a form of love—lets us more easily approach other people’s suffering.” “Great souls,” he added, “seem to embody the ability to engage suffering and handle it without collapse.

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When the meditators showed decreased activity in their PCC, they reported feelings like “undistracted awareness” and “effortless doing.”16

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the relationship to the self: it’s not so “sticky” anymore. The same sorts of thoughts can arise in your mind, but they are lighter: not so compelling, with less emotional oomph, and so float away more easily. This, at any rate, reflects what we hear from the advanced yogis studied in the Davidson lab, as well as from classic meditation manuals.

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Paul Ekman, a world expert on emotions and their expression, says this remarkable affective flexibility in the Dalai Lama struck him as exceptional from their very first meeting. The Dalai Lama reflects in his own demeanor the emotions he feels from one person, and then immediately drops that feeling as the next moment brings him another emotional reality.18

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the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens. These regions very likely underlie what traditional texts see as the root causes of suffering—attachment and aversion—where

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One trait that emerges from living without getting stuck seems to be an ongoing positivity, even joy.

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When the Dalai Lama once was asked what had been the happiest point in his life, he answered, “I think right now.”
9 | Mind, Body, and Genome

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Today hospitals and clinics around the world offer MBSR, one of the fastest-growing kinds of meditation practice, and by now the approach with the strongest empirical evidence of its benefits.

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Now taught at most academic medical centers in North America and in many parts of Europe,

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despite MBSR’s long history, we still have virtually no good information on the extent to which those who have taken an MBSR course continue to engage in formal practice in the years following their initial training.

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In well-designed research with elderly pain sufferers, MBSR proved highly effective both in reducing how much pain people felt and how disabled they became as a result.1 Their lowered pain levels lasted into a six-month follow-up.

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Still, there was no change in the patients’ physical functioning or in a key stress hormone, cortisol, which stayed at high levels. The patients’ relationship to their pain changed for the better with MBSR—but not the underlying biology causing the pain itself.
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This is very interesting. I wonder if there is a parallel here with eyesight improvement. Especially Jacob Liberman’s case as an example. That eyesight is largely mental rather than physical. Would be interesting to study success stories at endmyopia to see if they have crush biological changes.

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So—as Jon will tell you—the key to a lifetime relatively free from the experience of pain, both physical and emotional, is continuing one’s mindfulness practice day after day in the following months, years, and decades.
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If this indeed is the case for eyesight as well, then as soon as I ‘drop’ the active focusing habit, I lose my eyesight gains. Which seems to have been true so far.

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the meditators not only found the dreaded Trier test less stressful than did a matched cohort of novices (as we saw in chapter five), but they also had smaller patches of inflammation afterward.

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Mindfulness practice, it seems, lessens inflammation day to day, not just during meditation itself.

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recruited unemployed job seekers—a highly stressed group—and offered them either a three-day intensive program of mindfulness training or a comparable relaxation program.10 Blood samples before and after revealed that the meditators, but not those taking relaxation, had reductions in a key pro-inflammatory cytokine.

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The moment you woke up today, were you breathing in or breathing out? That hard-to-answer question was put to a retreatant by the late Burmese monk and meditation master Sayadaw U Pandita. It bespeaks the extremely conscientious and precise version of mindfulness he was renowned for teaching.

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Burmese teacher Mahasi Sayadaw, as well as spiritual guide to Aung San Suu Kyi during her years-long house arrest before she became Burma’s head of government.

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This meant there was another important step: finding what turns our genes on or off. If we’ve inherited a gene that gives us a susceptibility to a disease like diabetes, we may never develop the malady if, for example, we have a lifelong habit of getting regular exercise and not eating sugar.

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Sugar turns on the genes for diabetes; exercise turns them off.

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Undeterred by the skeptics, his lab went ahead, assaying changes in the expression of key genes before and after a day of meditation in a group of long-term vipassana practitioners (average of about 6,000 lifetime hours).14

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Telomeres are the caps at the end of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live. The longer the telomere, the longer the life span of that cell will be. Telomerase is the enzyme that slows the age-related shortening of telomeres; the more telomerase, the better for health and longevity. A meta-analysis of four randomized controlled studies involving a total of 190 meditators found practicing mindfulness was associated with increased telomerase activity.18

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Cliff Saron’s project found the same effect after three months of intensive practice of mindfulness and compassion meditation.19

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there’s the issue of what kind of meditation has which physiological impacts. Tania Singer’s group compared concentrating on the breath with loving-kindness and also with mindfulness, looking at how each influenced heart rate and how much effort meditators reported the methods took.22 The breath meditation was the most relaxing, with loving-kindness and mindfulness both boosting heart rate a bit, a sign these take more effort. Richie’s lab had a similar increase in heart rate with highly experienced meditators (more than 30,000 lifetime hours) doing compassion meditation.23

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the meditators were breathing an average 1.6 breaths more slowly. And this was while they were just sitting still, waiting for a cognitive test to start.

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Over the course of a single day that difference in breath rate translates to more than 2,000 extra breaths for the nonmeditators—and more than 800,000 extra breaths over the course of a year. These extra breaths are physiologically taxing, and can exact a health toll as time goes on.
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This means meditators are potentially living 37 days longer than the nonmeditators every year. (21,600 breaths per day)

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While chronic rapid breathing signifies ongoing anxiety, a slower breath rate indicates reduced autonomic activity, better mood, and salutary health.

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Compared with nonmeditators, her group reported, meditators had greater cortical thickness in areas important for sensing inside one’s own body and for attention, specifically the anterior insula and zones of the prefrontal cortex.

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The results: certain areas of the brain seemed to enlarge in meditators, among them: The insula, which attunes us to our internal state and powers emotional self-awareness, by enhancing attention to such internal signals. Somatomotor areas, the main cortical hubs for sensing touch and pain, perhaps another benefit of increased bodily awareness. Parts of the prefrontal cortex that operate in paying attention and in meta-awareness, abilities cultivated in almost all forms of meditation. Regions of the cingulate cortex instrumental in self-regulation, another skill practiced in meditation. The orbitofrontal cortex, also part of the circuitry for self-regulation.

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UCLA that finds meditation slows the usual shrinkage of our brain as we age: at age fifty, longtime meditators’ brains are “younger” by 7.5 years compared to brains of nonmeditators of the same age.27

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Meditation, the researchers conclude, helps preserve the brain by slowing atrophy.

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The study at the biotech start-up seemed to show a remarkable shift in brain function after the meditation training—from tilting toward the right to a leftward pitch, and reporting a switch into a more relaxed state. There were no such changes in a comparison group of workers assigned to a wait list, who were told they would receive the meditation training later.

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The problem: Richie’s lab has not been able to show that this tilt toward left-side activation continues to grow stronger the more you meditate. Richie hit a snag when he started bringing to his lab Olympic-level meditators, Tibetan yogis (more about them in chapter twelve, “Hidden Treasure”). These experts, who had logged off-the-charts hours of meditation, did not show the expected whopping leftward tilt—despite being some of the most optimistic and happy people Richie has ever known. This undermined Richie’s confidence in the measure, which he has discontinued. Richie has no sure sense of why that left/right measure failed to work as expected with the yogis. One possibility: a tilt toward the left may occur at the beginning of meditation practice, but other than a small range of change, the left/right ratio does not budge much.

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Our current thinking holds that in later stages of meditation other mechanisms kick in, so that what changes is your relation to any and all emotions, rather than the ratio of positive to negative ones. With high levels of meditation practice, emotions seem to lose their power to pull us into their melodrama.

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Consider the Dalai Lama, now in his eighties, who goes to bed at 7:00 p.m. and gets a full night’s sleep before he awakens around 3:30 for a four-hour stint of spiritual practice, including meditation. Add another hour of practice before he goes to bed and that gives him five hours a day of contemplative time.

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When he was asked if meditation helps medical conditions, he retorted, “If meditation was good for all health problems, I’d be free of pain in my knees.”
10 | Meditation as Psychotherapy

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His research had revealed that for people with depression so severe that drugs or even electroshock treatments were no help, this mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) cut the rate of relapse by half—more than any medication.

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the researchers concluded that mindfulness (but not mantra-based meditation like TM, for which there were too few well-designed studies to make any conclusions) could lessen anxiety and depression, as well as pain.

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The degree of improvement was about as much as for medications, but without troubling side effects—making mindfulness-based therapies a viable alternative treatment for these conditions.

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The main problem: what had seemed promising for relieving problems from earlier studies of meditation disappeared into a mist when compared to the benefits from an active control like exercise.

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But this time the patients were randomly assigned to either MBCT or one of two active control groups where they either learned the basics of cognitive therapy or just had the usual psychiatric treatments.4

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The reason? In a later analysis, Segal found the best outcomes were in those patients most able to “decenter,” that is, step outside their thoughts and feelings enough to see them as just coming and going, rather than getting carried away by “my thoughts and feelings.”

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When researchers from the Maharishi International University taught TM to prisoners with standard prison programs as the comparison, they found that four months later the prisoners doing TM showed fewer symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression; they also slept better and perceived their days as less stressful.9

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Varieties of the Contemplative Experience project,

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To be sure, dark nights may not be related to such histories.

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In Judaism, for example, Kabbalistic texts caution that contemplative methods are best reserved for middle age, lest an unformed ego fall apart.

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Thoughts Without a Thinker,
11 | A Yogi’s Brain

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Arriving at a yogi’s hermitage, the scientists presented the letter and through a translator asked to monitor the yogi’s brain while he meditated. The same answer came from each yogi in turn: No.

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Some may have heard about another yogi who once had been persuaded by a similar letter from the Dalai Lama to leave his retreat and travel to a university in faraway America to demonstrate his ability to raise his core body temperature at will. That yogi had died soon after his return, and rumors on the mountainside held that the experiment had played a role.

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Moreover, of the eight yogis the team met on this expedition, only one had ever seen an actual computer before Richie and the team arrived.

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Whatever the reasons, the net result of this scientific expedition was a resounding nothing.

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While their mastery at this inner expertise seems akin to world-class rankings in sports, in this “sport,” the better you get the less you care about your ranking—let alone social status, riches, or fame.

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What mattered to them was how the results might influence others for better or worse. Prospects for scientific studies were dim.

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Matthieu himself was the first monk to come for study at Richie’s lab, spending several days as experimental subject and as collaborator on methods to refine the protocol used with a succession of other yogis.

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This put Matthieu at the heart of a large network within the Tibetan meditative world. He knew whom to suggest as potential subjects of study—and, perhaps most important, was trusted by those very meditation experts.

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Matthieu’s crucial reassurances have so far brought twenty-one of these most advanced meditators to Richie’s lab for brain studies. That number includes seven Westerners

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Closing the gap between the first and third person was the idea of Francisco Varela, the brilliant biologist and cofounder of the Mind and Life Institute. In his academic writing Varela proposed a method for combining the first-and third-person lenses with a “second person,” an expert on the topic being studied.6

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Matthieu explained to Richie and his team that the meditator also cultivates a particular emotional state that goes along with a given image—say, with an image of the bodhisattva Tara the accompanying state melds compassion and loving-kindness.

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What might be next as contemplative science continues to evolve? The Dalai Lama, a twinkle in his eye, once told Dan that someday “the person being studied and the person doing the research will be one and the same.”
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Aha.. interesting!

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Mingyur was the first yogi studied after that initial session with Matthieu.

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The protocol had Mingyur alternate between one minute of meditation on compassion and thirty seconds of a neutral resting period. To

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He had assured them that these mental gymnastics would be no problem for someone at Mingyur’s level of expertise.

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Just as Mingyur began the meditation, there was a sudden huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying the signals from his brain. Everyone assumed this meant he had moved; such movement artifacts are a common problem in research with EEG, which registers as wave pattern readings of electrical activity at the top of the brain. Any motion that tugs the sensors—a leg shifting, a tilt of the head—gets amplified in those readings into a huge spike that looks like a brain wave and has to be filtered out for a clean analysis.

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in one he was asked to generate an elaborate visual image; in the other he was assessed to see if he had any knack for extrasensory perception. The cognitive scientist had high hopes that he would document the achievements of an extraordinary subject.

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The net result of Mingyur’s day in that lab: he flunked both tests, doing no better than the college sophomores who were the usual subjects of study there.

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Mingyur, it turned out, had done no practice with visualization since the long-gone, early years of his practice. As time went on, his meditations evolved. His current method, ongoing open presence (which expresses itself as kindness in everyday life), encourages letting go of any and all thoughts rather than generating any specific visual images. Mingyur’s practice actually ran counter to the purposeful generation of an image and the feelings that go along with it—perhaps reversing any skill he might once have had in that. His circuitry for visual memory had gotten no particular workout, despite his thousands of hours spent in other kinds of mental training.

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That traditional scientific stance completely missed the chance to assess Mingyur’s actual meditative talents, as did our earlier failure to take the measure of nibbana.

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akin to testing a legendary golfer like Jack Nicklaus on his prowess at shooting basketball free throws.

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Mingyur’s brain’s circuitry for empathy (which typically fires a bit during this mental exercise) rose to an activity level 700 to 800 percent greater than it had been during the rest period just before.

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Mingyur was a meditation prodigy, as the lab team learned while tallying his history of lifetime hours of the practice: at that point, 62,000.

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his brother Tsoknyi Rinpoche and half brothers Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche

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While Mingyur has as of this writing been on retreats for a total of ten of his forty-two years, Tulku Urgyen reputedly had done more than twenty years of retreat over his lifetime; Mingyur’s grandfather—Tulku Urgyen’s father—was said to have put in more than thirty years on retreat.11

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He entered a three-year meditation retreat when he was just thirteen, a decade or more earlier than most who undertake such a challenge. And by the end of that retreat he proved so proficient that he was made meditation master for the next three-year round, which began soon after the first ended.

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Some years before, he had announced he would be starting another three-year retreat—his third. But to everyone’s shock, instead of going into a remote hermitage with an attendant along to cook and care for him as is traditional, he disappeared one night from his monastery in Bodh Gaya, India, taking only his robes, a bit of cash, and an ID card.

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During his odyssey Mingyur lived as a wandering mendicant, spending winters as a sadhu on the plains of India and during the warmer months inhabiting Himalayan caves where fabled Tibetan masters had stayed. Such a wandering retreat, not uncommon in old Tibet, has become rare, especially among Tibetans like Mingyur whose diaspora has brought them into the modern world.

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During those wandering years there was not a word from him, save once when he was recognized by a Taiwanese nun at a retreat cave. He gave her a letter (telling her to send it after he had moved on) that said not to worry, he was fine—and exhorting his students to practice. A photo that surfaced when a monk, a longtime friend, managed to join Mingyur shows a radiant face with a wispy beard and long hair, his expression one of ebullient rapture.

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Then, suddenly, in November 2015, after almost four and a half years as a wanderer in radio silence, Mingyur reappeared at his monastery in Bodh Gaya.

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Although he was barraged with requests, following his return from this last retreat, to have his brain scanned by many labs all over the world, Mingyur turned most all of them down for fear of becoming a perpetual subject. He had consented to have his brain rescanned by Richie and his team because he knew they had longitudinal data from previous scans and could analyze ways his brain might be showing atypical changes.

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The first scan Richie’s lab had of Mingyur’s brain was obtained in 2002; there was another in 2010 and now the most recent, in 2016.

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Comparing Mingyur’s brain to norms for his age, he falls in the 99th percentile—that is, if we had 100 people who are the same chronological age as Mingyur (forty-one years at this scan), his brain would be the youngest in a group of 100 age-and gender-matched peers. After his latest retreat as a wanderer, when the lab compared Mingyur’s brain changes to those of a control group over the same period of time, Mingyur’s brain is clearly aging more slowly.

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Although his chronological age was forty-one at the time, his brain fit most closely the norms for those whose chronological age was thirty-three.

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The total hours of practice Mingyur put in during his years as a wanderer are difficult to calculate. At his level of expertise, “meditation” becomes an ongoing feature of awareness—a trait—not a discrete act. In a very real sense, he practices continuously, day and night. In fact, in his lineage the distinction made is not the conventional equation of meditation with time spent in a session sitting on a cushion versus regular life, but rather, between being in a meditative state or not, no matter what else you are doing.

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But the findings from Mingyur were only anecdotal, a single case that might be explained many different ways. For instance, perhaps his remarkable family has some mysterious genetic predisposition that both motivates them to meditate and leads them to high levels of proficiency. More convincing are results from a larger group of seasoned meditation adepts like Mingyur. His remarkable neural performance was part of a larger story, a one-of-a-kind brain research program that has harvested data from these world-class meditation experts. Richie’s lab continues to study and analyze the mass of data points from these yogis, in an ever-growing set of findings unparalleled in the history of contemplative traditions, let alone brain science.
12 | Hidden Treasure

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having racked up lifetime meditation hours ranging from 12,000 to Mingyur’s 62,000 (the number he had accomplished while going through these studies, and before his four-years-plus wandering retreat).

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Each of these yogis completed at least one three-year retreat, during which they meditated in formal practice a minimum of eight hours per day for three continuous years—actually, for three years, three months, and three days. That equates, in a conservative estimate, to about 9,500 hours per retreat.

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Like Mingyur, they entered the specified meditative states at will, each one marked by a distinctive neural signature. As with Mingyur, these adepts have shown remarkable mental dexterity, instantly and with striking ease mobilizing these states: generating feelings of compassion, the spacious equanimity of complete openness to whatever occurs, or laser-sharp, unbreakable focus.

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Antoine, like Francisco, has been a dedicated meditation practitioner himself, and the combination of his introspective insights with his scientific mind-set made for an extraordinary colleague in Richie’s center.

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All the yogis had elevated gamma oscillations, not just during the meditation practice periods for open presence and compassion but also during the very first measurement, before any meditation was performed. This electrifying pattern was in the EEG frequency known as “high-amplitude” gamma, the strongest, most intense form. These waves lasted the full minute of the baseline measurement before they started the meditation.

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This was the very EEG wave that Mingyur had displayed in that surprising surge during both open presence and compassion.
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Yes I do wonder about the difference between the brain scans with these different meditations. I feel they would look more similar than different.

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a neural signature showing an enduring transformation.

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Delta, the slowest wave, oscillates between one and four cycles per second, and occurs mainly during deep sleep; theta, the next slowest, can signify drowsiness; alpha occurs when we are doing little thinking and indicates relaxation; and beta, the fastest, accompanies thinking, alertness, or concentration. Gamma, the very fastest brain wave, occurs during moments when differing brain regions fire in harmony, like moments of insight when different elements of a mental puzzle “click” together. To get a sense of this “click,” try this: What single word can turn each of these into a compound word: sauce, pine, crab?*
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Hmm. This is very interesting. Gamma must be related to emptiness practice. I only get this experience when I do that or whatever facet of Dzogchen meditation I can. Sometimes compassion also when it fires all sentient beings, this spontaneously visualisation of seeing all beings from their perspective and wishing them well.

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Ordinarily gamma waves from, say, a creative insight, last no longer than a fifth of a second—not the full minute seen in the yogis.

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The location of these oscillations varies among brain regions; we can display alpha in one cortical location and gamma in another.

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In the yogis, gamma oscillations are a far more prominent feature of their brain activity than in other people.

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The contrast between the yogis and controls in the intensity of gamma was immense: on average the yogis had twenty-five times greater amplitude gamma oscillations during baseline compared with the control group.

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yogis like Mingyur seem to experience an ongoing state of open, rich awareness during their daily lives, not just when they meditate. The yogis themselves have described it as a spaciousness and vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.
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Were all these yogis Dzogchen yogis? Or were others practicing highest yoga tantra etc?

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. . . a state of bare, transparent awareness; Effortless and brilliantly vivid, a state of relaxed, rootless wisdom; Fixation free and crystal clear, a state without the slightest reference point; Spacious empty clarity, a state wide-open and unconfined; the senses unfettered . . .1

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No brain lab had ever before seen gamma oscillations that persist for minutes rather than split seconds, are so strong, and are in synchrony across widespread regions of the brain.

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Astonishingly, this sustained, brain-entraining gamma pattern goes on even while seasoned meditators are asleep—as

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The adepts had a sharply heightened level of gamma waves oscillating in synchrony across their brain, independent of any particular mental act.

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when volunteers new to meditation were trained for a week in the same practices that the yogis do, there was absolutely no difference between the volunteers’ brains at rest and when they were trying to meditate on cue, as the yogis did.3

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the yogis’ remarkable talent at entering a specific meditative state on cue, within a second or two, itself signals an altered trait. This mental feat stands in stark contrast to most of us meditators who, relative to the yogis, are more like beginners: when we meditate, it takes us a while to settle our minds, let go of distracting thoughts that overwhelm our focus, and get some momentum in our meditation.

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In contemplative science, an “altered state” refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An altered trait indicates that the practice of meditation transformed the brain and biology so that meditation-induced changes are seen before beginning to meditate.

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another of Tibetan and Western yogis (lifetime average 34,000 hours); each one had his or her (yes, there were female yogis) brain scanned while doing a compassion practice.4

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First bring to mind someone you care about deeply and relish the feeling of compassion toward that person—and then hold that same loving-kindness toward all beings, without thinking of anyone in particular.5

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Tellingly, the yogis but not the beginners showed the final part of the brain’s arc to action, a jump in activity in the motor centers that guide the body when we are ready to move—to take some decisive action to help, even though the subjects were lying still in a scanner. The yogis showed a huge boost in these circuits. The involvement of neural regions for action, particularly the premotor cortex, seems striking: to emotional resonance with a person’s suffering it adds the readiness to help.

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Intriguingly, yogis hearing sounds of people in distress while they were doing loving-kindness meditation showed less activity than others do in their postcingulate cortex (PCC), a key area for self-focused thought.6 In the yogis, hearing sounds of suffering seems to prime a focus on others.

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They also show a stronger connection between the PCC and the prefrontal cortex, an overall pattern suggesting a “down-regulation” of the “what will happen to me?” self-concern that can dampen compassionate action.7

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Some of the yogis later explained that their training imbued them with preparedness for action, so the moment they encounter suffering they are predisposed to act without hesitation to help the person. This preparedness, along with their willingness to engage with someone’s suffering, counters the normal tendency to withdraw, to back away from a person in distress.
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“I shall do it!” “I shall bring all sentient beings to the state of perfect Enlightenment.”

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Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to yogis such as these: “Develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages. . . .”8

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An eighteenth-century Tibetan text urges meditators to practice “on whatever harms come your way,” adding, “When sick, practice on that sickness. . . . When cold, practice on that coldness. By practicing in this way all situations will arise as meditation.”9

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Since the essence of meditation is awareness, any sensation that anchors attention can be used as support—and pain particularly can be very effective in focusing.

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“open presence,” an attentional stance of letting whatever life presents us come and go, without adding thoughts or emotional reactions. Our senses are fully open, and we just stay aware of what happens without getting carried away by any downs or ups.

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The moment the plate heated a bit—the cue for pain about to come—the control groups activated regions throughout the brain’s pain matrix as though they were already feeling the intense burn. The reaction to the “as if” pain—technically, “anticipatory anxiety”—was so strong that when the actual burning sensation began, their pain matrix activation became just a bit stronger. And in the ten-second recovery period, right after the heat subsided, that matrix stayed nearly as active—there was no immediate recovery. This sequence of anticipation-reactivity-recovery gives us a window on emotion regulation.
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This I believe is exactly how sexual desire works as well. The anticipation can be just as strong as the actual sex.

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For the yogis, their pain matrix showed little change in activity when the plate warmed a bit, even though this cue meant extreme pain was ten seconds away. Their brains seemed to simply register that cue with no particular reaction.

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For these highly advanced meditators, the recovery from pain was almost as though nothing much had happened at all.
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This non-stickiness applies to both pain and pleasure. It can make social dynamics quite different. Especially in say romantic relationships. Eg after sex one partner is still salivating at the experience but the other has already dropped it fully.

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When we take the self out of the picture, it seems, things go along with little effort.

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When long-term meditators reported “undistracted awareness,” “effortless doing,” “not efforting,” and “contentment,” activation in the PCC went down. On the other hand, when they reported “distracted awareness,” “efforting,” and “discontentment,” activation of the PCC went up.12

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One metric for effortlessness here comes down to being able to keep your mind on a chosen point of focus and resist the natural tendency to wander off into some train of thought or be pulled away by a sound, while having no feeling of making an effort. This kind of ease seems to increase with practice.

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they began to reflect on the large span of expertise even within the so-called expert meditator group. This expert group actually ranged in practice hours from 10,000 to 50,000—a very large spread.

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When the team compared those with the most versus those with the least amount of practice, they found something truly striking: all of the increase in prefrontal activation was accounted for by those with the least amount of practice. For those with the most lifetime hours of practice, there was very little prefrontal activation.

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The more amygdala activation in response to those sounds, the more wavering in concentration. Among meditators with the greatest amount of lifetime practice hours—an average of 44,000 lifetime hours (the equivalent of twelve hours a day for ten years) the amygdala hardly responded to the emotional sounds. But for those with less practice, (though still a high number—19,000 hours) the amygdala also showed a robust response. There was a staggering 400 percent difference in the size of the amygdala response between these groups!
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That’s crazy. 19,000 hours to 44,000 hours difference, 400%

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What’s more, this means traits continue to alter even at the highest level of practice. The dose-response relationship does not seem to end even up to 50,000 hours of practice.
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Wow this is amazing and key

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The demo that evening used as subject the neuroscientist Francisco Varela. As Richie placed the electrodes on Francisco’s scalp, the view of Francisco was blocked. But when Richie completed his task and moved out of way, a loud chorus of laughter erupted from the usually very staid monks. Richie thought the monks were laughing because Francisco looked a bit funny with wires coming off his scalp electrodes like a big bundle of spaghetti. But that was not what the monks found funny. They were laughing because Richie and his team had told them of their interest in studying compassion—but they were placing electrodes on the head, rather than the heart!

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Richie’s team had data suggesting that with yogic training the brain becomes more finely tuned to the heart—specifically during compassion meditation.

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compassion in the yogis sharpens their sense of other people’s emotions, especially if they are distraught, and heightens sensitivity to their own bodies—particularly the heart, a key source of empathic resonance with the suffering of others.

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“nonreferential” compassion.

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Being present to another person—a sustained, caring attention—can be seen as a basic form of compassion. Careful attention to another person also enhances empathy, letting us catch more of the fleeting facial expressions and other such cues that attune us to how that person actually feels in the moment. But if our attention “blinks,” we may miss those signals.

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This highlights a weakness in what otherwise might seem quite impressive findings on the yogis: these data points are but glimpses of the altered traits that intensive, prolonged meditation produces.

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A word about the global significance of these yogis. Such people are very rare, what some Asian cultures call “living treasures.” Encounters with them are extremely nourishing and often inspiring, not because of some vaunted status or celebrity but because of the inner qualities they radiate. We hope nations and cultures that harbor such beings will see the need to protect them and their communities of expertise and practice, as well as preserve the cultural attitudes that value these altered traits. To lose the way to this inner expertise would be a world tragedy.
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Very touching.

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The yogis also show neural evidence of effortless concentration: it takes only a flicker of the neural circuitry to place their attention on a chosen object, and little to no effort to hold it there.
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Classic stage 8 shamatha

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Finally, when generating compassion, the brains of yogis become more connected to their bodies, particularly their hearts—indicating emotional resonance.
13 | Altering Traits

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In the beginning nothing comes, in the middle nothing stays, in the end nothing goes.” That enigmatic riddle comes from Jetsun Milarepa, Tibet’s eminent twelfth-century poet, yogi, and sage.1

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This arc of improvement seems to reflect both lifetime hours of practice as well as time on retreat with expert guidance.

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The studies of beginners typically look at the impacts from under 100 total hours of practice—and as few as 7. The long-term group, mainly vipassana meditators, had a mean of 9,000 lifetime hours (the range ran from 1,000 to 10,000 hours and more). And the yogis studied in Richie’s lab, had all done at least one Tibetan-style three-year retreat, with lifetime hours up to Mingyur’s 62,000. Yogis, on average had three times more lifetime hours than did long-term meditators—9,000 hours versus 27,000.

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A few long-term vipassana meditators had accumulated more than 20,000 lifetime hours and one or two up to 30,000, though none had done a three-year retreat, which became a de facto distinguishing feature of the yogi group.

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The vast majority of meditators in the West fall into the first level: people who meditate for a short period—a few minutes to half an hour or so on most days. A smaller group continues on to the long-term meditator level. And a mere handful attain the expertise of the yogis.
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A handful??? Man. How do we make that 10x, 100x, 1000x the number??

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Compassion meditation shows stronger benefits from the get-go; as few as seven total hours over the course of two weeks leads to increased connectivity in circuits important for empathy and positive feelings, strong enough to show up outside the meditation state per se.
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V key for teaching

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Beginners also find improvements in attention very early on, including less mind-wandering after just eight minutes of mindfulness practice—a short-lived benefit, to be sure. But even as little as two weeks of practice is sufficient to produce less mind-wandering and better focus and working memory, enough for a significant boost in scores on the GRE, the entrance exam for graduate school.

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For example, in this range we see the emergence of neural and hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity. In addition, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol, a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress, lessens.

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And long-term practitioners show enhanced ability to down-regulate the mind-wandering and self-obsessed thoughts of the default mode, as well as weakening connectivity within those circuits—signifying less self-preoccupation.

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Shifts in very basic biological processes, such as a slower breath rate, occur only after several thousand hours of practice. Some of these impacts seem more strongly enhanced by intensive practice on retreat than by daily practice.
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Yes I am very very curious about the difference between retreat practice vs daily practice. My hunch is the quality of lifetime hours would in general be much higher for those who engage in long retreats. More actual deep meditations rather than the dropping / settling process.

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the neural circuits of the nucleus accumbens associated with “wanting” or attachment appear to shrink in size with longer-term practice.

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the benefits of compassion come sooner than does stress mastery.

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And a daylong retreat by seasoned meditators benefited their immune response at the genetic level—a finding that startled the medical establishment.

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Practice in part revolves around converting meditative states to traits—the Tibetan term for this translates as “getting familiar” with the meditative mind-set.
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This is exactly what the purpose of meditation is. Very nicely put.

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When the yogis meditate on compassion there’s a strengthening of the coupling between heart and brain beyond what is ordinarily seen.

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And then there’s anecdotal evidence: when Richie’s lab asked one yogi to take swabs of saliva to assess his cortisol activity while he was on retreat, the levels were so low they were off the standard scale, and the lab had to adjust the assay range downward.

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Tibetan lama said about his own teacher—a master revered by all the Tibetan contemplative lineages—“Someone like him has a two-tier consciousness,” where his meditative accomplishments are a steady background for whatever else he does.

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Several labs—including Richie’s and Judson Brewer’s—have noticed that more advanced meditators can show a brain pattern while merely resting that resembles that of a meditative state like mindfulness or loving-kindness, while beginners do not.2

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meditation seems to transform the resting state—the brain’s default mode—to resemble the meditative state.

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“If the heart wanders or is distracted,” advised Francis de Sales (1567–1622), a Catholic saint, “bring it back to the point quite gently . . . and even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back . . . though it went away every time, your hour would be very well-employed.”3

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Importantly, the differences between meditator and controls were found not just in meditation but in the ordinary “resting” state as well—suggesting a possible trait effect.

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The ability to be aware of bodily signals like heartbeat did not increase after three months of daily practice of “presence,” which includes a mindful body scan. However, those very improvements began to show up after six months, with even bigger gains after nine months. Some benefits take time to ripen—what psychologists call a “sleeper” effect.
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This is endmyopia

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Consider the tale of a yogi who had spent years in a Himalayan cave on retreat. One day a traveler happened by and, seeing the yogi, asked him what he was doing. “I’m meditating on patience,” the yogi said. “In that case,” replied the traveler, “you can go to hell!” To which the yogi angrily retorted, “You go to hell!” That tale (like the one about the yogi in the bazaar) has served for centuries as a cautionary tale to serious practitioners, reminding them that the test of their practice is life itself, not isolated hours in meditation. A trait like patience should leave us unflappable no matter what life brings our way. The Dalai Lama told this story, clarifying, “There’s a saying in Tibetan that in some cases practitioners have the outward form of being holy people, which holds when everything is fine—when the sun is shining and the belly is full. But when they are confronted with a real challenge or crisis, then they become just like everyone else.”5

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While a yogi’s superlow cortisol level on retreat tells us how relaxed he can get, his cortisol level during a hectic day would reveal whether this had become a permanent, altered trait.

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We’ve all heard it takes someone 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill like computer programming or golf, right? Wrong. In reality science finds that some domains (like memorization) can be mastered in as little as 200 hours. More to the point, Richie’s lab finds that even among the meditation adepts—all of whom have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice—expertise continues to increase steadily with the number of lifetime hours.

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Rather than just the sheer hours of practice put in, Ericsson’s research reveals, it’s how smart those hours are.

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What he calls “deliberate” practice involves an expert coach giving feedback on how you are doing, so that you can practice improving in a manner targeted to your progress.

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While we both might technically qualify as long-term meditators, with somewhere around 10,000 lifetime hours of practice, neither of us feels particularly evolved when it comes to extremely positive altered traits. Why?

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For one, the data suggests that meditating for one session daily is very different from a multiday or longer retreat. Take a finding that emerged unexpectedly in the study of seasoned meditators (9,000 hours average) and their reactivity to stress7 (see chapter five, “A Mind Undisturbed”). The stronger the connectivity between the meditators’ prefrontal area and amygdala, the less reactive they were. The surprise: the greatest increase in prefrontal-amygdala connection correlated with the number of hours a meditator had spent in retreat but not with home hours.
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Big key. There can be grounds for developing more CCRs and other long-term retreat centres.

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Along these lines another surprising finding was from the study of breath rate. A meditator’s hours of retreat practice most strongly correlated with slower breathing, much more than daily practice.8

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on retreat is that there are teachers available who can provide guidance—like a coach. And then there is the sheer intensity of the retreat practice, where meditators typically spend up to eight hours (and sometimes much more) a day in formal practice, often for many days in a row. And many or most retreats are at least partially in silence, which may well contribute to building intensity. All of that adds up to a unique opportunity to amp up the learning curve.

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amateurs and experts has to do with how they practice. Amateurs learn the basic moves of the skill—whether golf, chess, or, presumably, mindfulness and the like—and very often level off after about fifty hours of improving through practice. For the rest of the time their skill level stays about the same—further practice does not lead to great improvements.
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50 hours and then plateau? Holy fuck!!

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do intensive sessions under the watchful eye of a coach,
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It is this that I think Shinzen Young is probably one of the best meditation teachers alive today. And also a key reason why noble friendship is important here too.

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The Visuddhimagga advises practitioners to find as a guide someone more experienced than they are. This ancient list of potential teachers starts at the top with, ideally, direction from an arhant (the Pali word for a fully accomplished meditator, someone at the Olympic level). If none is available, it advises, just find someone more seasoned than you—at the very least, they should have read a sutra, a passage from a holy text—if you have read none. In today’s world, that might be the equivalent of getting instruction from someone who had tried out a meditation app—it’s better than nothing.

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Which forms of practice are most helpful to which people? Matching the student to the method has ancient roots. In the Visuddhimagga, for instance, meditation teachers are advised to carefully observe their students to assess which category they fit in—“greedy” or “hateful” types being two examples—all the better to match them to circumstances and methods most suitable.

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for the greedy (who, for instance, first notice what’s beautiful), bad food and uncomfortable lodgings and the loathsomeness of body parts as the object of meditation. For the hateful (who first notice what’s wrong), the best food and a room with a comfy bed to sleep and meditate on soothing topics like loving-kindness or equanimity.
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SV Defoe tells me I’m greed type. I’m sitting in a freezing house with a mattress that is crap and cold food every day. And I have noticed meditating on death / rebirth and cycle of samsara to be the most driving force for my practice.

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using existing measures of people’s cognitive and emotional styles, as Richie and Cortland Dahl have proposed.10

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For example, for those prone to ruminating and worrying about themselves, a helpful starter practice might be mindfulness of thoughts, where they learn to regard thoughts as “just thought,” without getting wrapped up in their content (or yoga, as Jon found). And, perhaps, feedback from their sweat response, a measure of emotional hijacking by thoughts, could further help. Or a person with strong, focused attention but a deficit in empathic concern might begin with compassion practice.

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Such matching of medicine to diagnosis already goes on in some academic medical centers with “precision medicine,” where treatments are tailored to an individual’s specific genetic makeup.

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While he never talked about his own practice history, bits leaked out now and then. Word had it he had lived for a long time as a jungle yogi; some say he also practiced in an underground cave for years. His meditations were devotional, to Ram, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana; he could sometimes be heard reciting “Ram, Ram, Ram . . .” under his breath, or counting the mantra on his fingers.

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If someone was following a given inner path, Neem Karoli always encouraged it. From his perspective the main point was that you do your practice—not try to find the “very best.”

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Whenever Neem Karoli was asked about which path was best, his answer was “Sub ek!”—Hindi for “They are all one.” Everyone has different preferences, needs, and the like. Just choose one and plunge in.

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At a practical level, all forms of meditation share a common core of mind training—e.g., learning to let go of the myriad distractions that flow through the mind and to focus on one object of attention or stance of awareness.

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A student of bhakti yoga who sings devotional bhajans to a deity may share some aspects, but not others, with a Vajrayana practitioner who silently generates an image of a deity, like the compassionate Green Tara, along with trying to generate the qualities that go with that image.

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Attentional. These meditations focus on training aspects of attention, whether in concentration, as in zeroing in on the breath, a mindful observation of experience, a mantra, or meta-awareness, as in open presence. Constructive. Cultivating virtuous qualities, like loving-kindness, typifies these methods. Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “nondual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.

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What, for example, might be the benefits of the meditative whirling practice in some schools of Sufism, or the devotional singing in Hinduism’s bhakti branch? Or of the analytic meditation practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists, as well as by some schools of Hindu yogis?

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both science and religion share common goals: pursuit of the truth and serving humanity.

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“Real peace,” the Dalai Lama told an MIT audience, “is when your mind goes twenty-four hours a day with no fear, no anxiety.”
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Includes sleep / dreams

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But Leib had a different goal. He had not gone to Dov Baer, his religious mentor, to study texts or hear sermons, Leib said. Rather, he went to “see how he ties his shoes.”14 In other words, what he sought was to witness and absorb the qualities of being his teacher embodied.

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among the signs of spiritual progress are loving-kindness and strong compassion toward everyone, contentment, and “weak desires.”15

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Are altered traits add-ons to our nature, or uncovered aspects that were there all along? At this stage in the development of contemplative science it is difficult to weigh in on either side of this debate. There is, however, an increasingly robust corpus of scientific findings showing, for example, that if an infant watches puppets who engage in an altruistic, warmhearted encounter, or ones who are selfish and aggressive, when given the choice of a puppet to reach for, almost all infants choose one of the friendly ones.16

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In this sense, practitioners may not be developing a new skill but rather nurturing a basic competence, in much the same way that language is developed.

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We simply entertain the idea that at least some aspects of meditation practice may be less like learning a new skill, and more akin to recognizing a basic propensity there from the start.

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The yogis who came to Richie’s lab all practiced in a Tibetan tradition that holds the ideal that, eventually, people everywhere can be freed from suffering of all sorts—and that the meditator sets out toward this enormous task through mind training. Part of this yogic mind-set involves developing more equanimity toward our own emotional world, as well as the conviction that meditation and related practices can produce lasting transformation—altered traits.

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The sense of a life mission centered on practice numbers among those elements so often left on a far shore, but that may matter greatly. Among others that might, in fact, be crucial for cultivating altered traits at the level found in the yogis:

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An ethical stance, a set of moral guidelines that facilitate the inner changes on the path. Many traditions urge such an inner compass, lest any abilities developed be used for personal gain. Altruistic intention, where the practitioner invokes the strong motivation to practice for the benefit of all others, not just oneself. Grounded faith, the mind-set that a particular path has value and will lead you to the transformation you seek. Some texts warn against blind faith and urge students to do what we call today “due diligence” in finding a teacher. Personalized guidance. A knowledgeable teacher who coaches you on the path, giving you the advice you need to go to the next step. Cognitive science knows that attaining top-level mastery requires such feedback. Devotion, a deep appreciation for all the people, principles, and such that make practice possible. Devotion can also be to the qualities of a divine figure, a teacher, or the teacher’s altered traits or quality of mind. Community. A supportive circle of friends on the path who are themselves dedicated to practice. Contrast that with the isolation of many modern meditators. A supportive culture. Traditional Asian cultures have long recognized the value of people who devote their life to transforming themselves to embody virtues of attention, patience, compassion, and so on. Those who work and have families willingly support those who dedicate themselves to deep practice by giving them money, feeding them, and otherwise making life easier. Not so in modern societies. Potential for altered traits. The very idea that these practices can lead to a liberation from our ordinary mind states—not just self-improvement—has always framed these practices, fostering respect or reverence for the path and those on it. We have no way of knowing how any of those “left-behinds” might actually be active ingredients in the altered traits that scientific research has begun to document in the lab.

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Just as math and poetry are different ways of knowing reality, science and religion represent disparate magisteria, realms of authority, areas of inquiry and ways of knowing—religion speaking to values, beliefs, and transcendence, and science to fact, hypotheses, and rationality.18
14 | A Healthy Mind

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That feeling of not having time may be the number one excuse among people who want to meditate but never get around to it.

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If you insist you are too busy for formal meditation, Healthy Minds can be tailored so you can piggyback your practice on something you do anyway, like commuting or cleaning the house.

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Toddlers in the kindness curriculum shared more with the least favorite and the sick children, compared to other kids in standard pre-K who gave most stickers to their favorite person.1

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Another finding: unlike most children, the kindness kids did not become self-focused when they reached kindergarten.

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Helping children develop kindness seems an obvious, good idea—but at present this valuable human capacity is left to chance in our educational system. Many families, of course, instill these values in their children—but many do not.

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we consider boosting attention skills to be nothing short of an urgent public health need.

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Richie’s group has collaborated with video game designers who specialize in educational games to create some for young teens.5

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It turns out that if you are asked to tap an iPad on each in-breath, most people can do this very accurately. However, if they are also asked to tap with two fingers every ninth breath, on this second task they make mistakes, indicating their mind has wandered.

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While working out intensively produces more muscle and better endurance, if we stop exercising, we know that we are heading back toward more breathlessness and flab. The same goes for the changes in the mind and brain from that inner workout, meditation and its spinoffs.

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One such app, which supposedly enhanced mental functions, had to pay a large fine when government agencies challenged their claims, which proved unsupported.

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But these success stories do not automatically mean any and all online teaching of meditation or its derivatives will be beneficial. Are some more effective than others? If so, why? These are empirical questions.

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A “mind of nongrasping” renders us immune to these impulses, content in ourselves as we are.

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Mental activities where the PCC plays a part include being distracted, letting our mind wander, thinking about ourselves, liking a choice we’ve made even if we find it immoral, and feeling guilty. And, oh yes—craving.

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Brewer’s group, as we saw in chapter eight, “Lightness of Being,” imaged the brains of people during mindfulness, finding the method quiets the PCC. The more effortless mindfulness becomes, the quieter the PCC.11

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The mice seemed to find this relaxing, judging from rodent signs of lessened anxiety.13 When other researchers drove the rodent brain into the gamma frequency with photic driving, they found it reduced the neural plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, at least in aged mice.14
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Imagine doing for battery farmed animals for some relief

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But the basic model, that neurofeedback apps may make once rarefied states available to a wide swath of people, seems more promising. Here again we see caveats—not the least being that such devices are likely to produce temporary state effects, not lasting traits.

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we were comforted by the dictum that “an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

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Science needs its adventurers.

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Sciences operate within a web of culture-bound assumptions that limit our view of what is possible, most powerfully for the behavioral sciences. Modern psychology had not known that Eastern systems offer means to transform a person’s very being. When we looked through that alternate Eastern lens, we saw fresh possibilities.

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By now, mounting empirical studies confirm our early hunches: sustained mind training alters the brain both structurally and functionally, proof of concept for the neural basis of altered traits that practitioners’ texts have described for millennia.

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“What if, by transforming our minds, we could improve not only our own health and well-being but also those of our communities and the wider world?”

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Dalai Lama as he reached eighty years of age. He encourages us all to do three things: gain composure, adopt a moral rudder of compassion, and act to better the world.

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We view this “curriculum” as one solution to an urgent public health need: reducing greed, selfishness, us/them thinking and impending eco-calamities, and promoting more kindness, clarity, and calm. Targeting and upgrading these human capacities directly could help break the cycle of some otherwise intractable social maladies, like ongoing poverty, intergroup hatreds, and mindlessness about our planet’s well-being.17

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But the scientific data supporting altered traits have come together to the point that any reasonable scientist would agree that this inner shift seems possible. Yet too few of us at present realize this, let alone entertain the possibility for ourselves.
Further Resources

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Further Resources

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Parvati Markus, Love Everyone: The Transcendent Wisdom of Neem Karoli Baba Told Through the Stories of the Westerners Whose Lives He Transformed (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015).

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The key notion of Skinner’s “radical behaviorism” was that all human activity resulted from learned associations of a given stimulus (famously, Pavlov ringing a bell) and a specific response (a dog salivating in response to the bell) that gets reinforced (initially by food).

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While drugs can induce altered states, they do not help with altered traits.

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yogis in the wild deploy much more pranayama to calm the mind and trigger meditative states than is the case in, say, yoga programs designed for fitness rather than to support long sitting sessions in meditation (which was an original purpose of the yoga asanas).

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Science as a Process (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

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“Rat Brain: Effects of Environmental Enrichment on Wet and Dry Weights,”

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Technically, this is parafoveal vision. The fovea is the area of the retina that receives input from objects just in front of you, while information that is far off to the right or left is parafoveal.

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This research puts to rest a neuro-myth, that in a nephrology-like map of the brain, each area has a specific set of functions, and these cannot change.

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The very idea posed a grave challenge to a host of hallowed assumptions in psychology—for instance, that by early adulthood personality becomes fixed, and that the person you are at that point would be who you were for the rest of your life—personality was stable across time and in different contexts. Neuroplasticity suggested otherwise, that your life experience could alter your personality traits to some extent.

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Carol Ryff interviewed at

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“Meditation and Stress Reactivity,” Harvard University PhD thesis, 1973; Daniel Goleman and Gary E. Schwartz, “Meditation as an Intervention in Stress Reactivity,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 44:3

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Joseph Henrich et al., “Most People Are Not WEIRD,” Nature 466:28 (2010). Published online June 30, 2010; doi:10.1038/466029a.

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Anna-Lena Lumma et al., “Is Meditation Always Relaxing? Investigating Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, Experienced Effort and Likeability During Training of Three Types of Meditation,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 97 (2015): 38–45.

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Eileen Luders et al., “The Unique Brain Anatomy of Meditation Practitioners’ Alterations in Cortical Gyrification,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:34 (2012): 1–7.

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D. B. Levinson et al., “A Mind You Can Count On: Validating Breath Counting as Behavioral Measure of Mindfulness,” Frontiers in Psychology 5:1202 (2014);

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Gaelle Desbordes, “Effects of Mindful-Attention and Compassion Meditation Training on Amygdala Response to Emotional Stimuli in an Ordinary, Non-Meditative State,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:292 (2012): 1–15; doi:

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Clifford Saron, “Training the Mind—The Shamatha Project,” in A. Fraser, ed., The Healing Power of Meditation (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2013), pp. 45–65.

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Melissa A. Rosenkranz et al., “Reduced Stress and Inflammatory Responsiveness in Experienced Meditators Compared to a Matched Healthy Control Group,” Psychoneuroimmunology 68 (2016): 117–25.

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T. R. A. Kral et al., “Meditation Training Is Associated with Altered Amygdala Reactivity to Emotional Stimuli,” under review, 2017.

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This may be a neural echo of “nonstickiness”—showing an appropriate initial response to a disturbing image, but then not having that response linger.

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The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits who lived in communities located in remote areas of Egypt’s desert in the early centuries AD. There they could better focus on their religious practices, mainly the recitation of Kyrie Eleison (a Greek phrase meaning “Lord, have mercy”), a Christian “mantra.” These hermit communities were the historic predecessors of Christian orders for monks and nuns; repetition of Kyrie Eleison remains a primary practice among Eastern Orthodox monks, e.g., those on Mount Athos. Historical records suggest that Christian monks from Egypt settled on Mount Athos in the seventh century, fleeing Islamic conquest. Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957).

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Abigail A. Marsh et al., “Neural and Cognitive Characteristics of Extraordinary Altruists,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111:42 (2014), 15036–41; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1408440111.

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Yoni Ashar et al., “Effects of Compassion Meditation on a Psychological Model of Charitable Donation,” Emotion, published online March 28, 2016, http:///

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Elena Antonova et al., “More Meditation, Less Habituation: The Effect of Intensive Mindfulness Practice on the Acoustic Startle Reflex,”

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Then again, perhaps a subset of meditators goes down a path that makes them more aloof and cold or indifferent. Offsetting this tendency might be one reason so many traditions emphasize compassion and devotion, which are “juicy.”

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Sara Lazar et al., “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness,” Neuroreport 16 (2005): 1893–97. The study compared twenty vipassana practitioners (average around 3,000 hours lifetime experience) with age-and gender-matched controls.

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Eileen Luders et al., “Estimating Brain Age Using High-Resolution Pattern Recognition: Younger Brains in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners,” NeuroImage (2016); doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage. 2016.04.007.

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Antoine Lutz et al., “Long-Term Meditators Self-Induce High-Amplitude Gamma Synchrony During Mental Practice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101:46 (2004): 16369.

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Tulku Urgyen’s father, in turn, is said to have done more than thirty years of retreat over the course of his lifetime.

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F. Ferrarelli et al., “Experienced Mindfulness Meditators Exhibit Higher Parietal-Occipital EEG Gamma Activity during NREM Sleep,” PLoS One 8:8 (2013): e73417; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073417.

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Antoine Lutz et al., “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise,” PLoS One 3:3 (2008): e1897; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897.

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