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The Dalai Lama, neuroscience (and a plug for meditation)

NPR : The Links Between the Dalai Lama and Neuroscience

Morning Edition's Jon Hamilton on The Dalai Lama's new-ish book and some controversy regarding his addressing a meeting of neuroscientists on the topic of meditation:

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, is one of several scientists who will present research on meditation at the neuroscience meeting. He says there's nothing flaky about the idea of studying whether a mental activity like meditation alters the brain's circuitry.

"Most Americans now realize that if they go to the gym or exercise several times a week, they will observe systematic changes occurring in their body," Davidson says. Meditations, he explains, is "exercising the mind in a particular way."

Some small studies have suggested that meditating on compassion can affect parts of the brain associated with positive thoughts. The Dalai Lama's talk will discuss meditation as a way to promote well-being and compassion.

My own experiences with meditation are recent, relatively shallow, and would yield little to contribute to the world of science, but I do know it can bring remarkable effects -- even in fairly short-term use. Looking forward to seeing where it takes me, and I'm not surprised at all to hear anecdotes of its effect on thinking over longer-term practice.

I really love Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are (yeah, it's an unfortunate title), which is plain-spoken, readable, and makes a great case for the intrinsic value of trying to "be in the moment." A very approachable and inviting introduction to mindfulness -- even if you're the sort of person who thinks this stuff is just for goofy people from Northern California.

For a free (and excellent) intro to give yourself the flavor of mindfulness meditation, start with "Mindfulness in Plain English."

grant's picture

Nathan B.: I want to try...

Nathan B.: I want to try meditation, but I don’t know where to start.

Meditation is easy. It's one of those things that's so easy it's hard, because you keep doubting you're actually doing it.

The simplest meditation method is counting breaths. Just close your eyes, and count your breaths. When you reach 10, start over again. If you find yourself thinking about anything other than one... two... three... bring yourself back to the count. Start over if you have to.

That's it.

You're meditating.

Eventually, you get better at not thinking about things other than in... out... (one).... In... out... (two)....

Can you really learn from a book? What about guided audio programs? Are there reputable places to learn meditation in a group setting? What flavors of meditation are best (Buddhist, hippy/new age, non-denominational)?

All the rest of this stuff is really cosmetic, and comes down to what works best for you. What makes you feel most relaxed? What do you find the least distracting?

For me, I prefer tai chi chuan or else just sitting quietly by myself. Chanting distracts me, new agey classes make me feel self-conscious, and audio recordings make me think about samples, recording techniques and how they could have EQed it differently to get rid of that faint hiss.... But all of these things work quite well for some people.

In a college psych class the professor led us in group hypnosis, which was really just relaxation and total focus on the moment, and that’s the experience I’m looking for.

Do you remember how that happened? I don't mean how it felt, but what your professor did. If you start worrying about how you feel ("Am I relaxed enough? Is this how I'm supposed to feel?"), then you're just distracting yourself. Did the teacher count you down? Ask you to imagine a particular space or sound? Get you to think about each of your muscles starting with your feet and ending with your head? These are all ways to fill your mind with simple processes and empty it of busy thoughts.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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