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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

Go West, Young Man

Updated: Mar 13

Buddhist and Vedic practices have taken root in the West. Yoga, meditation, breathwork, tai-chi, and mindfulness have gone mainstream. These practices have shaped to culture. As old traditions merge, new insights are emerging. The application of new technologies such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Positron Emission Tomography, DNA sequencing, and bloodwork, along with established methods like the scientific method and controlled peer-reviewed studies, are being used to test the effectiveness of ancient practices like Vipassana, g-tummo, bhastrika pranayama, etc. This integration of modern science and ancient practices is contributing to the collective understanding and well-being of society as a whole.

What was long considered Eastern, mystical, and esoteric is now being explored with scientific rigor in the West. In the West, neuroscience is an empirical study of the mind. In the East, traditional contemplative practices like focused meditation are an experiential examination of the mind. Integrating these two approaches to understanding the mind can provide practical insights for the benefit of all. While Western psychology is only about 200 years old and neuroscience as an explicit discipline emerged in the late 20th century, there are over a hundred thousand volumes in Tibetan libraries on states of mind dating back a thousand years or more. Indeed, the oldest known book is the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist religious text, printed in China in 868 A.D.

During the 1800s, American Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman integrated Eastern philosophies in their work. However, it was not until more recent times that scientists like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, applied scientific rigor to the study of these practices and brought their practical benefits to the attention of the general public.

When Western researchers invited highly-trained Eastern meditators into their laboratories for study, they measured degrees of cognitive and affective control, altered patterns of brain activity, and such structural changes as increased cortical thickness and synchronization not seen in non-meditators. In other labs, Himalayan yogis and other advanced practitioners demonstrated top-down regulation over autonomic functions such as heartbeat and thermogenesis that were considered outside of cognitive control.

The science of meditation in the West is nascent. While there are many studies on the benefits of meditation, researchers assess different techniques under the general heading "meditation." Generalizing in this way confounds exploration of the effects and potential benefits of specific techniques. The few studies that do differentiate between techniques show that they work the mind in different ways. Different meditation techniques drive different cognitive-control states.

As these practices shape to culture, meditation may best be understood as an exercise regimen for the mind.

In the West, we're obsessed with sports, athletics, and physical fitness. The amount of money that we invest to build stadiums and reward top athletes is staggering. Teams employ researchers, therapists, doctors, physiologists, nutritionists, trainers, sports psychologists, and other specialists to optimize team performance. Top athletes test the limits of what is physically possible and inspire us.

What if we applied the same passion and enthusiasm and commitment and effort and money and science and research to the study of mind? What if people trained their minds as diligently as they trained their bodies? In a recent post, I shared how I applied research to restore this middle-aged body back to fighting trim. What if we could train as thoughtfully to restore the mind to its natural state or to enhance our sense of well-being?

A serious body builder trains specific muscles during a workout in a targeted way- for example, working the anterior, medial, and posterior heads of the deltoid (shoulder). What if a meditator could approach their training with the same intentionality to strengthen neural connections, decrease activation in one brain area, or increase blood flow to a node for a particular result. What if these capacities of mind could be isolated and measured and trained the way we train for, say, a 100 meter sprint? There are many books and articles on how to improve aerobic capacity, improve running economy and speed. There aren't such evidence-based, technical manuals in the West on training the mind. There are thousands of books on meditation, but nothing I've found that targets specific cognitive-control states. I read about 200 books per year and about as many research articles. I can find dozens of articles on VO2 Max for improving endurance, but nothing so well-researched for improving concentration or equanimity. Books that do exist, like Pith Instructions for A Khrid rDzogs Chen, are not intelligible to most readers, as the traditions from which they spring are not relatable to Tom Smith, the mechanic who lives on Main Street, or accessible to Sally Jones, who waitresses at the local diner.

If Tom Smith wants to grow some muscles to impress Sally, he can go to the gym and watch Athlean-X videos to learn more about biomechanics and physiology (e.g. muscle insertion, direction of fibers, range, hypertrophy, etc.). He can use this knowledge to sculpt a more aesthetic physique.

Tom may be a strong, muscular guy, but his mind may be weak. He may be a competent and knowledgable mechanic, but know little to nothing about how his mind motor works.

If Sally rejects Tom and he falls into a depression, he may have few tools for dressing the heart wound. He has tools to sculpt his body and autobody tools to sculpt a car's body, but nothing for tuning his mind.

In a few decades, might the Westerner be able to approach their practice with the same depth of understanding and sculpt the mental landscape? To get there, we will need more research, more funding, more experiments... and perhaps more heartbreak, more suffering, more anxiety, more depression, more suicides, more substance abuse, and more overdoses before people see the value in steeling the mind for the vicissitudes of life.

If we can take the same protocols and methods we use to understand the material world in order to study the mind, perhaps we can improve the human condition. For all of our material progress, wealth, engineering marvels, technology, and scientific advances, levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and psychosomatic illnesses are rising. But we are correcting course and emerging research is promising.

In one study, researchers attempted to map 4 distinct mind states to their neural substrates as measured by electroencephalogram (EEG). EEG data were collected from 30 advanced meditators. Alpha, beta, and gamma frequencies were analyzed. The results revealed that compared to baseline, density across frequencies significantly decreased upon meditation onset- that is, the electrical activity that researchers could measure was dialed down in regions associated with self-referential thoughts and executive-control. At the experiential level, the mind gets quiet; the practitioner reports a feeling of Oneness or non-duality, yet the mind remains awake and aware. During meditation, gamma increased significantly, within the anterior cingulate cortex, precuneus, and superior parietal lobule, whereas beta-band activity increased within the insula. "These findings suggest a dissociation between brain regions regulating self-referential vs. executive-control processing, during non-dual, compassionate states, characterized by brilliantly awake awareness, free from conceptual thought and 'doing'." (Schoenberg et al., 2018). In simpler terms, what scientists were able to measure may approximate what the mystics call 'enlightenment.' Much more research would need to be done, however, before we had a working definition for such an elusive state.

To accelerate these findings requires a shift of priorities. What if we were as obsessed with the power of mind and explored its possibilities as we were with physical agility, strength, endurance, or speed? What if we respected the efforts of those who trained their minds with discipline, intensity, and rigor as we revere athletes who run fast across a field, maneuvering around opponents, carrying or kicking a ball for sport? What if we watched commentators in suits opine, debate and discuss in real-time some exceptional performance of mind the way television personalities and journalists review and analyze plays in slow motion? What if schools, youth organizations, clubs, businesses and communities invested in spaces and tools for training the mind the way we invested in sports? Most kids will not be professional athletes, but every one will be responsible for their mental health and well-being.

In previous posts, I shared some of the technologies I've used to peer inside the working mind in real-time. I've also shared screenshots of EEG data, oxygen saturation levels, CO2 tolerance scores or breath retention times. I can compare my breath hold times against retention times recorded by top free divers, learn from them, improve my technique, and deepen my practice. There is an emerging body of research on the benefits of breathwork for improving psychological well-being and for optimizing physical performance. We must be able to define, see, and measure some metric like concentration, attentional selection, or, dare I say, happiness as we can define metrics such as VO2 Max and heart rate variability. With data, we could compare our performance with the best.

But without standardized tools, measurements, or performance markers I can use to gage, say, a concentrative hold, it is harder to improve or to identify a more advanced practitioner from whom I can learn.

For contemplatives, humility is a desired trait. I've never heard an advanced yogi trash talking a beginner. Meditators, moreover, tend toward compassion and cooperation, not competition. I don't pretend to be as evolved. I want to know how my concentration measures up against that of a Tibetan lama who has just completed a 3 year meditation retreat. I want to be inspired. I want to continue learning and growing from true masters, but how can I tell if a self-proclaimed "enlightened" guru had skillz?

We're getting there.

Mingyur Rinpoche is a Tibetan monk. He's the real deal. He humored researchers who wanted to study his brain in real time and spent many years in collaboration with scientists like Richard Davidson at his lab in Wisconsin from 2002-2016. His interest in the science of meditation is practical and grounded. "There is a lot of insight and discovery, but there’s not much about how to apply this in your everyday life,” he says. “In Buddhism, we have a lot of application practice – how to work with perception – how you perceive the world, how you perceive yourself, how you perceive others. These can affect your entire life, your relationships, your behavior, your job, your social circle. I hope that in the future, whatever discoveries and knowledge [we find] can also help people’s lives. Combining practices and scientific discoveries together might be very beneficial.”

A teacher like Mingyur Rinpoche is not relatable to Joe the Plumber or Bob the Builder. Rinpoche is not even his name, it's an honorific title. Mingyur Rinpoche speaks with an accent and wears orange robes. He's a kind and compassionate teacher, but Billy the Evangelist is xenophobic and rails against Buddhist and Hindu indoctrination, and many are they who regard such bigots as Old Testament prophets.

That's why we need more researchers in lab coats to explain the science to guys in work boots in language that is comprehensible. Bring the evidence and the stats. We'll listen.

As meditation shapes more and more to Western culture, I expect we will soon be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, define desirable qualities of mind with greater precision, learn from the best, measure what we want to see, train with skill, and grow.

I spend thousands of dollars annually for gym memberships, equipment, running shoes, heart rate monitors, fitness trackers, supplements, and other gear to keep the body strong. But I am as eager, if not more so, to train the mind. For unlike athletics or exercise performance, traits like equanimity, compassion, and insight are qualities we can get better at as we age. I meditate over 2 hours a day. I exercise for about 45 minutes. Every aging athlete must face the law of diminishing returns. I still enjoy trail running, swimming, working out, and kayaking, but I've gotten a better return on investment by training the mind- more peace, more stability, more equanimity, more contentment, more balance. Yin and yang; doing and non-doing in perfect harmony.

As meditation takes root in the West, it will not resemble its predecessor from the East- just as jiu jitsu, karate, or taekwondo have decoupled from their Buddhist roots. Westerners are discarding the robes and beads, the gongs and rituals, the obscure Sanskrit terms, the florid language and other vestiges of tradition. The following video gives us a peek of what that might look like.

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