In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation.
But could this unusual research not only unravel the secrets of leading a harmonious life but also shed light on some of the world’s more mysterious diseases?
Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.
Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks’ heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.
Dr Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of “nonduality” or “oneness” with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment.
“One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills,” Dr Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.
“Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.”
When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.
And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.
Dr Josipovic’s research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.
He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.
The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.
The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.
But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.
This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.
“What we’re trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention,” Dr Josipovic says.
Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation – that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.
And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment. …
Wow! I got shivers down my spine when I read this. I think because in my first and only day long meditation class, I discovered and explained to the group that rather than focusing only on the breath as was being prescribed, what works for me is to develop a dual perception of the breath along with your thoughts, the external along with the internal.
This is the only realistic way to not let your mind wander. No one understood what I was saying. I was told by the person leading the class that, “well, no, the practice is to focus on the breath. ” Yes, but the only way to be able to focus for long periods of time without getting distracted is to split and balance the perception.
For the record, I’m told my ability to focus is very unusual. I can and on most days do work on one single complicated task for 5 hours at a time, stopping only to eat, then back at it for another 3 to 5 hours.
The way I see it, this study validates my discovery. Perhaps the best way to get to the balanced “Buddha mind” for most people is the rather long path that has been laid out, but my understanding of Buddhism is that you are supposed to try, not follow. Find what really works, for you. I hope my insight can help a few people with their basic meditation instruction.
- Test 1 (Standard meditation): Sit for 5 minutes focusing only on your breath. Bring your mind back gently if it wanders.
- Test 2 (Xenoic meditation): Sit for 5 minutes and focus on your breath continuously allowing the breath to be simultaneous with anything else, external or internal, that comes to your awareness. Focus mostly on the breath, but never let your attention completely off of it.
Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connection with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as the 1914-18 war. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could only provide a one-sided development which did not result in a fully integrated human being. According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person – namely, either the emotions, or the physical body or the mind – tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or centers as Gurdjieff called them. As a result these paths fail to produce a proper balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three – namely the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and America. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development. – wiki
I don’t see emotions as separate from the body and mind. It just seems that way. Emotions are the activity of certain parts of your brain, experienced as the interpretation by the mind of the state of your body and mind.