Meditation Goes West
Updated: Nov 9
Buddhist and Vedic practices have taken root in the West. Yoga, meditation, breathwork, tai-chi, and mindfulness have gone mainstream. These practices are shaping 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. Meditation has been shown to be helpful for a variety of conditions and certain psychological disorders. A number of researchers have investigated how meditation works and how it affects the brain. Meditation has been used for thousands of years to increase calm, focus and relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Some research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.
Research about meditation’s ability to reduce pain has produced mixed results. However, in some studies scientists suggest that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain.
A small 2016 study funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindfulness meditation does help to control pain and doesn’t use the brain’s naturally occurring opiates to do so. This suggests that combining mindfulness with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s opioid activity may be particularly effective for reducing pain. Visit the NCCIH Web site for more information on this study.
In another 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults aged 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or usual care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement, and it was greater than those who got usual care, including long after the training ended. The researchers found that participants in the MBSR and CBT groups had greater improvement in functional limitation and back pain at 26 and 52 weeks compared with those who had usual care. There were no significant differences in outcomes between MBSR and CBT. Visit the NCCIH website for more information on this study.
High blood pressure
Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation may lower the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
The findings also suggested that practicing meditation can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping ability.
A literature review and scientific statement from the American Heart Association suggest that evidence supports the use of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to lower blood pressure. However, the review indicates that it’s uncertain whether TM is truly superior to other meditation techniques in terms of blood-pressure lowering because there are few head-to-head studies.
Anxiety, depression, insomnia
A 2014 literature review of 47 trials in 3,515 participants suggests that mindfulness meditation programs show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep.
A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.
In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a form of MBSR specially adapted to deal with insomnia (mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia, or MBTI), or a self-monitoring program. Both meditation-based programs aided sleep, with MBTI providing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with MBSR.
Results from a 2011 NCCIH-funded study of 279 adults who participated in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program found that changes in spirituality were associated with better mental health and quality of life.
Guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians published in 2013 suggest that MBSR and meditation may help to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression while enhancing mood and self-esteem in people with lung cancer.
Clinical practice guidelines issued in 2014 by the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIC) recommend meditation as supportive care to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in patients treated for breast cancer. The SIC also recommends its use to improve quality of life in these people.
Meditation-based programs may be helpful in reducing common menopausal symptoms, including the frequency and intensity of hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle and joint pain. However, differences in study designs mean that no firm conclusions can be drawn.
Because only a few studies have been conducted on the effects of meditation for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there isn’t sufficient evidence to support its use for this condition.
A 2014 research review suggested that meditation reduces chemical identifiers of inflammation and shows promise in helping to regulate the immune system.
Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that 8 weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy.
There are many types of meditation and researchers are now testing to see how different techniques affect mind and body.
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, but his mind may be weak. That is, the neural connections and networks that control attentional selection, impulse suppression, sustained focus, task execution or extinction may be weak. Tom 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.
Recently, researchers at Harvard used an ultra high field 7T MRI to map an adept meditator’s brain activity during jhana, a form of advanced meditation. Brain activity during jhana showed correlations with attention and qualities crucial for well-being.
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've 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. Many will listen.
But meditation has a PR problem. There is a stigma attached to it. This is one of the challenges I face when working in this space. But the evidence supporting the benefits of meditation is robust. I approach audiences by presenting the research from primary studies published in reputable journals such as Science, Cell, or Nature. I look for controlled clinical trials with large sample sizes that provide researchers with yardsticks to test variables such as the effects of an 8-week focused attention meditation practice on inflammation markers. I prefer blinded studies that minimize bias in clinical trials and look for replicability and similar studies by different investigators. Replication gives more confidence that results are reliable and valid. I also look for statistical significance to measure the size of an effect and determine whether a correlation is probable or due to chance. I strive to understand and translate the findings for audiences, avoiding exaggerating the results or promoting meditation as a cure-all for complex physical or psychological problems. Above all, I conduct my own experiments and seek to replicate the results for myself.
There is a great deal of misinformation circulating in the wellness industry, ranging from poorly researched reports to anecdotes masquerading as evidence to unsupported claims made by "gurus." The effectiveness of practices such as crystals, reiki, tapping, quantum jumping, homeopathy, and manifesting, as well as some supplements, have little scientific support. Yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, massage, and hypnosis have better track records, backed by quality studies for treating specific conditions. However, no single approach works for everyone, so it is best to take a holistic approach to wellness, incorporating elements such as sleep, diet, exercise, relationships, and other complementary therapies.
It's worth noting that belief can play a role in healing. It's possible for someone who believes in crystals, angels, vibrational fields, or reiki to experience some benefits, and I don't discount this. Our thoughts, feelings, and expectations can have a powerful and positive effect on our well-being. Scientists call this the placebo effect, which itself has become an object of investigation.
It's also important to acknowledge the limitations of science. While it can provide evidence for the efficacy of certain treatments, it has yet to provide satisfactory answers on the nature of consciousness or explain what happens after death. Many mysteries remain unexplored, and there are many phenomena that occur on this material plane that the best of science cannot readily explain.
While I acknowledge the potential benefits of meditation, I remain skeptical of some New Age claims and am concerned about the use of meditation for unproven purposes. Absent empirical evidence, I neither promote nor share protocols I couldn't back up with data. This comes from a place of humility. I don't know, so I study and research. Any strategy I recommend should be able to stand up to the rigors of science and investigation. If it doesn't, I can admit my limitations and my not knowing, or point to the paucity of evidence. Any strategy I recommend should be solid and able to take a punch.
Sometime ago a colleague told me about a qigong master who could stop opponents using qi (chi) energy alone. I was skeptical. There are videos of old qigong masters defeating younger, stronger students without touch.
While Bill Moyers was a respected journalist, he could have pressed harder in this documentary. As a member of his film crew, I would have wanted to challenge and test the master in order to uphold journalistic integrity. Instead, they take the master's students at their word and the investigation ends.
This is not a case of intentional deception, but of self-delusion. Some masters have attempted to demonstrate the effectiveness of their techniques by challenging real martial arts fighters. In one case, Master Ryuken Yanagi once offered $5,000 to anyone who could defeat him. He claimed an undefeated 200 to 0 record. A mixed martial artist named Tsuyoshi Iwakura accepted the challenge. The fight was held at Master Yanagi's dojo and broadcast on Japanese television.
Master Yanagi put his money, reputation, and his pride on the line to prove that he could subdue opponents with qi. He was humiliated. David DiSalvo referenced this fight in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Master Yanagi was soundly defeated, but the footage wasn't enough to persuade believers to disavow these techniques. Two quirks of mind were at play:
Belief-based confirmation bias. Confirmation bias refers to the tendency of people to seek out, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs or hypotheses. This means that people are more likely to notice and remember information that supports their views, while disregarding or forgetting information that contradicts them. Many supporters of the touchless attack argued that the MMA fighter was able to channel the master's attack or that Master Yanagi was ill-disposed for the fight. Regardless of the outcome, confirmation bias provided a plausible excuse.
Sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost fallacy, on the other hand, refers to the tendency of people to continue investing time, money, or effort into a situation, even when it no longer makes sense to do so, simply because they have already invested a significant amount of resources into it. People may feel that they can't give up on a project, relationship, or investment because of the resources they have already invested, even if it is no longer rational to continue. If I spend countless hours and money traveling to dojos around the globe to learn the touchless attack, it might be hard for me to accept such a loss, especially if I've invested my reputation on it.
But such is the power of belief. As DiSalvo writes, "You could punch it, kick it, break its arms and legs, and humiliate it for all to see, yet still it stands."
I grew up in the church where confirmation biases, fallacies, unquestioning beliefs, and magical thinking flourished. Once, I was invited to stand in line while a faith healer laid hands on the sick. The friend who invited me knew I had something going on and encouraged me to the front. One by one, people fell to the floor after the laying of hands. When she came to me and laid hands, I felt nothing. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. I did not feel anything course through me; I didn't feel like fainting or writhing or dancing. She pushed me off balance and into the arms of a deacon who caught me. I lay on the floor suppressing giggles, waiting for the cue to get up while the pastor rebuked unbelievers and skeptics like me.
I remain unrepentant. I am not discounting faith. Pray, but mind your diet. If you catch pneumonia, visualize a healing light coursing though you and take your penicillin.
The following video demonstrates the consequences of irrational and unfounded beliefs, commonly referred to as 'woo woo thinking,' and highlights the practicality of possessing true knowledge and real skills.
These masters undermine the very discipline they study and promote. There is a growing body of research that suggests practicing qigong may have positive effects on mobility and health. Here are some specific research-based benefits of qigong:
Improved balance: Studies have shown that regular qigong practice can improve balance, which is particularly important for older adults who are at increased risk of falls.
Reduced pain: Qigong has been shown to help reduce pain in individuals with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.
Improved cardiovascular health: Qigong has been linked to improvements in blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
Enhanced immune function: Some studies have suggested that qigong practice can enhance immune function, leading to a reduced risk of illness and disease.
Improved quality of life: Qigong has been shown to improve overall quality of life in individuals with chronic conditions.
Enhanced physical performance: Research has shown that qigong can improve physical performance in activities such as walking and stair climbing.
But, when old masters like Yanagi post videos of themselves overpowering younger, stronger men only to be disgraced by real fighters, the entire discipline is discredited.
If "life" keeps kicking you in the teeth, it may be trying to teach you something. You can keep getting punched in the mouth, or learn to slip and counter-punch.
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 invite others to do their own homework. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) supports the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). The NCCIH is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches. The mission of NCCIH is "to determine, through rigorous scientific investigation, the fundamental science, usefulness, and safety of complementary and integrative health approaches and their roles in improving health and health care."
It's a good starting place: www.nccih.nih.gov
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, combat sports, cycling, 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.
Although we can train without it, I use technology mostly to track my progress and test hypotheses. More and more technologies are emerging that allow us to measure and monitor our physiological states. What we can measure, we can monitor; what we can monitor, we can change. Technologies that were once available only to researchers in well-funded laboratories are becoming more accessible and affordable. As a former Director of Academic Technology and a long-time meditator, I am interested in exploring the intersection where mindfulness, neuroscience/biology, psychology, and technology meet.
There are new and promising technologies emerging every year with the potential to transform lives. Below is an incomplete list of my favorite apps and technologies as of the fall 2023. I stress that this list is incomplete. There are functional near infrared spectrometry headsets (FNIRS), heart rate variability monitors, transcranial magnetic stimulators, EEGs, pulse oximeters, and transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) devices to name a few. I purchased what I could afford on an educator's budget. I am not endorsed by any of the technologies/apps/products listed here.
1. Insight Timer
Insight Timer is a free meditation app. That's the first reason I appreciate it. Other popular apps like Headspace and Calm require subscriptions whose costs may be prohibitive for some. As an IT guy, I understand that creating and sustaining apps takes a lot of money. DevOps and software engineers, cloud infrastructure, developers and analysts don't come cheap. Insight Timer has a donation based model, consistent with how meditation has been traditionally transmitted. Meditation has been taught freely for millennia. There are thousands of meditations from hundreds of traditions- secular to religious. This is the second reason I recommend the app. Many of the world's most renowned teachers have uploaded content to Insight Timer: Judson Brewer, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shinzen Young, Matthieu Ricard, Ajahn Chah, Tara Brach, Sharon Saltzberg, Mooji, et al. Thirdly, the timer function is excellent. It is what I use daily. I've created over 140 presets for different practices. For example, if I want to train concentration, I use interval bells to remind me to reorient my attention should the mind wander from the primary object of focus. If I were circuit training, starting with pranayama, then focused attention, a body scan, a visualization, and closing with a loving kindness meditation, I could choose a 30 minute bell with 5 intervals. Fourth, there is an active community on Insight Timer. I've connected with many like-minded people I might not have otherwise have had the opportunity to meet.
A drawback is that anyone can upload meditations- charlatans and novices alike.
2. Oura ring
Meditators attend to conditions that affect their practice, and sleep is one of the most impactful. I bought the Oura ring to track sleep. There are other products like Whoop, Fitbit, and smartwatches that also track sleep.
The Oura uses infrared light to measure heart rate, respiratory rate and heart rate variability. Additional sensors monitor skin temperature. Pulse oximetry tracks blood oxygen saturation. This data, paired with an accelerometer (for movement tracking) allows Oura to capture data which is sent to an app for review and analysis. The data is granular and allows me to experiment with variables that might improve the quantity and quality of my sleep.
To live mindfully, we attend to fundamentals. Meditation, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance.
I ordered InsideTracker's Ultimate Plan which tests up to 43 blood biomarkers—including glucose, cholesterol, cortisol, and hemoglobin. I had my blood drawn and was eager to see my results.
95% of my biomarkers were within optimal range. Results tagged with a yellow dot indicate that those markers, while within a healthy range, could be improved. My HDL levels are below optimum. HDL helps protects against damage to the cardiovascular system by removing excess LDL (the "bad cholesterol") from the bloodstream. My sugar levels (glucose & HbA1c), by contrast, are above optimal.
Inside Tracker provided actionable recommendations which I followed. I started taking spirulina, a blue-green algae, which reduces the rise in blood sugar following a meal (called postprandial glucose). Spirulina has also been shown to be effective at lowering high levels of fasting glucose. I'm consuming probiotic foods for breakfast (miso and unsweetened Greek yogurt). Fasting glucose levels improve after regular consumption of probiotic foods. InsideTracker provides evidence-based recommendations and links to quality peer-reviewed studies. Based on that, I bought an ALA supplement (alpha lipoic acid). ALA can lower blood sugar levels by reducing excess fat in muscle cells.
ALA also acts as an antioxidant to reduce free radicals. Free radicals, if left unchecked, can cause oxidative stress, which contributes to body-wide inflammation. Inflammation is the body's response to a problem. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) is an inflammation biomarker. ALA can decrease CRP by about 38%.
My hsCRP levels can be improved. I'll switch from coffee to green and black tea. Black tea is prepared from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Compared to green tea, black tea has been oxidized for a longer time resulting in darker color and stronger flavor. Black tea contains the polyphenols catechin, theaflavin and flavonoid which help prevent oxidative damage and can improve hsCRP levels in a month or two according to the research.
The two biomarkers outside of optimal range were Transferrin Saturation (TS) and serum iron. High TS levels indicate that my iron levels are too high. Because I am vegetarian, I supplement. High dosage dietary iron supplements combined with high intake of foods fortified with iron may be causing these elevated levels. Serum iron was the second biomarker outside of optimal range. My ferritin and hemoglobin levels, however, were optimized. Optimized ferritin and hemoglobin levels indicate that I am consuming enough iron to meet the body's needs. So I can titrate down and decrease my dosages.
The data is granular and gives me the feedback I need to make minor adjustments to improve my performance. My Vitamin B12 levels, for example, are slightly elevated most likely due to supplementation. Vegetarians tend to have low B12 levels, so I take a B-complex, a multivitamin, and a B12 supplement. Bloodwork suggests it's overkill. My creatine kinase levels are also slightly elevated which may indicate over-training. Elevated levels of creatine kinase are present when muscle cells rupture during intense exercise. The more creatine kinase in the bloodstream, the more muscle damage there is. When creatine kinase is above optimal, an athlete increases his risk of inflammation, muscle damage, cramping, fatigue, delayed recovery and injury. Protein is essential for muscle repair. CoQ10 supplementation has also been shown to decrease high creatine kinase. Rest and recovery are also important and should be prioritized. Nutrition, too, plays a key role. InsightTimer provides recommendations based on my unique biochemistry and preferences. This is exactly the kind of data that I need to make more informed decisions about nutrition.
InsideTracker is expensive. I can afford 1, maybe 2 tests annually. Insurance covers one annual physical, during which I can have bloodwork done as a kind of follow up to see if metrics have improved. Indeed, my glucose levels did drop, iron saturation was lowered, and HDL (good cholestrol) improved when I followed up a few months later.
Zoe is a similar product that is highly recommended, but which I have not used.
4. Continuous blood glucose monitors (CGM)
There are many blood glucose monitors on the market: Veri, Levels, Nutrisense, Ultrahuman, Signos, and JanuaryAI to name a few. These monitors provide feedback before and after every meal, every workout and every night's sleep which helps us understand how the body is reacting to food, sleep, stress, and physical activity. Most dieting advice is general and generic. With a CGM and app, I can see which foods are best to meet my energy demands. We each have a unique biochemistry. Different people have different glycemic responses to the same food partly due to the unique milieu of our gut microbiome. CGMs provide personalized data which allows us to make better decisions.
CGMs measure blood glucose, sometimes called blood sugar. Blood glucose is a primary biomarker for diabetes. Elevated glucose levels, however, are also associated with other diseases from heart disease and cancer to metabolic syndrome and Alzheimers.
Glucose is a form of sugar. Carbohydrates also provide the body with glucose. Blood glucose refers to sugar molecules (C6 H12 06) circulating in your veins and arteries. Blood glucose is necessary for survival. Your red blood cells, for example, can’t use any other fuel and the brain consumes about 120 grams per day. When glucose is scarce (on a fast, for instance), blood sugar levels don’t drop to zero. Instead, to keep glucose levels up, your body activates two glucose backup mechanisms:
Glycogenolysis: The release of stored glucose from muscle and liver cells. (You store about 500 grams of glucose as glycogen).
Gluconeogenesis: When glycogen becomes depleted, your liver makes glucose from protein and lactate.
After consuming a meal, blood sugar rises, and the hormone, insulin, comes along to move that blood sugar out of your blood and safely into cells. As a general rule: the smaller and shorter the spike in blood sugar, the better. CGMs help us measure these levels. Ideally, we want to keep blood sugar spikes to under 30 mg/dl over baseline at one-hour post-meal. Baselines can be calculated after an overnight fast of around 12 hours. (If your baseline is 85 mg/dl (4.7 mmol/L), you don’t want to exceed 115 mg/dl). And by three hours after eating, you should be back near your baseline. This indicates that insulin is doing its job.
5. Metabolic Trackers
In a 2019 study, researchers found that only 12% of Americans were metabolically healthy. Using the most recent guidelines, metabolic health was defined as having optimal levels of waist circumference (WC <102/88 cm for men/women), glucose (fasting glucose <100 mg/dL and hemoglobin A1c <5.7%), blood pressure (systolic <120 and diastolic <80 mmHg), triglycerides (<150 mg/dL), and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (≥40/50 mg/dL for men/women), and not taking any related medication.
To be metabolically healthy means that the body can digest and absorb nutrients from the food that we eat without unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, blood fat, inflammation, and insulin. Key to metabolic health is metabolic flexibility, the body's ability to draw energy from fats or carbohydrates depending on their availability. High-functioning mitochondrial density enables burning more fat for energy and high insulin sensitivity helps partition carbohydrates into muscle rather than storing as fat.
To be metabolically healthy means that the body is able to extract energy from food without increasing the risk of developing conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Many variables make up individual metabolic health. Some are fixed, some are within our control. You cannot change your age, sex, or your genes. But you can change your diet, gut microbiome, weight, sleep, and exercise, and you can address your stress and mental health.
Billions of metabolic reactions unfold every second within each cell. You are made up of 30 trillion cells. That's 100 billion trillion metabolic reactions occurring every second. The sum aggregate of these processes influence how we act and think and feel. We can improve our metabolic health by dialing in diet, exercise, and sleep, and dialing down chronic stress.
Lumen uses a CO2 sensor and flow meter to determine the CO2 concentration in a single breath. This indicates the type of fuel your body is using to produce energy. Biosense is a similar product that measures breath acetone, which is produced as a byproduct of ketogenesis. The concentration of acetone in the breath indicates your level of nutritional ketosis.
Measurements can be taken throughout the day. These readings give me insights and help me make better choices to improve my diet. I get immediate feedback on my previous decisions: food choices, portions, how fast I eat, my exercise regimen, training intensity, recovery time, and the quality and quantity of sleep.
6. Smart Watch
I owned a Fitbit and Garmin smart watch specifically to help me improve my run times and VO2 Max. Apple and Android based watches provide the same data.
7. Wim Hof Method (WHM)
The WHM app is based on a protocol designed by Wim "the Iceman" Hof. Wim Hof is a 61 year old Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand extreme cold and for other superhuman feats. Not only has he shared his techniques with the world, he subjected himself to the rigors of scientific testing. The results are replicable. Those who train in this technique, as I have, enjoy many of the benefits.
Note: Wim Hof came under fire after several people drowned while performing this technique in water without supervision. This is inadvisable.
8. Healthy Minds Program (HMP)
The Healthy Minds Program was developed by professor Richard Davidson, a giant in the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness. The program is structured and guided. The program is free (as of the writing) and, like Insight Timer and the WHM apps) available on the App Store or Google Play.
9. Paced Breathing
Paced Breathing is a free breathing app that allows users to control all 4 cycles of the breath and set the inhalation, hold, exhalation, and pause before the next breath. I use this app for breath work exercises to build pulmonary control, techniques like boxed breathing and other pranayama exercises.
In Breath, James Nestor describes the perfect breath as a 5.5 second inhalation and a 5.5 exhalation. That's 5.5 breaths per minute for a volume of 5.5 liters of air. Circulation increases; the strain on the heart decreases. My heart rate variability scores improve when I breathe at this rate.
The Inner Balance Trainer is a biofeedback tool. The heart rate variability (hrv) sensor communicates with an app (available on the App Store or Google Play). HRV is a biomarker that measures both heart health and emotional balance. It offers a window into the "quality of communication between the heart and brain, which impacts how we feel and perform." The sensor attaches to a tablet or phone via Bluetooth or Lightning and provides real time feedback. "The Inner Balance technology trains us to self-generate a highly efficient physiological state called HRV coherence, which helps us increase emotional composure and clearer reasoning."
For the last 3 years, I ran an informal study with children and found a statistically significant correlation between hrv and affect (behavior, impulsivity, and anxiety). The lower the hrv score, the more anxious, distractible, or impulsive the child. In a follow-up study, I found that HRV could be improved with training. I came across a 2020 meta-analysis that corroborated these findings. Researchers found that heart rate variability biofeedback training could improve symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, anger and performance.
I have been using this product for about 8 years. I preferred the lightning sensor that connects directly into the iPad to the newer Bluetooth. Wearing both at the same time and running one from a phone and one from a tablet, I found results were dissimilar. The data from the Bluetooth sensor, moreover, did not match what I felt experientially.
Muse is a multichannel EEG headband that provides real-time feedback on brain activity. It works best with focused-attention styled meditations. Like the Inner Balance hrv sensor, the Muse headband is paired to a device which provides and collects data via the app. The soundscapes are my favorite feature. When the mind is calm and settled, the user hears calm, peaceful weather. When the mind is busy, the ambient sounds get louder.
Connectivity issues and frequent signal drops.
12. Mind Monitor
I recently discovered Mind Monitor. Mind Monitor captures and interprets EEG data from the Muse headband. Many researchers and scientists on a budget have used the Muse headband. In a 2017 paper, Dr. Krigolson, a professor at the Centre for Biomedical Research, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, compared the headband with Actichamp, a pro grade EEG system. He found that the Muse headband was a valid tool and that the results were credible. These studies were replicated and were followed up with more robust studies which included more than 1,000 participants.
The Muse headband comes with its own proprietary software. For those who are interested in parsing out the EEG data, however, there is Mind Monitor. I use this tool to measure brainwave activity. Different meditation techniques influence different cognitive control states. With this tool, I can measure what I cannot see. There are techniques that accentuate alpha states. Others that promote more delta (slower, more restful states). In other techniques, gamma or theta waves may be pronounced or dominant. This tool allows me to practice more intelligently, in a more objective and empirical way.
Mind Monitor also allows me to pair my EEG to Ableton Live Suite. This pairing allows me to usethe EEG as a MIDI device- defining and controlling whatever parameters I choose (e..g pitch, reverb, volume, echo, etc) . In other words, I can make music with my mind.
13. Oculus: Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles
VR is an immersive and interactive experience. The American Psychological Association finds VR "particularly well suited to exposure therapy." We can work with triggers in a controlled environment. To introduce children to meditation, I won a grant and purchased VR goggles. There is a meditation app that immerses users in over 100 different environments. I feel like I'm on retreat. There is a 3D human anatomy app that I enjoy. While it is intended for students, I use it as a map before a body scan meditation. There are other science based apps that allow me to explore the cosmos, the atom, or the cell. This appreciation of creation (from the smallest particles to the largest galaxy clusters) enhances my meditation experiences. The Face Your Fears app provides unsettling simulations that I use to train the mind to remain calm.
14. Mindfulness Bell
Mindfulness Bell is an interval timer. I set it to chime every hour. I use these reminders to cultivate habits of mind such as radical responsibility, presence, gratitude, or compassion. I am responsible for my thoughts. If the mind secretes a hurtful thought, I don't have to blend with it or validate it or assume it to be true. I can cut, ignore, question, challenge, externalize, observe or simply allow it to dissolve back into the formless void from which it emerged. I choose my response.
As of this writing, I am seeking to cultivate goodwill, and to correct the brain's negativity bias and interrupt the fundamental attribution error process. "Don't judge; bless" is a shorthand for this exercise.
Negativity bias refers to the mind's tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, interactions or traumatic events. This attentional focus affects our impressions, memory, decisions, and biochemistry. The negativity bias confers advantages (caution, prudence, and planning may stem from it), but when negativity becomes the dominant way of seeing, it can contribute to mental distress and physical dis-ease.
Fundamental attribution error is the brain's tendency to ascribe the actions or behaviors of others to character or personality, but our same actions or behaviors to situations beyond our control. For example, suppose my child is sick and I rush to the hospital. I speed and cut someone off. I excuse this action or behavior as circumstantial. If someone else cuts me off, however, I may judge them as reckless or selfish. They may be late to a meeting, trying to catch a flight, rushing to the hospital, or simply unaware that my vehicle was approaching.
The bell chimes. I pause. I interrupt the narrative. If judging, I bless. I assume the best. For me, this is an intentional exercise that takes practice. The Mindfulness Bell helps reinforce it.
15. Note pad
There are many productivity hacks. I use Note pad to list the 1 must and 3 important tasks I want to accomplish.
I use Slides to digitize my action board. My action board includes specific, actionable goals that are both tangible (e.g. remodeling a bathroom) and intangible (e.g. cultivating goodwill). I've included meditation goals that are also measurable and specific (e.g. an hourlong attentional hold). For more on the stages of attention, click here.
17. Pulse oximeter
Pulse oximeters measure blood oxygen levels. When we breathe, oxygen enters the lungs. A gas exchange takes place and the oxygen molecule binds to hemoglobin. The blood cells deliver oxygen to the cells in the body. The pulse oximeter slides over the finger and uses infrared light refraction to measure how well oxygen is binding to the red blood cells. This is measured as peripheral capillary oxygen saturation, or SpO2. I wear this device when I practice breath work exercises such as the Wim Hof Method, breath holds, when taking a C02 tolerance test, or when taking a blood oxygen level test (BOLT). The BOLT score is an assessment used by Patrick McKeown to determine relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical exercise.
18. Upright Posture Tracker
In the Rinzai School of Japanese Zen Buddhism, a monk will strike a slouching meditator with a flat wooden stick called a keisaku, translated as a warning stick or awakening stick. The Upright posture sensor is much more gentle and buzzes whenever I slouch.
19. Artificial Intelligence
Anyone can be a meditation guide these days, even non-persons. I queried ChatGPT to write a meditation script. I was curious. ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot. It returned the following script:
Find a quiet, comfortable place where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes.
Sit down with your back straight and close your eyes.
Take a few deep breaths through your nose.
Begin to focus your attention on your breath. Notice the sensation of air flowing in and out of your nostrils.
If your mind begins to wander, simply acknowledge the thought and then gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
Continue to focus your attention on your breath for several minutes, noticing the rise and fall of your chest and the sensation of air moving in and out of your body.
If you become aware of any physical sensations or thoughts, simply acknowledge them and return your focus to your breath.
When you are ready to end the meditation, take a few deep breaths, slowly open your eyes, and stretch your body.
Take a moment to notice how you feel and try to carry the calm and centered feeling into your day.
Remember, the goal of meditation is not to eliminate all thoughts and distractions, but rather to develop the ability to return your focus to the present moment and cultivate a sense of inner peace and calm.
ChatGPT was released on November 30, 2022. Many pundits, journalists, and technologists alike predict that content creating artificial intelligence like ChatGPT will disrupt many industries.
ChatGPT can solve complex math equations in seconds, write code, translate foreign languages, draft legal contracts, discover new drugs and materials, produce more than a dozen recipes from an inventory of the contents in your refrigerator, and even guide you toward greater self-realization. Here are its recommendations:
Cultivate self-awareness: Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and become aware of patterns that may be holding you back. This could involve mindfulness meditation, journaling, or other introspective practices.
Develop wisdom: Seek out knowledge and insights from a variety of sources, including spiritual texts, philosophical writings, and scientific research. Reflect on the nature of reality and the nature of the self.
Practice compassion: Cultivate empathy and kindness towards yourself and others. This could involve volunteering, practicing loving-kindness meditation, or simply making an effort to be more understanding and accepting.
Let go of attachment: Recognize that clinging to material possessions, relationships, or even concepts and beliefs can create suffering. Practice detachment and non-attachment to cultivate a sense of inner peace.
Surrender to the present moment: Let go of regrets about the past and worries about the future, and fully embrace the present moment. This could involve mindfulness meditation or simply paying closer attention to the world around you.
Embrace impermanence: Recognize that everything is in a constant state of flux and that clinging to any one state is futile. Practice acceptance and equanimity in the face of change.
Seek guidance and support: Connect with teachers, mentors, or spiritual communities who can offer guidance and support on your journey. It can also be helpful to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share your values and goals.
Keep in mind that these steps are not necessarily sequential or linear, and that the path to self-realization may involve setbacks and challenges. However, with perseverance and an open mind, it is possible to move closer to a state of greater awareness, understanding, and fulfillment.
These recommendations are sound. But, there are no tidy manuals or step-by-step instruction guides for being more fully human. A chatbot cannot relate to our humanness- with all of its messiness and ignorance and brokenness and confusion.
AI has ventured into the mindfulness headspace. I tuned in to a podcast on meditation and mindfulness generated entirely by AI. The scripts, the ambient music, and the narrators were created by machines.
These AI models learn through human input. What is most telling is how superficial the inputs are at present. G.I.G.O is a common acronym in computer science: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The AI bot is ingesting saccharine and shallow content from blogs, websites, online magazines, and other sources- which speaks to the superficiality of the content out there. These AI bots rise to the level of human consciousness. But we are not very enlightened beings- we kill, we lie, we distort, we harm, we exploit, we destroy. And we exploit the gullible by pretending to be enlightened. The danger is that AI will pull from our unrepentant ids and exploit our dark sides.
But I lean toward cautious optimism. Progress is inevitable. A.I. is integrating with biofeedback tools, metabolic trackers, neurotechnologies, and other wearables. The recommendations that come from big data will likely be more useful to consumers than the generic content being peddled today.
In a recent proof of concept study published in Nature, researchers built and trained machine learning programs based on 1.6 million electrocardiograms performed on 244,077 patients between 2007 and 2020. The algorithm predicted the risk of death with 87% accuracy. The predictions were even more accurate when demographic information (age and sex) and six standard laboratory blood test results were included.
Inside Tracker, the popular biotracker, is powered by A.I.
The integration of AI with neurotechnology and other wearables has enormous potential to improve mental health outcomes and optimize brain health. By analyzing large amounts of data from various wearable devices, AI can provide more accurate and timely diagnoses. This could result in earlier interventions, better outcomes, and more effective treatments.
Wearable technology can monitor brain activity during cognitive training exercises, and AI can analyze this data to optimize training for specific cognitive functions. I much prefer data to vague and esoteric instructions from gurus.
No tool in and of itself will improve performance. Strapping on a heart rate monitor will neither improve my VO2 Max nor aerobic capacity; I have to run. Similarly, no brain technology will improve my concentration. I have to sit long hours to get results. In a recent study, scientists were trying to determine how much meditation practice would be needed to improve brain computer interface performance. 20 minutes a day wasn't enough. Results from their work show that a certain length of meditation practice is needed in order to help improve the ability for brain-computer interface, i.e. to control a computer cursor using thought. Such meditation training for a duration can generate neural adaptation so to help individuals to better control a device by ‘thought.' But how much time has yet to be determined. An earlier study (Stieger et al., 2021) found that MBSR training can significantly improve the ability to modulate alpha rhythm.
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 pujas, the florid language and other vestiges of tradition. The following video gives us a peek of what that might look like.