Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ascetism on the BBC

(BBC Four) Anglican priest Pete Owen-Jones hosts the BBC’s “Extreme Pilgrim” program. Owen-Jones is the vicar of a parish in Sussex, England.

This three-part documentary follows him on a search for meaning through extreme ascetic practices of several religions, including Zen Buddhism (Japanese), Kung Fu (an offshoot of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism), Hinduism, and Christianity. 
A lotus's meaning (

Although the Buddha realized that self-mortification was not the path to freedom and happiness,these practices have never fallen out of favor.

Practitioners have yet to realize what finally dawned on the seeker Siddhartha under the Bodhi tree. 

The path to liberation, the path of purification, is more heart-centered and mental than physical. 

The body is not to blame for the sources of hidden motivation behind our actions (karma). The resolution is going inward rather than obsessing on punishing/tormenting the outward. 

The body may be brought into complete submission, yet a defiled heart/mind will soon move one again to the edge of ruin.
Conversely, while standing in the muck, one may rise above the din by attending to the defilement that springs within. 

Like a lotus shooting skyward toward the light while still rooted in fertilizer-mud and murky water, having found the actual source of our ills, one transcends suffering. 

Stop. Soften. Be still. Touch the bliss -- remembering that "there is no 'path to happiness'; happiness IS the path!" 

 Develop liberating-insight based on this tranquility. Awaken.

Source: Extreme Ascetic Practices Today (BBC video)

Pfc. Sandoval, Dhr. Seven, Wisdom Quarterly; Cobwebs From An Empty Skull


Monk Meditation Study

 Brain Scans
 A brain scan of a monk actively extending compassion shows activity in the striatum, an area of the brain associated with reward processing. Photo: SPAN Lab, Stanford University / SF

 A brain scan of a monk actively extending compassion shows activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with reward processing. Photo: SPAN Lab, Stanford University / SF

 A brain scan of a monk actively extending compassion shows activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with reward processing. Photo: SPAN Lab, Stanford University / SF

Stanford studies monks' meditation, compassion

Updated 12:02 p.m., Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stanford neuroeconomist Brian Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain that works in tandem with our financial decisions - the biology behind why we bypass the kitchen coffeemaker to buy the $4 Starbucks coffee every day.

He can hook you up to a brain scanner, take you on a simulated shopping spree and tell by looking at your nucleus accumbens - an area deep inside your brain associated with fight, flight, eating and fornicating - how you process risk and reward, whether you're a spendthrift or a tightwad.

So when his colleagues saw him putting Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into the MRI machine in the basement of the Stanford psychology building, he drew a few double-takes.

Knutson is still interested in the nucleus accumbens, which receives a dopamine hit when a person anticipates something pleasant, like winning at blackjack.

Only now he wants to know if the same area of the brain can light up for altruistic reasons. 

Can extending compassion to another person look the same in the brain as anticipating something good for oneself? 

And who better to test than Tibetan monks, who have spent their lives pursuing a state of selfless nonattachment?

Meditation science

The "monk study" at Stanford is part of an emerging field of meditation science that has taken off in the last decade with advancements in brain image technology, and popular interest.

"There are many neuroscientists out there looking at mindfulness, but not a lot who are studying compassion," Knutson said. "The Buddhist view of the world can provide some potentially interesting information about the subcortical reward circuits involved in motivation."

By looking at expert meditators, neuroscientists hope to get a better picture of what compassion looks like in the brain

1. Does a monk's brain behave differently than another person's brain when the two are both extending compassion?

2. Is selflessness innate, or can it be learned?

Possible Therapeutic Uses?

Looking to the future, neuroscientists wonder whether compassion can be neurologically isolated, if one day it could be harnessed to help people overcome depression, to settle children with hyperactivity, or even to rewire a psychopath.

"Right now we're trying to first develop the measurement of compassion, so then one day we can develop the science around it," Knutson said.

Stress reduction

Thirty years ago, medical Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn used meditation as the basis for his revolutionary "Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program." 

He put people with chronic pain and depression through a six-week meditation practice in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and became one of the first practitioners to record meditation-related health improvements in patients with intractable pain. His stress-reduction techniques are now used in hospitals, clinics and by HMOs.

"In the last 25 years there's been a tidal shift in the field, and
now there are 300 scientific papers on mindfulness," said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

People who meditate show more left-brain hemisphere dominance, according to meditation studies done at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Essentially when you spend a lot of time meditating, the brain shows a pattern of feeling safe in the world and more comfortable in approaching people and situations, and less vigilant and afraid, which is more associated with the right hemisphere," she said.

Effect on aging

The most comprehensive scientific study of meditation, the Shamatha Project led by scientists at UC Davis, indicates meditation leads to improved perception and may even have some effect on cellular aging.

Volunteers who spent an average of 500 hours in focused-attention meditation during a three-month retreat in 2007 were better than the control group at detecting slight differences in the length of lines flashed on a screen.
When researchers compared blood samples between the two groups, they found the retreat population had 30 percent more telomerase - the enzyme in cells that repairs the shortening of chromosomes that occurs throughout life. 

This could have implications for the tiny protective caps on the ends of DNA known as telomeres, which have been linked to longevity.

"This does not mean that if you meditate, you're going to live longer," said Clifford Saron, a research neuroscientist leading the study at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

"It's an empirical question at this point, but it's remarkable that a sense of purpose in life, a belief that your goals and values are coming more into alignment with your past and projected future is likely affecting something at the level of your molecular biology," Saron said.

Knutson's monk study at Stanford is in its early stages. He has some data collected from Stanford undergrads to use as part of the control group, but he still needs more novice meditators and monks to go into the MRI machine. It's an expensive proposition. Subjects are in the machine for eight to 12 hours a day, for three days, at $500 an hour.

Knutson's study is funded by Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which was started with a sizable donation of seed money from the Dalai Lama after his 2005 campus visit to discuss fostering scientific study of human emotion.

Knutson and his team asked the monks and nuns to lie down in the MRI scanner and look at a series of human faces projected above their eyes. He asked them to withhold emotion and look at some of the faces neutrally, and for others, to look and show compassion by feeling their suffering.

Next he flashed a series of abstract paintings and asked his subjects to rate how much they liked the art. What the monks and nuns didn't know was that Knutson was also flashing subliminal photos of the same faces before the pictures of the art.

"Reliably they like the art more if the faces they showed compassion to came before it," Knutson said, "Which leads to a hypothesis that there is some sort of compassion carryover happening."

Extending compassion

Next Knutson asked the Buddhists to practice a style of meditation called "tonglen," in which the person extends compassion outward from their inner circle, first to their parent, then to a good friend, then to a stranger and last to all sentient beings. 

He wants to see whether brain activity changes depending on different types of compassion.

"There's a concern that scientists might be 'trying to prove meditation,' but we are scientists trying to understand the brain," said Matthew Sacchet, a neuroscience doctoral student at Stanford working with Knutson.

"The research has important possibilities for medicine, and also it could get rid of some of the fuzz and help make meditation more empirically grounded," he said.

"If there is some kind of underlying structure to be understood scientifically, it could make things more clear for everyone.

Meredith May is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:

Stanford studies monks' meditation, compassion - SFGate


Albert Einstein prescribes compassion for all living creatures and the whole of nature

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the "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.

- Albert Einstein

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Meditatew Twice a Day - It is Free!

*Meditation is an always-available gift of replenishment that we can give to ourselves anytime during our harried work schedule.

Researchers are exploring the benefits of meditation on everything from heart disease to obesity. Sumathi Reddy and Dr. Aditi Nerurkar join Lunch Break.

Doctor's Orders: 20 Minutes Of Meditation Twice a Day

At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, doctor's orders can include an unlikely prescription:

"I recommend five minutes, twice a day, and then gradually increase," said Aditi Nerurkar, a primary-care doctor and assistant medical director of the Cheng & Tsui Center for Integrative Care, which offers alternative medical treatment at the Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospital. "It's basically the same way I prescribe medicine. I don't start you on a high dose right away." She recommends that patients eventually work up to about 20 minutes of meditating, twice a day, for conditions including insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome.

Integrative medicine programs including meditation are increasingly showing up at hospitals and clinics across the country. Recent research has found that meditation can lower blood pressure and help patients with chronic illness cope with pain and depression.  

In a study published last year, meditation sharply reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke among a group of African-Americans with heart disease.

At Beth Israel Deaconess, meditation and other mind-body therapies are slowly being worked into the primary-care setting.
The program began offering some services over the past six months and hopes eventually to have group meditation classes, said Dr. Nerurkar.

Health experts say meditation shouldn't be used to replace traditional medical therapies, but rather to complement them. While it is clear that "when you breathe in a very slow, conscious way it temporarily lowers your blood pressure," such techniques shouldn't be used to substitute for medications to manage high blood pressure and other serious conditions, said Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health. In general, she said, meditation can be useful for symptom management, not to cure or treat disease.
Dr. Briggs said the agency is funding a number of studies looking at meditation and breathing techniques and their effect on numerous conditions, including hot flashes that occur during menopause. If meditation is found to be beneficial, it could help women avoid using hormone treatments, which can have detrimental side effects, she said.

The most common type of meditation recommended by doctors and used in hospital programs is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which was devised at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  
Dr. Nerurkar said she doesn't send patients to a class for training. Instead, she and other physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess will demonstrate the technique in the office. "Really it's just sitting in a quiet posture that's comfortable, closing your eyes and watching your breath," she said.
Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., says it isn't clearly understood how meditation works on the body. 

Some forms of meditation have been found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body's relaxation response, improves blood supply, slows down heart rate and breathing and increases digestive activity, he said. It also slows down the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol.

Dr. Doraiswamy says he recommends meditation for people with depression, panic or anxiety disorders, ongoing stress, or for general health maintenance of brain alertness and cardiovascular health.

Thousands of studies have been published that look at meditation, Dr. Doraiswamy said. Of these, about 500 have been clinical trials testing meditation for various ailments, but only about 40 trials have been long-term studies. 

It isn't known whether there is an optimal amount of time for meditating that is most effective. And, it hasn't been conclusively shown that the practice causes people to live longer or prevents them from getting certain chronic diseases.

Some short-term studies have found meditation can improve cognitive abilities such as attention and memory, said Dr. Doraiswamy. 

Using imaging, scientists have shown that meditation can improve the functional performance of specific circuits in the brain and may reduce age-related shrinkage of several brain centers, particularly those that may be vulnerable in disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

Recent research found that meditation can result in molecular changes affecting the length of telomeres, a protective covering at the end of chromosomes that gets shorter as people age. 

The study involved 40 family caregivers of dementia patients. Half of the participants meditated briefly on a daily basis and the other half listened to relaxing music for 12 minutes a day. 

The eight-week study found that people who meditated showed a 43% improvement in telomerase activity, an enzyme that regulates telomere length, compared with a 3.7% gain in the group listening to music. 

The participants meditating also showed improved mental and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depression compared with the control group. The pilot study was published in January in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Government-funded research also is exploring meditation's effect on dieting and depression.

Write to Sumathi Reddy at

A version of this article appeared April 16, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Doctor's Orders: 20 Minutes Of Meditation Twice a Day.

More About the Mind and Body
Rewiring the Brain to Ease Pain 11/15/2011
Anxiety Can Bring Out the Best 6/18/2012

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