By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

Translator: Nabil Tbolbi
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Host: In the effort
of telling multiple stories and sharing many stories, our next speaker is going to give
yet another perspective on health. So with that, please join me
in welcoming Clifford Saron, who’s going to be talking about some of
the physiological aspects of meditation. (Applause) Clifford Saron: Thank you. In the summer of 1974,
while I was still an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to attend
a remarkable summer school. It was the inaugural summer of a new
Buddhist University in Boulder Colorado, The Naropa Institute. I found myself in an
evening meditation class taught by Joseph Goldstein before anyone had known that name. It was at dusk, and the room
that he was teaching in got dimmer and dimmer
and harder and harder to see. And he said, “If you notice
your experience closely, you’ll see that there arises in the mind an intention to turn on the light.” Noticing your experience carefully,
arising in the mind, an intention. In that single sentence, my understanding of the mind from neuroscience,
introspection and now Buddhism came together, and I was hooked. Intentions arise in the mind, telling us we are
in no particular location; we are embedded in this body
in this environment, responding to cues
from within and without. I pursued investigating experience
through many meditation retreats that were, morning till night,
silent times of sitting and walking. In one of those retreats, I had an asthma attack. I was determined to use meditation
to clear the attack. The more I tried, the worse it got. Eventually, I felt,
when I could barely breathe anymore, my hand grow large and my self grow small, and I was able to lovingly care
for my sick body by my own hand. So I got up and I took a spray. (Laughter) In that simple act of self care,
I could breathe again, and I learned an important lesson of how well I was able
to ignore common sense and how capable I was of my own care. This process of introspection
and examining our experience is also tied with becoming our own parent, and it led me to think about
what is going on when we meditate. One question we could
ask scientifically is, What do people do when they meditate? But it’s very difficult
to answer that question; your mental practice
doesn’t give you a particular signal. But you can ask a more
important question, I think. What do people
do differently – having meditated ? This is scientifically tractable. So some central characters in my journey – This is a picture of myself with glasses at the time I was having
this asthma experience, but not at that very moment, and my friend Richie Davidson, who is a well-known psychologist,
neuroscientist, meditation researcher, who, years later,
asked me to fill in for him in presenting our data
to the Dalai Lama in India at a Mind and Life conference in 1990. I roomed with Francisco Varela, arguably the intellectual father of the
dialogue between Buddhism and science. And he said, “You know,
we’re too old to [inaudible], we should do something.” So, we connected with Alan Wallace, who was a Buddhist scholar,
teacher, translator for this meeting, who also was interested in the scientific
assessment of Tibetan mental training, and we embarked on an expedition. So here, in the foothills
of the Himalayas, I bring you to Dharamsala in 1992. And we brought a bunch
of equipment to try to see what might be going on with monks who were in retreat
in the foothills above Dharamsala. We met many extraordinary monks; most wouldn’t tell us one word
about their meditation experience. They said, “If you want to learn, meditate.” This was alone one of the few individuals who talked to us
about his meditation practice. It was like interviewing
a fine cabinet maker lovingly showing you
the tools of their trade. When my mind is in despair,
I do this technique. When I feel lethargic,
I do this technique. When I’m overexcited,
I use this to calm my mind. Here’s an example. On the left, a monk
doing an attention task, and the monk on the right will record his facial expressions
in response to videos. But there are cross-cultural issues
of trying to do this kind of work. Why are these monks laughing? Because we’ve put an electrode cap
on Francisco Barela’s head when everyone knows the mind is here. Finally, this man
told us a life-changing talk about the nature of compassion. We asked him how sadness
and compassion could differ, and he said that sadness could catalyze
the arising of compassion, but they were separate mind streams. In fact, one had to love
the conditions of suffering as deeply as a mother loves her child, in order to adequately get an insight
into their causes and conditions and how to most creatively be of benefit. But these monks, they were extraordinary individuals; they may always have been extraordinary. So we need to do a longitudinal study without the cross-cultural
problems in the West to find out the effects of meditation. So we embarked on the Shamata Project
I’m going to talk to you about today. That has four aims: Can attention be trained through practicing focused
attention meditation? Can training in loving kindness, compassion and other
beneficial aspirations support calm focused attention
and improve emotion regulation? Are improvements in attention
related to psychological function? What are the subjective, neural and
physiological correlates of this training? These are large aims. How do you mount such a project? We wanted to run two three-month retreats, an initial one with
an equated control group, taught by Alan Wallace, and a second one
that the control group would do. So, we advertised in Buddhist
publications and email lists, and we had 142 people willing to be randomly assigned
to one of two meditation retreats, and we found 60 who were experienced and healthy enough
to participate in the study. And we created two matched groups
that were matched on all these factors. And just about five years ago, we randomized half to a first retreat
and half to a second in the spring and fall of 2007. And the second retreat group –
the control group – we flew them in to the retreat center to be tested just alongside
the retreatants. So on to the Shambhala Mountain Center, in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. Here is a meditation lodge we were
able to rent for almost nine months. Here’s Alan Wallace,
now grey like the rest of us, teaching in the second retreat. What is he teaching? Two contemplative practices
that are complementary. The first concerns focusing the mind; the second concerns cultivating
these beneficial aspirations so that you have a profound
and deep ethical embedding for undertaking focusing your mind. In terms of focused attention, main technique: mindfulness of breathing. Feel the sensations of the breath
at the tip of your nostrils. When your mind wanders, bring it back. You can broaden that awareness to the field of all of sensations,
thoughts and images, and even within that field, find your awareness and focus on that. Beneficial aspirations: loving kindness – the wish for others
to be happy and self to be happy; compassion – the wish for self and others
to be free of the causes of suffering and suffering; empathic joy – taking pleasure
in other people’s success; and equanimity – not distinguishing those near to you
from those far from you. What do we expect? Improved ability to focus; increased access to your experience; faster recovery from provocation; ultimately, a diminution
of destructive tendencies. How can we measure these? We took a very comprehensive approach – I don’t have time
to share all of with you today – self-rapport, physiological measures, 15 different computer-based experiments. We had to build laboratories – two, side by side,
in this meditation lodge. Here’s a participant ready to do a task. Here’s our lab. We built a blood lab
for physiological measures. So, what do we find? We look at psychological improvements
from a battery of questionnaires; we combined many traits into a term
we call “Adaptive Functioning.” This is increases in things
like well-being and resilience, decreases in aspects of psychology
such as depression and anxiety. And if you look at red here – we equate the groups at the beginning – the retreat group goes up, stays up five months after the retreat; the control group doesn’t change at all
between the beginning and end. But when they become retreatants, they show the same pattern
as the initial retreat group. We also looked at physiological
psycho-biomarkers. These are your chromosomes. The ends of your chromosomes
are telomeres – sequences where the DNA binding complex
combines with the DNA to replicate your cells. Telomeres get shorter as cells divide. There’s an enzyme – telomerase –
that repairs the shortening of telomeres. This actually relates to your longevity. We find, in the post-retreat, significantly greater telomerase
in the retreat group than the control group, but more interestingly, change in a psychological
sense of purpose in life relates to the amount of telomerase
you have at the end of the retreat, but not in the control group. What about attention? You do 500 hours of attention training. We give you a hard task: you’re going to see,
every two seconds, a long line, and you’re going to see short lines,
one in ten, roughly. But we make the long line steady, and the short line, we bring it up
longer and longer and longer until you can’t tell the difference
between long and short. And then, we back it off just a tad. And for 32 minutes, every time you see a long line,
you push a button, when you see a short line,
which is now barely short at all, you withhold. This is a response inhibition task. It turns out that the low line –
these are the two retreats combined – you fall off in your ability
to do this task, and after training, it improves; the dark line is the end of the retreat. Critically, how well you improve on this
low-level response inhibition task, actually predicts your
psychological adaptive functioning. And this is the statistical model we use, which, fortunately,
I don’t have time to explain to you. What about emotions? We take a developmental
approach to emotions. Three months sounds like
a long time to meditate full-time, but actually, in terms of reshaping
the way you regard the world emotionally, it’s not really that long. We do expect decrease in rejection
emotions in response to suffering. Rejection emotions are
anger, disgust, contempt. And potentially, in their place,
we expect an increase in sadness. Overall, less moving away from suffering, more in line with what
that monk was talking about regarding generating
a compassionate response. How do we do this? We evoke emotion with intense films. And some of what I’m going to show you
may be a bit disturbing. On the right, you see frame grabs
of unobtrusive video obtained while this woman watches
a documentary about the Iraq war. This soldier is talking
about how hard it is to see husbands carrying dead wives. All the numbers on the left
represent the analysis of facial-expression data
from just 12 seconds. Every frame of video, we characterize the position
of all 44 muscle groups on the face using Paul Ekman and Wally Friesen’s
Facial Action Coding System, and then we can apply those data
to a standard dictionary in order to assess the emotional
expression someone shows. What do we find? After three months of meditation, retreatants, compared to controls, show decreased number
of rejection emotions, which is what we predicted. We see increased probability
of the expressions of sadness. These results suggest
that there’s been an enhancement to be able to keep in mind
complex and painful realities without pushing them away. This, of course, may be the crucible for the arising
of a compassionate response when confronted with suffering
in yourself or others. I’ve got an incredible team. In terms of the adaptive functioning data, I want to highlight
the work of Baljinder Sahdra, in terms of connecting that
to the response inhibition data, it’s her and Katherine MacLean
and Emilio Ferrer – who’s faculty here. In terms of the telomerase,
that was led by Tonya Jacobs in collaboration with Elissa Epel,
Liz Blackburn and Jue Lin at UCSF. In terms of the emotion data, that was led by Erika Rosenberg. Anthony Zanesco and Brandon King
are our FACS coders extraordinaire, having spent thousands of hours paying attention to every muscle movement
of our participants’ faces. And we have extraordinary
generous funders; they’re Fetzer Institute
and the Hershey Family Foundation. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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