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Zen Brain: Exploring The Connection Between Neuroscience And Meditation

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  • medit8ionsociety
    By Roshi Joan Halifax Abbot, Upaya Zen Center
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 18, 2011
      By Roshi Joan Halifax
      Abbot, Upaya Zen Center

      This past August, more than 50 people gathered
      in the Circle of the Way temple at Upaya Zen Center
      in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to explore the connection
      between neuroscience and meditation. This is the
      fourth year we have done so.

      Why? This is a Zen center that is inspired by the
      example set by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who
      nearly 30 years ago began a dialogue with
      Dr. Francisco Varela and myself that was to
      eventually become embodied in the Mind & Life
      Institute, an organization that supports and
      sustains dialogue and rigorous scientific inquiry
      into meditative states.

      Over the years His Holiness has enjoyed relationships
      with many scientists, including Varela, Sir Karl Popper,
      and David Bohm. His Holiness said:

      With the ever growing impact of science on
      our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater
      role to play reminding us of our humanity. There
      is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us
      valuable insights into the other. Both science
      and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the
      fundamental unity of all things.

      Upaya Zen Center continues this deep inquiry into
      science and Buddhism through the vehicle of the
      Zen Brain retreats, as well as other programs.
      Those who are enrolled in Upaya's Contemplative
      End-of-Life Care training (for medical professionals)
      and the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program develop a
      thorough grounding in the latest findings on
      neuroscience and meditation as they go about their
      work in the world.

      In the Zen Brain retreats, prominent scientists
      and Zen practitioners explore Buddhist, neuro-scientific
      and clinical science perspectives on topics like
      altruism, compassion and consciousness. Lectures
      and discussions with participants are embedded
      within zazen (meditation) practice throughout each day.

      The most recent Zen Brain program this August
      explored trauma, stress, loss and the human potential
      for resilience and happiness. The faculty, drawn
      from the most accomplished clinicians and researchers
      studying this topic, featured Al Kaszniak, Ph.D.,
      George Chrousos, M.D., George A. Bonanno, Ph.D.
      and Philippe Goldin, Ph.D. I also had the privilege
      of participating with these scientists as a contemplative
      and someone who has worked in this field for many years.

      The main coordinator of this unusual program at
      Upaya is Dr. Kaszniak, the director of the
      Neuropsychology, Emotion and Memory Lab at the
      University of Arizona, where he studies Alzheimer's
      disease and other age-related neurological disorders,
      as well as emotion response and regulation in
      long-term Zen and mindfulness meditators. His most
      recent publication is a chapter on the use of
      meditation to reduce stress and improve well-being
      among caregivers of persons with dementia to be
      included in the book Enhancing Cognitive Fitness
      in Adults: A Guide to the Use and Development of Community-Based Programs (P.E. Hartman-Stein and A. LaRue, eds.).

      Dr. Chrousos is renowned as one of the world's
      pre-eminent pediatric physicians and endocrinologists.
      He also serves as the UNESCO chair in adolescent
      care. His expertise in stress in large part can be
      linked to his work in endocrinology. Dr. Chrousos'
      presentation during Zen Brain on "Stress: the Good,
      the Bad, and the Ugly" explored the effects of
      stress on the individual.

      Dr. Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology
      at Columbia University, has been hailed as a
      pioneering researcher in bereavement and trauma.
      In work funded by the National Institutes of Health
      and the National Science Foundation, Dr. Bonanno
      has examined how adults and children respond to
      and cope with extremely aversive events, such as
      the death of a loved one, war, sexual abuse, and
      terrorist attack. More recently, he has focused
      on defining psychological resilience in adults
      exposed to extreme adversity and on the factors
      that might inform resilient outcomes.

      Dr. Goldin is a postdoctoral researcher in the
      Department of Psychology at Stanford University.
      His clinical research focuses on the effect of
      mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral
      therapy on neural substrates of emotional
      reactivity, emotion regulation, and attention
      regulation. He also explores the effect of
      child-parent mindfulness meditation training
      on anxiety, compassion, and quality of family interactions.

      Buddhism is a path to liberation from suffering,
      and among the most pervasive universal triggers
      of suffering are trauma, stress and loss, including
      bereavement. Fundamental to Buddhist teaching is
      the recognition that freedom from suffering can be
      found through realizing that the fundamental nature
      of our mental experience is ever-changing, interdependent
      and without any fixed, unchanging self at its core.

      In these unusual programs, participants explore
      constructs like "affective stickiness," a phrase
      coined by Dr. Richard Davidson, Research Professor
      of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of
      Wisconsin-Madison. This is the phenomenon by which
      we interpret an experience as negative and then
      become so strongly identified with it that it
      becomes a fixed part of "us." The particular kind
      of misinterpreation of self-identification can
      prevent us from accessing our full range of
      consciousness and often limits our capacity to
      make choices regarding a situation.

      This phenomenon recalls the astute observation
      that Albert Einstein made in 1950:

      A human being is a part of a whole, called by
      us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space.
      He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings
      as something separated from the rest... a kind of
      optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion
      is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our
      personal desires and to affection for a few persons
      nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves
      from this prison by widening our circle of compassion
      to embrace all living creatures and the whole of
      nature in its beauty.

      What would it mean for us to truly understand that
      this thing we call "self" is a fiction, not only
      from a philosophical perspective but from a scientific
      one? What kind of impact could that realization have
      on the way we structure our economy, our health care
      system, our government, and even our relationships
      with each other, with those "different" from us,
      and with the Earth?

      What a marvelous possibility for us to explore at
      this time in our planet's history.

      If you'd like to join us in this exploration, the
      next Zen Brain program is January 12-15, 2012. More
      information is available on the Upaya website, www.upaya.org.
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