Zen Brain: Exploring The Connection Between Neuroscience And Meditation
- 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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