Dismiss Whatever Insults Your Own Soul

It’s been too long since we have posted on the A Kinder Voice blog. But now, more than ever, we need to hold steadfast to the practices of meditation. For our sanity. To hold an energy in the world that counteracts hatred and mistreatment of our fellows. To change our brain and change our world. 

I have semi-retired to winter in Mexico and plan to blog from here–I look forward to talking with you soon.

Here is the blog we had in the queue for posting, before the results of the presidential elections in the USA. It is a general commentary on the efficacy of meditation to change the brain, so I will leave it be. Perhaps what is required at this moment is changing one neuropathway at a time…

“Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency.” ~ Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”

Imagine if we could examine, through scientific method and laboratory experiments, the claims of our ancient religious traditions? Is there such a thing as eternal life? A hell or heaven? A beginning or an end of our universe?

In the case of one religion, we can.

The founder of Buddhism was famously unconcerned with metaphysical issues, instead focusing on the question he considered central to human existence: How to escape the seemingly endless cycle of suffering that is such a prominent feature of our lives?

His answer, in part, was to focus on the present moment, rather than wasting our time in regret over the past or worrying about an uncontrollable future. And the efficacy of that practice, now known in the west as “mindfulness meditation,” is indeed being scrutinized in the laboratory, by scientists employing state-of-the-art technology and methodology.

The results are encouraging, and in some cases, astounding. Consider Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research involved taking images of the brains of beginning meditators before and after meditation training, as well as measuring the neural activity in the brains of long-term meditators and Buddhist monks. His conclusion: “Meditation can change the brain and forever alter our sense of well-being.”

Davidson’s research with Tibetan monks, for example, found that when the monks did loving-kindness meditations, their brains generated powerful gamma waves, indicating a compassionate state of mind. They also found that ongoing meditation practice increases the brain’s neuroplasticity—the ability to reorganize itself and create new neural connections. In fact, when they hooked up 256 sensors to the head of a 66-year-old French monk named Matthieu Ricard, an aide to the Dalai Lama, they found that, due to the neuroplasticity of his brain, he had the largest capacity for happiness ever recorded.

Davidson’s research was groundbreaking, but it has since been replicated in laboratories around the world. Researcher Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard used magnetic resonance images to scan participants’ ‘brains before and after mindfulness training—and compared those images to a control group of non-meditators.

After eight weeks, the meditators in Lazar’s study showed increased gray matter density in the hippocampus (the part of the brain related to learning and memory) and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. In addition, participants reported reductions in stress that were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala (the fight or flight mechanism of the brain), which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

How much time must be spent practicing meditation to achieve such results? This may be the best news of all to emerge from scientific research. Lazar’s work at Harvard found positive results were obtained from 27 minutes a day of practice. Recently, the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minnesota claimed benefits in reducing cigarette-smoking addiction with people who meditate only nine minutes a day.

What a fantastic use of our time. As Mattheu Ricard puts it, “We don’t mind spending 15 years on education, why not the same to become a better human being?” Especially if becoming calmer, more centered and empathetic requires only a few minutes each day?

More later…